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Reputation counts for nothing at Leinster

 

Big loss: Dan Leavy in action for Ireland
Big loss: Dan Leavy in action for Ireland
David Kelly

By David Kelly

Dan Leavy's horrific injury will rob him of his hopes and dreams in blue and green; everyone else must ruthlessly plough on regardless, conscious of his personal and professional needs, but so cognisant that their own ambitions cannot be trapped in amber.

And the message is clear from HQ that - even with key players injured - form, not reputation, will underpin Leinster's unprecedented charge towards a double double.

If one clear message is emerging from HQ this week, this is it. Arguably, this year's model is less formidable than that which swept all aside last season but, even so, Leo Cullen's men will not merely rely on former familiarity to see them through.

Robbed of two world-class openside options, the natural temptation is to assume that Sean O'Brien, their gilded stalwart, will simply step in to fill the slot. But nothing is guaranteed.

Ask Rob Kearney. Or Jack McGrath. Johnny Sexton, even, with whom Cullen refused to take a risk last weekend.

Leinster have used 55 players this season and, in their mind, all must be ready to play, regardless of occasion or opposition.

Scott Penny, only a pup, has as much a chance of featuring against Toulouse as his senior colleague O'Brien.

Leinster scrum coach John Fogarty, who remains in discussions about switching his allegiance from club to country, said: "Across the board. It's not specifically Sean O'Brien, Scott Penny, Max Deegan.

"Sean has a wealth of experience. We're not going to select on what has happened in the past.

"We're going to look to see who's been going quite well. In training sessions, it starts with us this week, and in games.

"It's not straightforward. And we won't make it as straightforward as saying, 'This guy has 100 caps for Ireland, he is going to be starting there. This guy has played none so he doesn't get in'.

"It will be interesting times. Anyone who is out there and has played this year we feel is good enough to play rugby for us. Let's have you lads."

Specifically in the back-row, balance will be crucial given the loss of two renowned specialists, particularly if the selections of Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan are duplicated on Easter Sunday.

O'Brien's candidacy would seem assured and it was notable that his role last weekend starkly differed to that he normally undertakes, especially with ball in hand.

Penny is the only other obvious candidate - albeit Will Connors' return to training after an ACL this week is timely - although we have seen Deegan wearing No.7 to great effect during the Six Nations with Caelan Doris at eight.

Cullen has likened the duo to a pair of "seven and a halfs" this term, sharing the burden in set-piece and phase play.

Scott Fardy can easily play at No.6 if necessary, allowing Ruddock to wear No.7 alongside Conan.

They are not all perfect options - Jordi Murphy's departure helped him and Ulster, but Leinster supporters rue his loss now more than ever - but this is not a perfect situation.

Penny, detailed to the Grand Slam Under-20s this spring, could be primed for swift promotion, and the next fortnight will provide valuable evidence for the brains trust.

"He's slotted in seamlessly and the part that he's slotted in best with is his mindset, he wasn't that fazed," enthused Fogarty.

"We've picked young players before and you could see visibly in the warm-up that they're absolutely shattered because they're worried and stressed about what's going to happen.

"He's someone that's come off a Grand Slam-winning Under-20s team and he's also played a number of games for us. I'm not saying that he's going to be slotted straight in to seven, I'm not saying that at all.

"What I'm saying is he's one of a number of players that will potentially be given opportunities over the next few weeks to put their hand up. We don't worry about Scott, he's physically very good. He's a good player.

"I can't really select the team for a semi-final just yet, they're all in the mix. Will Connors has just come back from a long-term injury.

"It's great to see him come back this week to train and he's another guy that's a seven. Max, Caelan and Scott, these are all guys that have gone well at different stages."

Selection, and the strategy behind it, is key.

"That's something we've spoken about as a group of coaches and we'll meet again this week, making sure we've got the right guys on the field," explained Fogarty.

"Some of the players have gone really well this season, there are other guys who have had mixed times so it's important that we're picking the right team. That's the pressure that's on us now.

"There are guys that have performed really well. There are guys on the up. Leo said it before, if you want to get 50 caps for Leinster, you've got to pick them at some stage.

"So that's where we're at at the moment, making sure that we're giving guys opportunities to play and then making sure that we're selecting them based on how they play and how they perform.

"We want the group to be performing well, we want pressure. We know we're not going to get anything out of the season at the end of it unless we've got a group that are hungry that have performed well."

It all starts with this Saturday's RDS date with Benetton, followed by the third of four successive home matches in both competitions (Glasgow on Friday week).

"Whoever is selected this weekend will have an opportunity to go and play later on in the year," added Fogarty.

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