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Leinster's promising halfbacks vying for position as Pro12 season looms

Cathal Marsh, Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery are competing for the 10 shirt.

IAN MADIGAN’S DEPARTURE to Bordeaux means the out-half pecking order will change at Leinster this season.

Johnny Sexton will, of course, remain number one when he makes his return from a shoulder injury at some point in the early rounds of the Guinness Pro12, but there are three contenders vying for the back-up slot.

Cathal Marsh chips ahead Billy Twelvetrees and Matt Scott Cathal Marsh has the most experience of the contenders. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Cathal Marsh, Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne. All three have shown their talent in recent years, and all three will now expect to step up for Leinster if given the opportunity.

24-year-old Marsh has the greatest senior experience by some distance, but Byrne and, in particular, Carbery have been pushed forward as the future.

Marsh made eight starts last season, with a further five appearances off the bench, including a Champions Cup debut. The former Ireland U20 international previously spurned an opportunity to shift province, underlining that his desire to shine for Leinster is fierce.

The St. Mary’s man is a creative playmaker but, like most young halfbacks, is still learning to manage games. He started last weekend’s friendly victory over Gloucester in the 10 shirt, struggling to deal with the English side’s aggressive linespeed early on.

A blocked-down kick and ball carriers being thumped in midfield were the lowlights, though Marsh did gain a grip on the defensive tactics and – along with halfback partner Nick McCarthy – begin to control the game more comfortably.

“The lads felt the pitch was a bit narrow and that everything was tight,” said Leinster assistant coach John Fogarty after the 26-24 win. “A lot of that came from Gloucester bringing a lot of linespeed in the middle of the field.

“We didn’t play out of that well, and some of the inaccuracies early on when we did have to carry it – it’s about getting our first and second support to be a little more accurate with their shoulders to clear so we can play away quicker.

Ross Byrne Byrne is seen as having a similar skillset to Sexton. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s also probably about using the boot a little more as well, putting ourselves in parts of the field. We adjusted to it as the half went on.”

Byrne, who was excellent for the Ireland U20s in 2015, started at out-half for Leinster the previous week against Ulster in Navan, and he looks like he may be maturing as a player at the age of 21.

The former St. Michael’s student is perhaps the most similar to Sexton, with his kicking game being one strength and his 6’2″ frame meaning he doesn’t give up much in the physicality stakes when defending.

Byrne won his first three Leinster caps last season, including a start against the Scarlets, but he will expect to greatly exceed that amount of exposure in 2016/17.

Leinster’s coaching staff are keen for their young out-halves to become better decision-makers, and Fogarty explained that has meant keeping the level of instruction during games to a minimum.

“They’re getting a feel for it on the field,” said Fogarty. “We’re trying to let them make decisions on the hop as much as possible.

“We weren’t peppering them with messages from the sideline, it was very much about asking them what they thought, rather than telling them.”

New Zealand native Carbery has appeared off the bench at half time in both of Leinster’s pre-season games so far and is the young out-half creating the most excitement of all.

Joey Carbery kicks a conversion Carbery made his senior debut last season. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

The 20-year-old was sensational for Clontarf in their run to the Ulster Bank League Division 1A title last season, and the word filtering out of Leinster is that the province’s players are greatly impressed by his ability.

A standout player for Athy RFC after moving to Ireland, Carbery went on to star for Blackrock College in the schools game. He can be a delight to watch, calm and creative on the ball. His passing is intelligent and his footwork is another strength.

Despite being in first year of the Leinster academy at the time, Carbery made a brief debut appearance for Leinster against Glasgow in the Pro12 last year. He has much to learn, but the Ireland U20 cap quite possibly has the greatest potential of Leinster’s out-half options.

A clever floated offload for Rory O’Loughlin’s try against Gloucester was the highlight of his 40-minute appearance in Tallaght, and Carbery looks ready for further involvement in the coming weeks.

Possession of the nine shirt will be keenly contested at Leinster this season too, with veteran pair Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss having left.

There is no clear front-runner at this stage, although Luke McGrath will hope that he can confirm his long-standing potential and assume control.

The arrival of Jamison Gibson-Park from New Zealand provides the latest challenge for the 23-year-old Dublin man.

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Luke McGrath with a supporter McGrath must nail down the nine shirt this season. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

McGrath showed his quality in bursts last season, making 20 starts in total, but Cullen turned to Reddan for bigger games such as the Pro12 final. McGrath’s defensive game has been notably strong in recent times and his energy is infectious, although Leinster continue to push for his passing to be more consistent.

Gibson-Park’s introduction will be fascinating, with the Māori All Black scrum-half having arrived in Ireland on the back of helping the Hurricanes to a first-ever Super Rugby title.

The 24-year-old was back-up to TJ Perenara but did well off the bench in a number of games. Gibson-Park has an excellent sniping game, passes well and is defensively hungry too.

In truth, Gibson-Park and McGrath are quite similar as players and we should witness a closely-fought battle for the nine shirt.

Nick McCarthy cannot be discounted either, and he showed up well in last weekend’s win over Gloucester, scoring two tries before making way for lively fellow academy player Charlie Rock.

McCarthy’s first try came from an arcing snipe to the left of a close-range ruck, while he ran an excellent support line to benefit from Bryan Byrne and Josh van der Flier’s strong build-up work for his second.

Having played two years of Ireland U20 rugby, McCarthy has long been rated in the Leinster system and he earned his first two senior appearances last season, the first against Toulon in the Champions Cup.

Jamison Gibson-Park Gibson-Park previously played for the Blues in Super Rugby. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Clearly, there is an expectation that McCarthy has further room for growth, but McGrath and Gibson-Park will expect to lead the way.

Friday night at Donnybrook against Bath will give some of these halfbacks their final pre-season chances to impress Cullen and his coaching staff before the Pro12 begins with the visit of Treviso to the RDS on 2 September.

It will be fascinating to see how the depth charts stand by the time the Ireland internationals are reintegrated and Leinster’s Champions Cup campaign rolls around.

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Murray Kinsella

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