Turns out the kids are alright, but then Josh van der Flier told us that last Christmas.
The atmosphere around Leinster then was far less positive than is the case now. The province’s European hopes lay in tatters and adding to the misery was the news that Ben Te’o had just agreed a summer switch to the Worcester Warriors.
Te’o had been a rare shaft of light amidst the gloom of a troubled campaign but the future England international’s form was already being challenged by the kid with the Dutch background who had progressed through the academy ranks.
Van der Flier happened to be on media duties the day the Te’o move was revealed. Normally softly spoken, he responded with more force than usual when asked if Leinster would need to go shopping to replace their impressive centre.
“The quality within the academy, and the quality of players here, we’re more than good enough,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a need for that. If anything, there’s too many good players in the provinces and not enough teams for them all to get game time.” How right he was.
All the signs as Leinster approach the second of their back-to-back Champions Cup meetings with Northampton, on Saturday, is that the club’s high-performing academy has outdone itself in recent times. Ross Byrne stepped in to replace the injured Joey Carbery, Adam Byrne created havoc with a physicality and thrust not seen on the wing since Shane Horgan and a third European debut was marked with a try by Rory O’Loughlin. All told, 17 of the 23 last week was homegrown inside the last dozen or so years.
“It’s a testament to the coaching as well as the hard work they have all put in,” said van der Flier of the most recent crop. “You see all the lads who have made debuts this year and played well. You can tell they’ve been working hard behind the scenes because you don’t get to play well at that professional level without (that).”
The silky smooth manner in which Leinster’s youth has handled the transition to PRO12 and Champions Cup rugby - and, in some cases, the Test arena - is a testament to the individual talent but also the structures at the club.
Forwards coach John Fogarty pointed out this week that one key has been the concentration on alignment for players from underage levels on up so that a flanker playing for the U18s will be asked to do a similar job to that performed by van der Flier.
Yet players differ and it was the utter calm exuded by Byrne when he replaced Carbery at ten during the 37-10 defeat of the Saints at Franklin’s Gardens last Friday evening that stood out.
“He’s a really brilliant player,” said van der Flier who had played with Byrne before at UCD. “He’s worked really hard. I was lucky to play with him as well a couple of years ago with the As and he’s one of those players who just bosses everyone. He just controls the game really well and has very high standards for himself. You saw that, how well he did when he came on in a tight situation at the weekend.”
The challenge now for Leinster’s impressive blend of youth and experience is to avoid a repeat of 2013 when they trounced Northampton over there and lost 18-9 in a suffocating return leg at the Aviva Stadium the following weekend.
There is a case to be made that the tactics and strategy will have to at least tweaked from last time to keep the opposition on its toes though there is the unmistakeable confidence of youth in van der Flier’s counter argument. “You can learn from what went well and see what you didn’t too well and try and change that. If you concentrate on your performance and perform as well as you can, if you can execute it well, than you probably can do the same things twice.”
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