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Dublin: 1°C Friday 23 April 2021

Deegan the latest star turn off the unrivalled Leinster production line

The number eight has enjoyed a fine breakthrough season but is happy to bide his time.

Deegan celebrates his second try against Zebre.
Deegan celebrates his second try against Zebre.
Image: Ramsey Cardy

IN DELVING DEEPER into their unrivalled stock pool of talent, Leinster finished Saturday’s seven-try rout of Zebre with four academy players on the pitch and, furthermore, there were another seven products of the province’s distinguished system used by Leo Cullen.

A 13th home win in as many outings this season was achieved with relative ease as Cullen rested a host of frontliners, giving some of his young players an opportunity to impress, with eye on the Champions Cup semi-final in a fortnight.

The introduction of 21-year-old centre Gavin Mullin, the son of former Ireland international Brendan, late in the piece saw the UCD man become the 53rd different player Leinster have used this season, thereby passing last year’s total of 51.

Leinster understandably lacked cohesion for large parts but there were plenty of satisfying points to their victory, not least because it secures a Pro14 playoff berth and cements their position atop Conference B, leaving them on course for a semi-final place, but also the impressive contribution of those young players, particularly off the bench.

There was a full home debut for Mullingar native Conor O’Brien, who possesses raw strength and showed some nice touches after being rewarded for his performances for the ‘A’ team, while Georgian-born academy prop Vakh Abdaladze marked his full home bow with a late try off the bench; the average age of the XV which finished the game was just 23.

“Great to see Conor O’Brien in, and Vakh — with the best try of the day, the one us coaches get most excited by, a metre out,” Cullen said afterwards.

“He did well when he came on, really good energy, Bryan Byrne, Frawley came on, Mullin for his first game, a lot of positives, which is something they can build on and hopefully it’ll make them better players.”

On the back of the weekend’s results, Leinster head into the penultimate round of regular season fixtures in a strong position, knowing victories over Treviso and Connacht would see them bypass the quarter-final stage and give them a week off before a potential Champions Cup final.

Max Deegan with Leonard Krumov and George Biagi Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The province are in particularly rude health, even if they never got out of second gear on Saturday, and in Max Deegan — another recent academy graduate — have uncovered another gem.

A man of the match performance embellished with a well-taken brace of tries, the first of which put Leinster in cruise control and the second securing the bonus point, further enhanced the number eight’s reputation in this, a fine breakthrough season.

His second-half double at the RDS brought Deegan’s tally of tries for the campaign to five in just his eighth start, all of this coming off the back of his Champions Cup debut against Saracens last week.

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“He’s getting better all the time,” Cullen said. “He made his Champions Cup debut last week off the bench, such a big game. I know it was just a few minutes, but what an experience for him. Max is a serious talent, and he’s got a lot of exposure this season, so it’s making sure he’s taking those positive steps all the time.”

No better environment for the former St Michael’s man to be learning in, and while the door has opened thanks to injuries to Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and the enforced retirement of Jamie Heaslip, Deegan has taken the opportunity with both hands and has already featured 15 times this term.

“With the calibre of players ad calibre of coaches around, it is a fantastic environment to be in,” he says. “I’m really enjoying every training session, every week, enjoying learning and growing as a player.”

“I wouldn’t say I am too far away [from breaking through]. I think I’m definitely progressing on last season and then into this season. I’m just trying to finish this season out as best I can and push on then into next year.”

Max Deegan receives the Guinness Man of the Match medal from Rory Sheridan Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The 21-year-old has also had to have a degree of patience, the back row logjam at Leinster not helping matters, but Deegan has seen more game time than he anticipated this season, a reflection of the level of his performance and how highly-rated he is as a young number eight.

Deegan hasn’t been deterred by the fact former Ireland U20 team-mates Andrew Porter, Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan have all made quicker strides them him since the 2016 World Cup, when that supremely-talented side advanced all the way to the final

“Yeah, it’s great to see so many people doing it,” he continues. “People I’ve played with like Jacob, James, Porter — it’s great to see.

“I’m not getting too frustrated or anything with that. I’m just enjoying my rugby and trying to get better. I know there is a lot of competition and stuff. Look, I’m just trying to get better every week and keep pushing towards that jersey.

“When the time is right, I will push on, make that breakthrough. I’m not rushing anything.”

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Ryan Bailey

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