With Joe Schmidt hosting a mini-camp for the national team in Kildare, there was a scarcity of billboard names in the University of Limerick and UCD, where Anthony Foley and Matt O’Connor sought to make ends meet. Leinster, in particular, found themselves cut to the quick ahead of a game that should attract a bumper crowd to Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day given up to 20 of their number were called away to Carton House.
That left O’Connor, Leo Cullen and co with 22 active players yesterday, a number that included academy undergraduates, with those players cleared to play in Limerick expected to report back today for a week already compromised by Christmas. Many of those who starred for Ireland in November are expected to be stood down, so it is hard to avoid the feeling that everyone is being short-changed: the players, their provincial coaches, the Pro12, media and TV and, most importantly, the spectators.
It was a point put to Cullen yesterday.
“It’s a very difficult question because it’s not really for me to say what happens at national level,” said the Leinster forwards coach. “I’m concerned about preparing a team to go down and play in Thomond Park and we know it is a very difficult place to go to. They will challenge you physically down there for that — maybe it’s overused a bit — physical battle. I’ll have an idea. We have a couple of guys here but we have 20 that aren’t, although we have had to do that a few times this year. We are up to, I think, 46 players used this year and it’s not even Christmas yet. That’s just the nature of the competition.”
Cullen did make the point that the unavailability of players and the truncated preparations will affect both sides this week, while Leinster also look likely to do without Kevin McLaughlin, who has sought a consultation on the shoulder he injured last weekend.
There is good news in the form of Fergus McFadden who is approaching full fitness after a recent thumb injury, although his exact well-being was something of an unknown yesterday given he was one of those on Ireland duties.
Whatever the result in three days’ time, Leinster have already secured a result this week in the confirmation that second row Devin Toner has extended his current contract through to the summer of 2017.
It’s eight years since Toner made his debut for the province but only in the last two has he blossomed into a key player for club and country. Cullen believes everyone is profiting from the long-term investment in his progress.
“If you just walk around the streets of Ireland, there’s not that many 6’ 8” guys. Let’s face it. The club has invested a huge amount of time and energy into the guy as well. That’s the beauty of what we are trying to do here and you want guys to stay here for that reason.
“There’s some guys we have to persist with, unfortunately, because it’s not like we can go to the marketplace the whole time and bring in whoever. Leinster signed foreign second rows during Dev’s time and I’m sure he would have picked up little bits all the time, from Hinesy (Nathan Hines) and Brad Thorn. He’s a smart guy. They were really good influences around the place and Dev has learned. I worked very closely with him for so long. It’s really good for us that he has signed.”