Max Deegan was deemed to be the best player in the world at the U20 grade after his efforts at the World Junior Championships in 2016.
A little over three years later and he wasn’t even considered the best up-and-coming No.8 at his club.
It’s not that he had done anything wrong. Deegan has taken all the right steps at Leinster but, with Jack Conan injured long-term, it was to Caelan Doris that Leo Cullen turned for a No.8 when the province kicked off their European campaign against Benetton in November.
It is a microcosm of the scramble for places at Leinster right now.
“Competition: that’s the beautiful thing about it,” said a smiling Cullen after Deegan’s starring, two-try role in Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 obliteration of Connacht. “Guys know that they need to kick on every week. And it’s not just play well one week and don’t for the next few weeks. Everyone knows they need to play well every week because there is someone in the wings waiting to take their spots. That rivalry that Max and Caelan have is very good and a positive for everyone.”
Rhys Ruddock was named man of the match here but Deegan was sensational. His own scores were one thing but he broke free to set up the first of Garry Ringrose’s two tries after 48 minutes and created havoc against the understrength visitors.
Deegan was especially conspicuous in the opening half which Leinster ended with a 40-0 lead and six tries, the first and last coming from their 23-year old No.8 and the four in between arriving courtesy of Dave Kearney, Ciaran Frawley, Joe Tomane, and Luke McGrath.
“He showed his versatility, which is the big thing,” said Cullen. “First half he plays at No.8 and second half he plays No.7. That’s not an easy skill to do. Max is a very good footballer and he is excellent at slotting across. He has played 6, 7, and 8 for us and that’s not an easy task.
“Sometimes when you ask those back row players to do that it can compromise them slightly so he understands that is sometimes a role that he needs to do for the team and, credit to him, he goes about his business and preps well. This was another positive step for him.”
The localised battle between Deegan and Doris is emblematic of the rude health in which Leinster find themselves as thoughts turn to the last two rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup and the ambition to secure their place as top seeds for the knockout stages.
The league champions are now unbeaten through the first 14 games of the season. They are in a place where confidence is proving contagious, as Fergus McFadden has put it. The side changes every week but the results remain the same.
Connacht have been cut to the bone by injuries this season but Leinster were able to get by without 16 internationals — and James Lowe — here and still field nine players with test experience and others besides who are destined for big futures in a green jersey. It’s a ridiculous embarrassment of riches.
The only surprise two days ago was that the rate of scoring ebbed after a first quarter in which Leinster crossed over four times and built up a 26-0 lead. That they claimed ‘only’ four more tries — the two from Ringrose — was at least something for Connacht.
For Leinster it will serve as yet another motivator. Cullen, like Lowe after the crushing win against Northampton in Dublin pre-Christmas, spoke afterwards about how his side is still seeking that elusive 80-minute performance. It will be something to behold if it comes.
Cullen was fuming two weeks ago when Leinster took their foot off the gas in the last quarter against Ulster at the RDS. That brand of perfection is one of the reasons that complacency should not enter the equation as they welcome Lyon to Ballsbridge on Sunday.
“There’s always a danger of complacency slipping in or expecting that the result is going to be the same,” said Ruddock. “So it is about challenging each other in training and being realistic about ourselves in our game reviews and our preparation for the opposition coming up.
“If you have a competitive group it doesn’t really allow that complacency. That’s the main thing. You are always fighting for your place. It keeps the standards at training and off the field high. That’s been hugely important in being able to change the team and keep getting the results.”
LEINSTER: J Larmour; F McFadden, G Ringrose, J Tomane, D Kearney; C Frawley, L McGrath; P Dooley, S Cronin, T Furlong; R Molony, J Ryan; R Ruddock, W Connors, M Deegan.
Replacements: R Baird for Ryan (24); C Doris for Connors (HT); B Byrne for Cronin, E Byrne for Dooley and C Kelleher for Kearney (all 51); J Gibson-Park for McGrath (60); H Byrne for Frawley (60); R Salanoa for Furlong (64).
CONNACHT: S Fitzgerald; N Adeolokun, K Godwin, T Daly, J Porch; C Fitzgerald, C Blade; D Buckley, S Delahunt, D Robertson-McCoy; N Murray. G Thornbury; E Masterson, P Boyle, R Copeland.
Replacements: T O’Halloran for S Fitzgerald (24); T McCartney for Delahunt and P McAllister for Buckley (both 45); D Horwitz for Porch (51); J Maksymiw for Thornbury (54); S Kerins for Blade (60); C Masterson for E Masterson (60); C Kenny for Robertson-McCoy (61).
Referee: N Paterson (Scotland).