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Leinster's Deegan benefits from starting opportunities in a 'seven-and-a-half role'

The 22-year-old was excellent during the province’s Pro14 victory over the Cheetahs last weekend.

THE HIGHLIGHTS PACKAGE contained some explosive moments, and certainly Max Deegan was the outstanding candidate for Friday night’s man of the match award, but none of his contributions stood out more than the phenomenal second-half hit on Dries Swanepoel.

Taking man and ball with incredible force and timing, Deegan knocked the Cheetahs centre backwards at the tail-end of a smart lineout move, ultimately forcing the turnover at a crucial juncture of last weekend’s hard-fought Pro14 win at the RDS.

Scott Fardy congratulates Max Deegan on winning possession Deegan was MOTM against the Cheetahs. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The reaction of his team-mates, who swarmed around Deegan in celebration, was a reflection of its significance for Leo Cullen’s side as they booked a home semi-final with a 19-7 win, their seventh on the bounce. 

It was just one of several important defensive contributions from the 22-year-old, who rounded off an impressive run of appearances in the number seven jersey with another big performance.

Overall, Deegan made 14 tackles throughout a tireless shift in the Leinster back row alongside captain Rhys Ruddock and Caelan Doris, with the former St Michael’s man consistently showing his explosiveness, athletism and appetite for work throughout the game. He carried 10 times across 37 metres for the hosts, too. 

Named player of the tournament at the U20 World Championship in 2016, Deegan has always been a talent of immense potential and working under Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and John Fogarty has seen him develop and fine-tune the basics of the game to complement his excellent skillset. 

Conditions contrived to make Friday’s round 17 encounter something of a damp squib, yet Deegan showed his ability on both sides of the ball, dummying, stepping and handing off during an eye-catching carry in the second half just one of several examples. 

It is clear that Deegan has benefited from an extended run in the Leinster back row and while his last four appearances have been in the six and seven jersey, as opposed to his customary number eight position, his versatility is another strength. 

Doris’ performances at the back of the scrum mean Cullen has been keen to get both he and Deegan into the Leinster engine room in recent times, the pair working brilliantly in tandem as they share many of the out-and-out seven duties.

“Max and Caelan are playing this seven-and-a-half role,” Cullen explained. 

“Max is wearing seven but Caelan is doing a lot of the seven role off the lineout. They’re working well, the two of them, and that versatility is important. 

“Whether Max plays six, seven or eight, he’s probably more of an eight or six I’d say. Caelan something similar. The competition is good. They’ve got good game-time during this period and they’re getting better all the time. These three games have been good for them.

Max Deegan Deegan has impressed in the seven jersey. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We lost Jamie [Heaslip] last year, we know we’re going to lose Seanie [O'Brien] at the end of this season, so those guys are stepping into those shoes well.”

After appearing to fall behind Doris — last year’s Ireland U20 captain — earlier in the season, Deegan has worked hard to show his worth to Cullen and Stuart Lancaster and has made 17 appearances already this term, nine of them starts. 

Granted, Doris’ form has meant opportunities at eight have been limited but Deegan has been pleased to get game-time regardless of the number on his back and fulfilling his role at openside has given him confidence heading into the business end of the season. 

“From a traditional seven, Caelan would be doing seven off the tail of a lineout and I’d be doing seven stuff in the scrum,” Deegan says. “I’d be jumping more in the lineout, but we both play a similar enough game anyway.

“I’m enjoying it. I love playing every week, whether it’s eight, seven, six I don’t really mind, I like being out there playing and giving it my best.”

While Deegan — who is Leinster’s top try-scorer in the Pro14 this term with six scores — has got valuable minutes under his belt, starting all three of the province’s games during this Six Nations period, he makes no secret of his desire to play in his preferred position.

“It’s a benefit to be able to cover positions, but I see myself as an eight,” he continues.

That’s what I want to play as and want to focus on going forward but it’s obviously great to have those tools to slot in around the back row.

“It’s great to have that in the locker and to know I can do it and for the coaches to know I have that ability as well.”

The direct competition with Doris, as well as Jack Conan and the host of other back rows on Leinster’s books, has been a good thing, Deegan says.

“I think it’s about taking your chances and I don’t think I particularly took my chances at the start of the season and Caelan maybe did.

“I get on really well with Caelan, like all the back rowers in Leinster. I believe it has improved my game, him pushing me all the way and me pushing him. I don’t think it’s difficult, nothing bad, but something we deal with in this professional environment. I enjoy the competition.”

Max Deegan intercepts a lineout from Walt Steenkamp Stealing a lineout during Friday's win at the RDS. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

With a two-week break from Pro14 action before Leinster resume their season with a trip to Edinburgh on 22 March, Deegan will hope to push on again for the final block of games, including the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster at the end of this month.  

Having made his European debut in the quarter-final against Saracens last season, before coming off the bench against Toulouse back in January, Deegan wants to earn his opportunity on the big stage as he focuses on improving all facets of his game.

“I just want to keep getting involved in any game I play,” he adds. “Increasing the number of involvements, like carries, tackles and support runs. I want to get used to the level of intensity in Europe and if I do get the chance, make the most of it.

“From a physical side, just getting bigger and working hard in the gym. You’re always trying to get bigger and stronger, it always just makes the impacts easier and gives you the chance to get more of an offloading, which I like to bring. 

“I’ve definitely got more confidence [from this block], considering I’ve played seven and I’m not a seven. I’ve been happy with how that’s gone.

“It probably wasn’t perfect, I’m sure the coaches will have things to say, and now I’m really looking to push on towards the end of the season to start winning trophies.”

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Ryan Bailey

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