Dan Leavy leads Leinster tyros as big guns Chicago-bound

Leinster 24 Connacht 13: Forget revenge. Last season’s Guinness PRO12 final loss to Connacht in Edinburgh had little or nothing to do with this Leinster victory.
Dan Leavy leads Leinster tyros as big guns Chicago-bound

For most of those wearing blue on Saturday it was about staking a claim for the future rather than atoning for the past.

With Joe Schmidt wrapping his favourites in cotton wool before Chicago, only seven of the squad Leinster named for this round seven derby featured last May when Connacht outplayed, outfought, and out-thought the competition bluebloods.

Sure, there was experience and class sprinkled through the teamsheet, but it was one decorated with a host of youngsters making either a first senior start or appearing for their first runout this campaign.

Six of the starting XV had less than ten caps.

Dan Leavy had over twice that before kick-off but 21 appearances is still a callow number in senior professional rugby and the flanker is trying to make an impression in a provincial and national back row pool of ridiculous depth.

All of which made his performance here the more astonishing. Leavy’s potential has been well-flagged since long before he sat his Leaving Certificate but he came of age in the world of professional rugby with this dominant, breakout performance alongside Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan.

As a unit, the trio were a menace but Leavy stood out.

“It’s definitely coming together a bit more for me this year compared to last year,” he said. “Last year I was sitting on the bench a lot and not really getting genuine opportunities to shine. It was extremely frustrating but that is the nature of the game, especially within the back-row at Leinster.

“There are eight quality back-rowers here, all Irish capped. It’s hard to get into the team. When you get into the team, you have to stay in the team for as long as you can and make sure the jersey is yours for as long as it can be. So I’m happy, I’ve been involved in every game this season.”

More performances like this and Schmidt will find it impossible to ignore him for international honours, though there was plenty more youth ready, willing, and able to impress among the home ranks. Joey Carbery was more solid than spectacular at ten, Rory O’Loughlin put in some fearsome hits at outside centre, and the two second-half tries that effectively won the tie came from the wings Adam Byrne and Barry Daly.

The combined cap tally of that quartet? Twenty.

And it was the hunger of such youth that head coach Leo Cullen asserted as the reason for Leinster’s disciplined and committed display. Not some woolly notion of vengeance served cold five months on.

On whether revenge was a factor, Cullen said: “No, there is enough at stake there for guys. Guys see there is a window there, an opportunity when they come in. They see that if they do well when they come in, don’t give up your place, and they go on to the next stage.

“It’s a really good effort and there’s plenty of motivation in front of a full house in the RDS when in theory we’re missing a few starters, guys who are in Irish camp. It’s a good window for guys and they recognise it. That’s motivation enough.”

The temptation here is to repeat the line about the academy doing its work. It clearly is, but Leinster have displayed a willingness to sift deeper for gems in the recent past as well and UCD’s Barry Daly has been called for duty after impressing on a three-week summer trial.

He follows a line of players — Ian Hirst, Royce Burke-Flynn, Mick McGrath, and Tony Ryan among them — to graduate up to the provincial ranks for varying degrees of time and Cullen is a fan of the flightpath.

“We see the value in it. The club game gets lads exposure. A lot of our academy lads are playing club and Richardt Strauss played (on Saturday) for Old Wesley while Brian Byrne played (Friday) night for Clontarf. That is important.”

Most impressive of all on Saturday was the solidity and collective sense of purpose and mission that Leinster displayed despite the extensive change in personnel from recent weeks, their youth, and the quality of the opposition.

Connacht had them in trouble in the first quarter with that familiar attacking verve but one that allied clever kicking with the usual incisive running and offloads. It delivered a 6-0 advantage after 13 minutes.

They wouldn’t score again until Shane Delahunt’s converted try in the 81st minute.

Leinster’s feverish work at the breakdown and an aggressive, quick defence slowly strangled that inventiveness and forced a mammoth 18 turnovers. Almost a third of them committed when piercing the home side’s 22. “We made some adjustments midway through the first-half and we looked a bit more comfortable after that,” said Cullen.

“Some of the coaches were raging with the try we conceded at the end but I suppose it gives us something to work on.”

They’re in a good place.

LEINSTER:

I Nacewa; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, N Reid, B Daly; J Carbery, J Gibson-Park; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; M Kearney, I Nagle; D Leavy, S O’Brien, J Conan.

Replacements:

M McCarthy for Kearney (47); R Kearney for O’Loughlin (64); J van der Flier for O’Brien (67); R Byrne for A Byrne (78).

CONNACHT:

T O’Halloran: N Adeolokun, P Robb, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, K Marmion; JP Cooney, D Heffernan, C Carey; Q Roux, A Browne; S O’Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon.

Replacements:

B Aki for Ronaldson (19); F Bealham for Cooney (38); E McKeon for O’Brien (54); D Robertson-McCoy for Carey (54); S Delahunt for Heffernan and J Cannon for Roux (both 59); J Tracy for Cronin, P Dooley for Healy and M Bent for Ross (all 59); S Ili for Kelleher (70); C Blade for Marmion (78).

Referee:

J Lacey (Ireland).

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