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The Leinster depth chart: Three Test tightheads and another back row battle

Leo Cullen’s squad features plenty of midfield options and some exciting young talent.

LEINSTER HEAD INTO 2021/22 determined to get back to the peak of Europe and eager to extend their dominance of the competition that has become the United Rugby Championship.

The arrival of the South African sides means a welcome new challenge for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s men, with the opening weekend visit of Jake White’s Bulls to Dublin sure to be intriguing. 

As ever, Leinster will have a squad of largely homegrown talent to choose from as they battle on both fronts this season.

Having looked at Munster’s depth chart and Connacht’s squad in recent days, here we take a look at Leinster’s options across the pitch. 

Included in brackets after each player’s name is their age and number of Leinster caps in the format [age, caps]. Players have been listed in the order of their number of caps.

Loosehead prop

Cian Healy [33, 231]
Peter Dooley [27, 93]
Ed Byrne [28, 70]
Michael Milne [22, 16]

cian-healy-during-the-warm-up Cian Healy has enjoyed a full pre-season. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Having signed a one-year IRFU contract extension before being rested for the July Tests, Ireland international Cian Healy will be raring to go for this new season as he looks to continue as the first-choice for province and country.

Ed Byrne became an Ireland international last season, winning six caps in total, while Peter Dooley’s campaign ended with inclusion in Andy Farrell’s squad, although he didn’t get a chance to make his debut.

Byrne and Dooley have been consistent performers for Leinster, while 22-year-old Michael Milne – a Birr man like Dooley – has earned a senior deal with a string of promising, dynamic performances. Milne will, however, miss the opening weeks of the season with a calf injury.

There has long been speculation of Andrew Porter switching back over to the loosehead side for Leinster and Ireland but he is now a top-class tighthead and would have gone on the Lions tour but for a very unlucky injury. 

Hooker

Sean Cronin [35, 195]
James Tracy [30, 129]
Rónan Kelleher [23, 25]
Dan Sheehan [22, 13]

dan-sheehan-scores-a-try Dan Sheehan is an explosive carrier. Source: Luca Sighinolfi/INPHO

22-year-old Dan Sheehan will have big plans to continue his upward trajectory in this position after an impressive first season with the senior squad.

A big, explosive athlete, Sheehan will be targeting more starts and his first exposure to European rugby. 

Rónan Kelleher will be aiming to nail down first-choice status with Ireland this season as well as helping Leinster to bounce back in Europe. He continues to learn and improve, with his Lions experience over the summer sure to have added to that process.

Sean Cronin is the veteran of the group but still has plenty of pace and nous, while 30-year-old James Tracy can always be relied on to deliver a good performance too.

 Tighthead prop

Tadhg Furlong [28, 114]
Andrew Porter [25, 77]
Vakh Abdaladze [25, 12]
Michael Alaalatoa [30, 0]
Thomas Clarkson [21, 10]

michael-alaalatoa Samoa captain Michael Alaalatoa has joined. Source: Pool Pictures/Phil Walter/INPHO

With the stalwart Michael Bent having returned to New Zealand at the end of last season, Leinster have brought in Michael Alaalatoa from the Crusaders to boost their tighthead depth chart.

Samoa international Alaalatoa is a powerful, skillful player who is likely to be well suited to Leinster. While there are always injuries to consider, it is crazy to consider the prospect of a player as good as Alaalatoa missing out on a Champions Cup matchday squad.

That could be the scenario with Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter ahead of him, unless Porter does make the aforementioned switch back to loosehead. Leinster will have to plan around losing Furlong, Porter, and Alaalatoa for Test match windows even if Samoa’s schedule is not as busy as Ireland’s.

Behind that trio, Vakh Abdaladze will be desperate for an injury-free campaign after missing most of last season with a back issue, while 21-year-old prospect Thomas Clarkson has stepped up onto a senior deal.

With Clarkson currently sidelined with a hamstring injury, Porter still on his way back from his ankle issue, and Furlong’s start to the season delayed by his Lions involvement, it’s thought that Cian Healy has also been scrummaging at tighthead on occasion in Leinster training.

