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Leinster Rugby Season Preview 2011-2012

Every four years, the leading figures in Irish rugby go away on a retreat of physical and spiritual self-examination, which generally ends in frustration, disillusionment and bitter recrimination. Other countries refer to it as "The World Cup". Hopefully this time there will be a better outcome even if it's not looking too promising at the moment.

As a New Zealander, Leinster coach Joe Schmidt will no doubt take a keen interest in events in his homeland over the next couple of months. He'll be particularly interested in how the 14 of his players in the Ireland squad get on. However, he'll have plenty to keep himself occupied at home while they're away with the start of the newly named Rabobank Pro12, which has replaced the Magners League.

As debut seasons as a head coach go, winning the Heineken Cup was a pretty remarkable start for Schmidt. However, as good as last season was, the competitor in Schmidt will still remember that final game in Thomond Park when the prospect of a first league and cup double fell away. It was a chance to create history and it will rankle with Schmidt that Leinster didn't take it. It will provide motivation for his squad for the coming season though.

Of course, the main priority will be to become the first side to retain the Heineken Cup since Leicester Tigers more than a decade ago. They've been drawn in a pool with Montpellier, Bath and Glasgow. It's nowhere near as tough a draw as last season's 'pool of death' but it's not to be taken lightly either. First up is the toughest game of the pool, an away trip to Montpellier.

Last season Montpellier were the surprise package of French rugby. In contrast to the many expensively assembled squads in the Top 14 they were a team of largely unknown players apart from their homegrown internationals Fulgence Ouedraogo and Francois Trinh-Duc. However coach Fabien Galthie got them playing a refreshing brand of attacking rugby, which again contrasted with the dour drop goal contests between the moneyed top teams. It nearly paid off too as they got to the Top 14 final, only to lose to an experienced Toulouse team who eventually ground them down. They may suffer from 'second season syndrome' but they'll be hugely motivated by competing in the Heineken Cup for the first time in the club's history. With the current champions coming to town for their first game, it's certainly going to be a major occasion for the town.

Leinster fans who made the trips to the beautiful city of Bath back in 2005 and 2006 will be delighted to have a chance to go back there again. Bath have failed to make the Premiership play-offs for the last two seasons but in the Recreation Ground, they're still a tough prospect. They've had a lot of personnel turnover during the off season but still have a good pack and classy backs like Michael Claassens, Ollie Barkley and Nick Abendanon. If they can integrate new recruits like Stephen Donald, Francois Louw and Dave Attwood quickly, then they could present quite a formidable challenge in the double-header in December.

Glasgow will be seen as the easy game in the pool and they certainly have had their problems recently suffering from the penny-pinching of the Scottish RFU, which has seen players flood out of the club. From finishing third in the Magners League two seasons ago, they slumped to second last in the table last term, with only Aironi below them. They still have some fine players though in the likes of Richie Grey, John Barclay and Chris Cusiter and they'd have some shock wins in Europe in the last two years over Toulouse and Wasps. With Leinster's recent record away to Glasgow, where they haven't won since 2006, it would be foolish to take anything for granted.

Before they can start their defence though, they have eight games to play in the Pro12. In particular they have an initial six game run before the league takes a break for the World Cup semi-finals and final. Schmidt will remember how a poor start to last season effectively cost Leinster any chance of finishing first in the table and will be determined not to let that happen again. In the six game run, they have trips to the Ospreys and Scarlets plus home games against the Dragons, Glasgow, Aironi and Connacht. Even with his missing players, Schmidt will still be targeting at least four to five wins to build the campaign on a solid platform.

In terms of close calls for the World Cup, Luke Fitzgerald, Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings missed out, while Fergus McFadden and Isaac Boss made the cut. Jennings was called up later due to David Wallace's unfortunate knee injury. It's tough on the two lads who missed out, but Fitzgerald will be especially disappointed. In truth though, since he's come back from his knee injury he hasn't quite been able to get up to his previous level of performance. At times, it's been clear he's been trying too hard to make things happen and making more errors as a result. He's still only a young man though and still has plenty of time to bounce back and show what a good player he really is.

Fitzgerald's loss is Fergus McFadden's gain though. For someone who was barely mapped on the Ireland scene only twelve months ago, it's a remarkable achievement to have made the final 30 for the World Cup. He hadn't even started a Heineken Cup match before last season, but he took his chance when Schmidt gave him a run on the wing, due to injuries, and his performances were excellent.

