European Champions Cup Pool 2
Leinster v Castres Olympique
Saturday: ROS, 5.30pm
TV: Sky Sports 2
Timing is everything for a wing. Dave Kearney is proof of that.
This time last year the Leinster back had almost a dozen games for Leinster under his belt as the Six Nations appeared over the horizon and other contenders for the two wide berths were dropping like flies.
His colleague on the far side in that campaign was Andrew Trimble, who would subsequently be named Irish player of the year, after that unlikely pairing produced a string of consistent performances on the team’s way to a first title since 2009. Today, Trimble remains injured with a toe ligament injury but the Ulster man aside, there are no shortage of options for Joe Schmidt to consider. Tommy Bowe is expected to wear 14 but the fight for the 11 jersey is more pronounced as the provinces prepare for a hectic fortnight of European action.
Simon Zebo started against South Africa and Australia in November, Craig Gilroy is back on track in Ulster, Fergus McFadden is a favoured and versatile option for Schmidt while Felix Jones could feature if required.
The return after long-term injuries of Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls is another boost while dark horses like Andrew Conway and Darragh Fanning would likely need another injury crisis to move in from the fringes.
“There’s definitely a lot of competition there now,” said Kearney ahead of Leinster’s home tie with Castres in Pool 2 of the Champions Cup. “Guys are fit and there are quality players in the back there. I think it’s the same here (at Leinster). It’s funny, when you leave the Ireland set-up you probably expect provincial set-ups to have less competition but it’s probably different with Leinster for back three players because there’s so many quality guys.”
It’s a big ask for Kearney, who also had a lengthy spell on the sidelines with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, to reclaim the slot he filled so assuredly last year with Ireland but he has played every minute of Leinster’s six games since his return from injury though his try against Treviso on his comeback remains his only score. In truth, his strike rate could improve. Two tries on his Test debut against Samoa remain his only touch downs in seven outings for Ireland and he has never managed more than four in a season with Leinster.
The impression is that if Ireland have scope for improvement it is in attack and the form of Fitzgerald, reinstated at 13 as Leinster continue to suffer from injuries, has caught the eye more in that regard since his resurrection.
“It has been a frustrating time over the last year for Luke. Especially when he thought he was probably going to have to finish up. He is extremely talented and it’s great to see him back playing so well, especially at 13. That wing area is pretty congested, even if Luke is at 13. He seems to enjoy playing there and he’s doing a good job so that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the other (back) three players.”
The view of Kearney is he doesn’t offer that same versatility but he points out he played full-back growing up and for 30 minutes on his return against Treviso. He has patrolled both wings with club and country, too. “I’m not looking to play 10,” he added. “You can’t be restricted to one position. Left wing or right wing I’ve being able to use both feet, pass off both sides. That’s important. To have more than one position is important.”
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