Second row

Devin Toner [35, 266]
Ross Molony [27, 116]
James Ryan [25, 50]
Ryan Baird [22, 27]
Jack Dunne [22, 15]

ryan-baird-on-his-way-to-scoring-a-try Ryan Baird is very quick. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Leinster have one fewer senior locks following the retirement of Scott Fardy at the end of last season.

Devin Toner is playing on at the age of 35 having earned a new deal with his performances last season, while frontline lock James Ryan will be eager to steer clear of injuries after a number of them slowed him up at crucial times in 2020/21.

After missing out on Lions selection, Ryan will be keen to push on and it may be that we see him and Ryan Baird paired together. Baird’s remarkable athleticism is now being complemented by an ever-growing understanding of set-piece and work-rate duties as a professional second row.

Ross Molony received an Ireland call-up at the end of last season without winning a cap and has long been a very dependable performer for Leinster, providing leadership, physicality, and lineout calling skills.

22-year-old Jack Dunne is still sidelined with an ankle injury but Leinster will be hoping to see him pushing on when fit again, given his combination of size, power, and intelligence.

With Fardy having retired, it seems likely that academy locks Brian Deeny – back after a long-term injury – and Charlie Ryan will feature for the senior side at times this season. 

Back row

Rhys Ruddock [30, 188]
Jack Conan [29, 105]
Josh van der Flier [28, 98]
Dan Leavy [27, 72]
Max Deegan [24, 65]
Josh Murphy [26, 49]
Caelan Doris [23, 40]
Scott Penny [21, 29]
Will Connors [25, 23]

max-deegan-and-danny-care Max Deegan is back from a long-term injury. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Leinster head into 2021/22 with the same nine senior back rows as last season, providing them with enviable depth.

The reality is that there will always be injuries to consider and although Max Deegan is now back from his long-term knee injury, Will Connors and Dan Leavy are still sidelined with their own knee issues.

Deegan’s preferred position is number eight but the same can be said for Jack Conan, who started all three Lions Tests there, and Caelan Doris, who suffered with concussion last season but has overcome that issue to resume his rise.

Josh van der Flier had an excellent campaign last season at openside but 21-year-old Scott Penny would be a first-choice player at most clubs by now, while Connors and Leavy are also still to return.

Rhys Ruddock is still only 30 and always consistent for Leinster, while Josh Murphy’s physicality is always impressive. Cullen and Lancaster will have to adapt to injuries and opposition qualities, of course, but they are likely to be able to field a very strong back row no matter the occasion again this season.

Scrum-half

Luke McGrath [28, 151]
Jamison Gibson-Park [29, 101]
Nick McCarthy [26, 36]

luke-mcgrath Luke McGrath is a leader for Leinster. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

While Jamison Gibson-Park has leaped ahead of him in the Ireland pecking order, Luke McGrath remains a key player and leader in the Leinster set-up.

That said, Gibson-Park had a hamstring injury for the final stages of last season and missed the province’s Champions Cup quarter-final and semi-final, where his ability to lift the tempo and offer unpredictability around the fringes was missed.

McGrath is a superb defender and snipes sharply around the rucks but has fallen out of favour at Test level amidst strong competition for scrum-half spots in the Ireland squad.

While that pair battle for starting status, Leinster have re-signed Nick McCarthy from Munster as Rowan Osborne and Paddy Patterson have moved in the opposite direction. Year 3 academy scrum-half Cormac Foley made his senior debut earlier this year and will hope for more experience this season.

Out-half

Johnny Sexton [36, 173]
Ross Byrne [26, 104]
Harry Byrne [22, 24]

harry-byrne Harry Byrne made his Ireland debut in July. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Leinster captain Johnny Sexton looked sharp on his return to action in last weekend’s pre-season friendly win over Harlequins having enjoyed a rare full pre-season.

Omitted by the Lions for their tour of South Africa and then rested by Ireland for their July Tests, Sexton is likely to be feeling fresh and fit. The 36-year-old extended his IRFU central contract until the summer of 2022 and remains the best out-half in the country.

The composed, underrated Ross Byrne would be a first-choice out-half at many clubs now at the age of 26 but Leinster have done well to manage his game time, handing him opportunities in bigger games at times. 

He will come under increasing competition for minutes from his younger brother, Harry, who is also now an Ireland international. Harry had some misfortune with badly-timed injuries last season but possesses a promising skillset.

