This will not be an easy year for Munster, no World Cup year is. With the coach...
It was highlighted in the late noughties that if Leinster got their house in order they would become a powerhouse of European Rugby. Boy did this come to pass. When it comes to structures and getting players through to senior level, only Saracens and the Canterbury Crusaders can compete with them in terms of quality of talent.
There’s a correlation here as these three sides have dominated their respective leagues. Leinster has put the structures in place so that a kid starting off at school rugby can see a path all the way through to the senior squad. Between their training facilities, the 5G pitch installed in Donnybrook, and the redevelopment of the RDS Leinster is setting the seeds to remain the top province in Ireland.
Leinster made the finals of both the Pro14 and the Champions Cup and was one game short of the double-double, no mean feat. While their win in the Pro14 was the definition of a professional job (Glasgow put them under pressure but Leinster just had that bit extra), the loss to Saracens has left a bitter taste. Coming up to half time, Leinster had a solid lead plus Saracens were shorn of the two starting props but a mistake by Luke McGrath let Saracens get back momentum and wrest control of the game and ultimately the Champions Cup.
Leinster were also frustrated and seemed to have been penalised for the success the season before as they lost several players to the other provinces. While this didn’t impact in the Pro14 where Leinster walked their conference, Europe was a different story and their style of play (outside of the Wasps and Toulouse games) wasn’t as fluid as the previous year. As will be highlighted below, it’s a trend that has continued this offseason as well
When any team loses a player like Jack McGrath , especially to such rivals as Ulster, you can understand why Leinster fans are getting frustrated as what they see as a cherrypicking of players. For most teams, losing players of this calibre would be a huge blow. Leinster, though, is a different story and a lot of this has to do with the academy which is the envy of many clubs in Europe and beyond. This was highlighted in the fact that apart from Cian Kelleher coming in from Connacht, every other player added to the squad this year is from their academy.
Leinster have been fantastic at getting the balance of blooding in young players in the Pro14 so that when they play in Europe (and for Ireland) they seem to the manor born.
Very much like Munster, their biggest addition is off the field, in the form of Welsh forwards coach Robin McBryde. The brains trust of him, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will be fascinating to see develop this season. Being able to hold onto Lancaster was another coup for them as his initial arrival was a catalyst for their turnaround and also introduced the world to Stuesdays.
Europe - In comparison to the other Irish sides, Leinster's pool shows why it’s so beneficial to rank as high in the Pro14 as possible. The Saints and Benetton will definitely put it up to them away from home, but in the RDS, they should be comfortable wins. As for Lyon, if they take Europe as “seriously” as last year, then it could be a massacre. Given how strong the other pools are, Leinster have a terrific opportunity of being amongst the top seeds. This will give them a terrific opportunity of making it to the finals for the third year in a row.
Will they win it? I’m not sure and this has a lot to do not only with the current strength of Saracens, but also a resurgent Toulouse, Racing 92 and the return of Clermont Auvergne, a side Leinster have had some titanic battles with in the past. Their squad depth may be tested here (due to some of those players who have left). However, should they make the top two seeds they've got a great chance of making the final, but I can’t see them winning it. Once again though, the ripples from the Rugby World Cup will reverberate and could change the whole picture.
Pro14 - Winners again, can’t see them not winning it. They walked their conference last season and were able to put their B team out for several games towards the end of the season (and still won most of these!!). It will be more interesting this year though, after the conferences being changed up. Glasgow will put up a lot more resistance (hopefully) than the Scarlets did last year. Top of their conference, yes, win their semi-final yes, win the final yes. The end result? An easier draw in Europe. They have perfected this over the last couple of years.
As with Munster, this will not be an easy season for Leinster. Their strength in depth aligned with the calibre of players they have, though, should see them through in the Pro14. In Europe, being top seeds is crucial to make the final. Will they win in Europe? That’s an entirely different question
#15 Rob Kearny - won’t play as many games this year but is still the first choice and will feature in those big European games. Will be put under big pressure from Number 14 though.
#14 Jordan Larmour - Can be a terrific player but is also prone to defensive errors.
#13 Gary Ringrose - A lynchpin for country and province. Improves the side just being in it and it a terrific defender.
#12 Robbie Henshaw - Last year was a bit all over the place due to injuries but played fantastic when fit (especially against Toulouse).
#11 James Lowe - Boy this guy is fun to watch. A bundle of energy and dynamic with the ball he adds a crucial edge to the Leinster backline.
#10 Jonathan Sexton - Much like Kearney I think he’ll play for Leinster in only the big games this season as he’s that important to their play and gameplan. In Ross Byrne, they have a solid understudy.
#9 Luke McGrath - Will look to learn from some valuable lessons last season. Young but has time to learn how to marshal the players in front of him. Will be pushed by Gibson Park as well.
#8 Jack Conan - Terrific ball player and potentially Irelands new number 8.
#7 Josh Van Der Flier - Terrific player, came back from injury last year and played a barnstormer vs Munster. Another who’ll be there or thereabout for Ireland as well.
#6 Rhys Ruddock- They fact he has been captain already shows the faith the coaching staff has in him. As with most of the pack will be involved heavily for Ireland also.
#5 James Ryan - What can’t this guy do. While last year wasn’t as good as the previous year he is still an all-around terrific player and is an Ireland captain in waiting.
#4 Scott Fardy - His all-around game just sees him ahead of Devin Toner but that shows you the strength of this squad. Fardy has been a terrific signing for Leinster.
#3 Tadhg Furlong - Again another who wasn’t as good last season but this freak of nature has phenomenal strength and has changed the way people view tighthead props. A big big year ahead for him.
#2 Sean Cronin - Great ballplayer (one of the fastest hookers as well), his throwing can be questionable though. Can see James Tracy putting him under a lot of pressure though as he comes towards the end of his career.
#1 Cian Healy - Had serious questions asked when Jack McGrath took his place (for club country and the Lions) but has answered his critics and is another beast of a player who will continue to play a crucial role.
A thoroughly professional performance, that’s the best way to describe Ireland'...