The decisions of Declan Kidney will strengthen Shmidt's options in back three and the back row during the World Cup. However they've also stretched his resources in midfield and at scrum-half as he's taken his top two scrum-halves and his three top centres. With Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss gone, this will mean Schmidt will have to rely heavily on young John Cooney, who was promoted from the academy this season. To ease the burden on Cooney he's made a canny short-term signing in Cillian Willis. Willis began his career at Leinster before injury slowed his progress and after spells with Ulster and Connacht he retired at the end of last season as the age of 27. Willis will look at Cooney and be reminded of himself as both are quick, tidy scrum-halves with a good pass. He will no doubt wish that Cooney has better luck with the physical demands of the game than he did.

Somewhat remarkably, Rob Kearney is the only back three player missing so Leinster will have available their first choice back three from last season of Fitzgerald, Isa Nacewa and Shane Horgan, once Horgan has recovered from knee surgery. With Andrew Conway, Dave Kearney and new signing Fionn Carr also available for the back three, they're not short of options there. Some of those players may be switched to the centre to partner Eoin O'Malley or Brendan Macken, especially now that Eamonn Sheridan is out until the New Year with a knee injury.

Carr is one of several new signings, but he's one of the most exciting. He started off in the Leinster academy before moving to Connacht three years ago where he broke their try-scoring record with 34 tries in three seasons. While he's clearly a devastating broken field runner with bags of pace, doubts still remain about his all round game and full international recognition has eluded him thus far. In accepting a one-year contract, when he certainly could have gotten a better deal in England, Carr has essentially agreed to a season-long trial. To be fair to the guy, at least it shows how much he wants to make it at Leinster that he was willing to accept that deal. He still has work to do, but Joe Schmidt has shown already how he can improve players technically and if he can work his magic on him, Carr could be a sensational addition to the attack.

Carr is just one of three players signed from Connacht. Jamie Hagan, who like Carr is originally from the Leinster academy, has returned after a successful two year spell out west. Hagan is a big tight-head prop and his scrummaging has improved massively in his time away. The IRFU were quite keen for him to go back to Leinster where he'll be working full-time with Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek and where he could also learn a lot from the current incumbent Mike Ross. Sean Cronin is the other player to arrive from Connacht although he started in the Munster academy. Indeed, he's taken some flak back home in Munster for choosing Leinster over his native province. He's a dynamic hooker with serious pace, but there have been doubts over his throwing. He'll know he will have to improve to take the place of Richardt Strauss, who was the outstanding hooker in Europe last season.

An actual Connacht native, Damien Browne, arrives from Brive to bolster the second row options. A huge man, he's nearly as wide as he is tall and he'll add some real physicality to the mix. He'll face competition in the second row from Steven Sykes, a South African signed from The Sharks. As he wasn't actually capped for the Spingboks, there's hope that Sykes will qualify to play for Ireland in three years. Of course he'll have to establish himself for Leinster first. The battle to replace Nathan Hines as Leo Cullen's partner won't just be between those two though as Devin Toner will be desperate to finally nail down a starting slot. With Ireland's golden generation of locks coming to the end of their careers, the Ireland management would also be desperate for him to establish himself too.

In a busy summer for the tight five Nathan White, another tighthead prop, has been signed from Waikato. The final new signing is another New Zealander, Mat Berquist from the Canterbury Crusaders. An experienced out-half, he was understudy to a certain Dan Carter with the Crusaders, he impressed everyone in the two warm-up games against the Rebels and Northampton with his classy all-round game. He could prove a very valuable signing.

Of course it won't just be about the new signings. Last year Leinster had limited access to their internationals as well and had to rely heavily on young players such as Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Dave Kearney, Eoin O'Malley and Ian Madigan. All those players have a year's experience under the belts now and they'll be looking to make an even bigger contribution this time around as will the likes of Jack McGrath, Jason Harris-Wright and Mark Flanagan. There are more great young prospects coming into the academy as well such as Luke McGrath, Conor Gilsenan and Jordan Coughlan. They probably won't feature for the seniors much this season but it will make the 'A' games in the British and Irish Cup worth watching.

With the disruption caused by the World Cup, expectations for the provinces may be low as player fatigue might be an issue. However expectations were also low for last season and we saw what happened there. Most of the internationals probably won't be back until the Munster match at the Aviva in November, the week before the Heineken Cup starts. More than ever, the strength of the squad will be a hugely important factor but with the quality that's there hopes are still high that Leinster will enjoy another successful season.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-08-30