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Ciarán Frawley is also a more than capable out-half, although all of his starts last season came at inside centre so he is listed among the options in that area, as is David Hawkshaw who can play in both positions but has predominantly been seen as a 12 so far.

Centre

Rory O’Loughlin [27, 87]
Garry Ringrose [26, 86]
Robbie Henshaw [28, 57]
Ciarán Frawley [23, 35]
Conor O’Brien [25, 23]
Tommy O’Brien [23, 9]
David Hawkshaw [22, 8]

robbie-henshaw-and-garry-ringrose Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose remain the first-choice pairing in midfield and are likely to be in situ for some years to come. Henshaw was a standout for the Lions over the summer but Ringrose is still rehabbing after shoulder surgery and will be very keen to get an injury-free run this season.

Leinster have good depth behind both frontline players, particularly with Conor O’Brien now back from a long-term knee injury to provide an impactful option at 12, where the province could also use the playmaking skills of Hawkshaw or Frawley – still recovering from a shoulder injury at present. 

Rory O’Loughlin is a reliable presence in either midfield slot and even on the wing if required, while Tommy O’Brien – sidelined with a long-term hamstring injury at present – is similarly versatile.

Another interesting option is Year 2 academy player Jamie Osborne, who impressed in six appearances for the senior side last season and has the physical attributes to make an even bigger impact this season. Osborne can also play at fullback, as he did for the Ireland U20s over the summer.

Given that Jimmy O’Brien has played plenty of rugby at outside centre and academy man Liam Turner has already been capped at senior level, Leinster should be well-stocked in midfield.

Back three

Dave Kearney [32, 169]
Adam Byrne [27, 57]
Jordan Larmour [24, 62]
James Lowe [29, 52]
Jimmy O’Brien [24, 35]
Hugo Keenan [25, 30]

james-lowe-inspects-the-pitch-before-the-game James Lowe will look to force his way back into the Ireland mix. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

With just six senior options in the back three and injuries to contend with, this is an area where Leinster are likely to dip into their academy again.

The experienced wing Dave Kearney will be sidelined for several months with an ankle injury, while Jordan Larmour is coming off a groin procedure at the end of last season.

Leinster will be excited to get 27-year-old wing Adam Byrne back on the pitch this season after the former Ireland international failed to make a single appearance in the 2020/21 campaign due to cruel injuries.

James Lowe will be looking to get back to the top of his game out wide after the highs and lows of his first international campaign with Ireland last season, while Larmour – who can play at fullback or on the wing – will also be looking to push to the next level at the age of 24.

Hugo Keenan had a superb campaign in 2020/21, earning himself first-choice status at fullback for Leinster and Ireland. At 25, he has further room for improvement and will be keen to keep his nose in front of competitors.

Jimmy O’Brien is another who covers fullback and the wing, as well as centre, while academy fullback Max O’Reilly and wing Andrew Smith are already capped at senior level for Leinster.

They are likely to have further involvement this season, while fellow academy talents Niall Comerford, Rob Russell, and Chris Cosgrave will hope for exposure too.

Academy:

Leinster’s 21-man academy includes nine players who have tasted senior action, with Max O’Reilly’s seven caps making him the most experienced so far. Liam Turner, Cormac Foley, Martin Moloney, Alex Soroka, Andrew Smith, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Osborne, and Marcus Hanan have also been capped.

The nature of the conveyor belt at Leinster, who usually provide the biggest share of the Ireland squad, is that academy players tend to get lots of opportunties and this season should be no different.

The batch of seven new academy recruits are all Ireland U20 internationals,  

Year 1 

Lee Barron [hooker]
Jack Boyle [loosehead]
Chris Cosgrave [back three/centre]
Mark Hernan [back row]
Temi Lasisi [loosehead]
Ben Murphy [scrum-half]
Rob Russell [back three]

Year 2

 Niall Comerford [back three]
Joe McCarthy [second row]
John McKee [hooker]
Sean O’Brien [back row]
Max O’Reilly [back three]
Andrew Smith [back three]
Alex Soroka [back row]
Marcus Hanan [loosehead]
Jamie Osborne [centre/fullback]

Year 3

Brian Deeny [second row]
Cormac Foley [scrum-half]
Martin Moloney [back row]
Charlie Ryan [second row]
Liam Turner [centre].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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