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Leinster keep one eye on the future as veterans set for low-key exit

The province bring their season to a close with a home game against Dragons.

Leinster back rows Scott Fardy and Caelan Doris.
Leinster back rows Scott Fardy and Caelan Doris.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THIS ISN’T THE way Leinster expect their seasons to end. A low-key home fixture with nothing tangible to play for marks the final stop on a season which promised so much for the province, only to ultimately fizzle out.

A fourth successive Pro14 title will have been viewed as the minimum expectation for a squad as ambitious as Leinster, but that Champions Cup semi-final defeat to La Rochelle will be what occupies minds over the summer months.

The Rainbow Cup, a competition blighted by complications long before a ball was kicked, has done nothing to soothe that pain. And so with Benetton’s place in the cross-hemisphere final already guaranteed, Leinster sign off on something of a whimper with a fixture notable only for the very welcome return of 1,200 supporters to the RDS.

For the squad’s younger players, this evening’s meeting with the Dragons [KO 8.15pm – live on eirSport], provides an opportunity to play in front of family and friends again. For some of the more battle-hardened squad members, it’s a chance to say goodbye in front of the fans.

Michael Bent, a 14-year Leinster veteran, wins his 159th, and final cap in the front row. Scott Fardy – described as ‘the forward’s version of Isa Nacewa’ by Stuart Lancaster earlier this week – also starts on what will be his final game before retiring. 

The experience and value those two players have brought to the squad has been a major part of the province’s recent successes – particularly during international windows when the vast bulk of Leinster’s senior stars pack their bags and leave camp for a few weeks. 

Earlier this week, Stuart Lancaster was asked about Fardy’s impending exit, and the challenge of filling the void created by the big Australian’s departure. 

“You just hope it rubs off. You hope that the behaviours that he displayed, the values and the way he conducted himself rubs off,” Lancaster said.

I think that’s often the way it works, I’ve found, with senior players in the squad. Whether it’s a Ryan Baird, a James Ryan, a Caelan Doris, a Jack Conan. These sorts of guys would learn a lot about how he conducted himself and how he brought energy to the group and how he made people feel. Also how he played as well.”

Part of that leadership has involved making sure Leinster win games like this. The province have won their last nine games against the Dragons and pummeled the Welsh side 35-5 on their last visit to Dublin back in October.

Once again, Leo Cullen has named a strong team which contains a nice balance of youth and experience. There’s eleven Ireland internationals in the starting XV, with Garry Ringrose handed the captaincy.

Jamison Gibson-Park overcomes a hamstring injury and will feature for the first time since March. On the bench, tighthead Vakh Abdaladze is in line to make his first appearance of the campaign following a long-term back problem and would represent the 60th player used by Leinster this season. The 25-year-old’s last appearance for Leinster came all the way back in October 2019.

Others on the bench will be equally keen to get a run out and impress. After the early-season hype, Harry Byrne’s campaign was derailed by injury – he’s only played six minutes since March – but the 22-year-old should get some action as he looks to push for inclusion in Andy Farrell’s squad for the July Tests.

The versatile Jimmy O’Brien – who starts on the wing – has similar ambitions on the back of a promising season, albeit he’s another who has struggled with ill-timed injuries.

jimmy-obrien Jimmy O'Brien during a Leinster training session. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Scott Penny, 21, has also enjoyed an excellent campaign and lines out alongside Fardy in the backrow. He’ll look to kick on again after the summer on the back of his 14 appearances and nine tries this year. The exceptional Caelan Doris completes the back row, and will hope to play a bigger role for both club and country next year following his unfortunate concussion issues this year. 

On the bench, Academy prop Michael Milne should get to add to his six senior caps.

Leinster have used this competition with one eye on next season, taking the opportunity to get more minutes into those younger squad players. Against a struggling Dragons team, they look well-placed to give their returning supporters something to cheer about. 

The Welsh side come into the game on the back of three straight defeats, haven’t beaten an Irish province since September 2017, and you have to go all the way back to February 2015 for the last time they won in Ireland.

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Director of Rugby Dean Ryan has spoke about the squad’s desire to finish the season on a positive note, but you imagine they, like Leinster, will just be happy to see the back of this one-off, haphazard competition. 

Leinster: H Keenan; J Larmour, G Ringrose (captain), R O’Loughlin, J O’Brien; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; C Healy, R Kelleher, M Bent; R Baird, J Ryan; S Fardy, S Penny, C Doris.

Replacements: J Tracy, M Milne, V Abdaladze, D Toner, J van der Flier, L McGrath, H Byrne, C Kelleher.

Dragons: J Lewis, O Jenkins, A Owen, J Roberts, R Dyer, S Davies, R Williams (captain); B Harris, E Dee, A Jarvis, J Davies, B Carter, H Keddie, O Griffiths, R Moriarty.

Replacements: R Hibbard, J Reynolds, C Coleman, J Maksymiw, T Basham, G Bertranou, J Dixon, I Davies. 

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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