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World Cup provides an exciting opportunity for Leinster's young stars

‘We want players fighting for their place,’ says head coach Leo Cullen.

THE WORLD CUP period is going to be a testing time for Leinster no doubt, but it also presents exciting possibilities for the province’s younger players and fringe squad members.

With the likes of Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney and a raft of other internationals away with Ireland, opportunity knocks in the coming months.

Darren Cave and Adam Byrne Wing Adam Byrne makes a break against Ulster last weekend. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Last weekend’s pre-season win over Ulster was a case in point, as the likes of academy players Billy Dardis, Adam Byrne, Peter Dooley, Garry Ringrose and Nick McCarthy were involved and a procession of other youngsters such as Tadhg Beirne, Dan Leavy, Cathal Marsh, Luke McGrath and Gavin Thornbury featured.

New head coach Leo Cullen is likely to use several of the same players in Friday’s second friendly game against Moseley at Donnybrook (KO 19.30) and the former lock wants to see these young men deliver.

“I think it’s great for us as senior coaches to be able to work with those players, because you might not ordinarily get that opportunity,” said Cullen at the Guinness Pro12 launch in London on Monday.

“Every week you can see the progression and it’s been really, really good. Those guys will get an opportunity during this phase and it’s important that they capture the chance they have and get accustomed to being in the team.

If they do, when the guys come back from the World Cup, suddenly we have a very competitive environment. We want players fighting for their place. We might not see the rewards of it immediately, but down the track we’ll see growth from those players.”

Leinster’s academy players have been integrated with the senior squad – along with their manager Girvan Dempsey – during the summer months, and will continue to work under Cullen with the province’s frontliners away on World Cup duty as the Pro12 begins early next month.

Captain Kevin McLaughlin – who replaces Jamie Heaslip for the World Cup period – has been impressed with how the youngsters have adapted to the on-pitch demands, but points out that there have been learnings away from training.

“I think from a rugby point of view, they’ve integrated really well. I think it’s more the standards around the club and outside of rugby. We’ve had to chat to a few of them about lifestyle and what’s expected there.

Cathal Marsh Cathal Marsh started at 10 against Ulster. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s maybe a slight lifestyle change when you step up from the academy to the senior squad, being the best professional you can be and learning that kind of stuff. From a rugby point of view, these guys are so talented and physically they’re freaks.

“It’s actually scary to us old fellas! It’s just teaching them what it’s about playing for Leinster.”

The importance of recovery strategies, consistent high-quality sleep and an intense focus on diet have been reinforced to the younger players in the Leinster group. These are things they learned in the academy, but their necessity is even greater in the senior game.

It’s not just about what they do on the park,” says McLaughlin, “it’s about what you do at home as well. It’s a 24/7 thing, not just when you play.”

With Sexton and Ian Madigan both away with Ireland, the out-half position is an intriguing one for Leinster early this season.

Cathal Marsh – now on a professional contract – got the starting 10 shirt last weekend against Ulster, before Steve Crosbie – in his third year in the academy – replaced him at half time.

Year two academy member Ross Byrne, so impressive for the Ireland U20s before missing the Junior World Championship with a back injury, is another option for Cullen.

“Cathal has just come back from a shoulder injury, he had shoulder surgery at the end of last season,” said Cullen of handing Marsh the first start.

“It was great to just see him back out playing and getting through the game, that was the most important thing. We’ve been looking at a few different combinations of guys, but Cathal did well during his 40-minute outing at the weekend.”

Billy Dardis Billy Dardis is in his third year with the academy. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Whatever way that selection battle swings for the Pro12 opener against Edinburgh in Meggetland on 4 September, there are intriguing times ahead for Leinster and their supporters.

Some might bemoan the difficulty of losing so many key players, but others will be enthralled by the prospect of seeing younger men given the opportunity to stake their claim.

More experienced heads like McLaughlin, Mike McCarty, Isa Nacewa and Dominic Ryan will be vital, but there is excitement within the Leinster squad at the possibility of some of the new crop breaking through.

“It’s a great opportunity and I’m particularly excited to see some of the younger guys,” said McLaughlin. “If you look at the 15 we can potentially put out during the World Cup, it’s by no means weak.

We’re maybe a little skinny in certain positions like the front row, but then we have guys like Aaron Dundon, James Tracy and Bryan Byrne at hooker that have been gagging for a chance, chomping at the bit.

“You can tell that there’s an extra buzz in training with guys like them, they’re dying to get out there. It’s the same in the propping positions, with young guys desperate for an opportunity.

“It’s up to them to step up for the club. It’s been brilliant having Leo around because he’s laying down what’s expected of them, particularly to the guys who haven’t been in the senior environment before.”

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Murray Kinsella

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