Leinster's vintage crop a steadying hand for young guns

Leinster's vintage crop a steadying hand for young guns
Leinster’s Devin Toner lines up a block down on Lyon’s Sam Hidalgo-Clyne during the Champions Cup clash at the RDS. Toner has played a dozen times in blue this season and his form has been good enough for Andy Farrell to ask him back into the Ireland fold. Picture: Morgan Treacy.

The French have always been partial to the grand, dramatic gesture and Fabien Galthié held true to that great tradition last week when sweeping the decks clean of old-timers and naming a Six Nations squad awash with youth.

Out went a stream of old campaigners and in came 19 players without a single test cap to their names. The armband was tossed, almost nonchalantly, to Toulon's Charles Ollivon who, while 26, has the grand total of 11 international appearances to his credit.

The thinking is clear. Les Bleus have been locked in a spiral of failure for a decade now and Galthié aims to introduce a new culture untainted by all that negativity. The 2023 World Cup, which France will host, is the long-term goal here but it's a risky strategy.

Giving youth its head is all well and good but all the evidence tells us that rookies need solid structures and grizzled vets to guide them through their first steps. There is no better example of that right now than that of Leinster.

Unbeaten this season through 15 games, the province has been bolstered by the individual contributions of up-and-comers who have grabbed opportunities to shine while others were away in Japan. Some of them have proven unwilling to step aside now that the ranks are full again.

Max Deegan, Caelan Doris, Will Connors and Ronan Kelleher were all rewarded with call-ups to Andy Farrell's first Ireland get-together over Christmas, Ciaran Frawley has taken significant steps at No.10 and Rowan Osborne has made a debut and two other appearances.

But Leinster know the value of experience.

Nine of their senior squad are aged 30 or over, more than Ulster and Connacht combined and one more than Munster. Even the age profile of Leinster's thirtysomethings is noticeably higher than that of Munster's with seven aged 33 or over and Munster with just one having reached 32.

Six members of this Dad's Army featured on Sunday as Lyon were dealt with at the RDS with two – Jonathan Sexton and Michael Bent – injured. Only Fergus McFadden was available and unused. That's a lot of talent, nous and emotional intelligence to bring to the table.

It's understandable that the likes of Deegan and Doris should be afforded the most attention right now but the redemption tales of Devin Toner and Dave Kearney, two of those to have left their twenties behind, are equally deserving of attention.

Toner broke his silence over the weekend on his failure to make the World Cup squad. He has played a dozen times in blue this season and his form has been good enough for Farrell to ask him back into the Ireland fold over Christmas.

“He’s been great around the group,” said Scott Fardy who, at 35, is the daddy of them all. “To take the disappointment of missing out on the tournament and to come back and play the way he has has been great for everyone to see.

I think we’ve said before that he’s a great example to all of the guys in the squad on how to handle disappointment, like he has. I think he’s been excellent for us. The way he runs the lineout is second to none.

Ronan O'Gara texted Toner after his omission by Joe Schmidt to assure him that, at 33, he still had plenty to offer.

Wings don't last as long as locks in this game but Dave Kearney is three years younger and clearly making up for lost time. Jinxed by one injury after another for the bones of two years, the 30-year old finally began to work his way back to fitness and form last season and he has followed up his half-dozen tries then with nine in nine appearances this term.

His previous best for Leinster in the ten seasons prior to all that was just four.

“He was maybe just a little bit late into that in terms of that World Cup selection,” said Cullen, “and I get the impression that he was close to going because he finished last season in good form. He started the season in good form as well and hence he keeps getting picked as well.

"Dave has been good, him with Jordan (Larmour) and (James Lowe). They all give us something a little bit different. But for Dave, the big thing was to encourage him to finish when he gets those opportunities and ... that's been the pleasing thing for him, for sure.”

Thirty-one in June and still improving. Leinster know the value in that.

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