Can Leinster win again in 2018/19?

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Leinster win again
26th May 2018, Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Ireland; Guinness Pro14 rugby final, Leinster versus Scarlets; Johnny Sexton of Leinster left and Scott Fardy of Leinster with the Guinness Pro14 Championship trophy (photo by Peter Fitzpatrick/Action Plus via Getty Images)

2018 was a pretty good year to be a Leinster fan. First, their players provided the backbone of the Grand Slam-winning Irish squad. Then they won their first Champions Cup for five years, before storming to the Guinness Pro14 title. Finally, those same players, at the end of such a long season, helped Ireland win their first series in Australia. Not bad.

But, the question on many rugby fans lips is can Leinster win again? Last Word on Rugby analyze their chances.

Can Leinster win again in 2018/19?

Leinster’s strength in depth was one of the most notable aspects of last season’s victorious campaign. Seán O’Brien has another injury? Enter Dan Leavy, one of Leinster and Ireland’s latest standout players. Club legend and captain Isa Nacewa can’t play? There were plenty of youngsters waiting in the wings, each seemingly more talented than the last. Neither Jordan Larmour nor James Ryan had made their Leinster debut this time last year. Both played an integral part for club and country last season and are already stars.

This summer, however, Nacewa has finally retired for good, as has Jamie Heaslip – another club legend. Richardt Strauss, Leinster’s hooker for nine years, also called time on his career. Additionally, homegrown products Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery moved to provincial rivals to further their careers. Even for a squad like Leinster, those are major losses.

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Pro14 rivals are strengthening

And while Leinster have been losing players, their rivals have been adding them. Munster have acquired Carbery to solve their issues at 10 and Mike Haley to replace the departing Simon Zebo. They have also gained the sensational Tadhg Beirne and former South Africa international Arno Botha to their pack.

Scarlets have replaced the outgoing Beirne and captain John Barclay with Blade Thomson and Uzair Cassiem, who should add bulk without compromising on flair. Their additions to the backs should keep up the Llanelli tradition of flowing rugby. Crucially, none of their additions can expect to be away on international duties as often as their predecessors.

Glasgow Warriors have lost their star playmaker in Finn Russell. However, Adam Hastings took his chance well towards the end of last season. Coach Dave Rennie has faith in him, and a place in the World Cup squad is within his reach. The club’s record try-scorer DTH van der Merwe is back too, which can’t hurt.

A true test of Leinster’s Academy

So how have Leinster strengthened? Versatile and exciting back Joe Tomane has been added from Montpellier. Crucially, because of his Samoan passport, he doesn’t fall under the regulations that prevent James Lowe, Scott Fardy, and Jamison Gibson-Park from playing in the same squad. Other than that, however, Leo Cullen has promoted from their Academy.

Ciaran Frawley took his chances well last season, picking up the man of the match award on his first start. It will be his job to take Carbery’s place, especially in the international windows. Caelan Doris, captain and star of the Irish U20s team, has been promoted from the academy to fill the gap left by Murphy.

For Leinster, hooker should not prove too problematic a position to occupy in 2018/19; James Tracy and Bryan Byrne are able to deputise when Sean Cronin is away with Ireland, while U20s hooker Ronan Kelleher is another exciting academy prospect.

The 2018/19 leadership issue

As England have discovered over the years, good teams need good leaders to succeed. Even at the end of his career, carrying injuries, Nacewa was still able to lead his team brilliantly. Holding his nerve to kick the winning penalty against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup was just one of many examples in an outstanding career. Leadership like that can’t be replaced by Academy players, however promising.

Can Leinster win again? This issue will need resolving for that kind of success.

Unsurprisingly, Johnny Sexton has the job. Sexton has done the job before and there is no doubt he has the respect of his teammates. There might be occasional concerns over his temperament but he has made clear what the role means to him – he will surely not disappoint.

The bigger problem is that he, like fellow Ireland teammate O’Brien, will be carefully managed in the year before the Rugby World Cup. The two are already close to Visiting Professor status as it is, appearing mostly in Europe and provincial derbies.

The leadership burden will likely fall on vice-captain Rhys Ruddock, just back from injury. Leo Cullen, Leinster captain himself not long ago, will not have chosen him lightly. But Leinster’s back row strength is such that Ruddock will not play every game. And he, too, will likely be away with Ireland at times.

Leinster’s superb pool of talent could cause them difficulties when it comes to the captaincy – most of their best players can expect to also be playing for Ireland. Nacewa’s focus on Leinster over international duty solved this problem for years but now it is clear. Could Scott Fardy be the go-to man during the international windows? He has a wealth of experience, is retired from Australia duties, and is likely to play every game possible.

Plenty of positives for Leinster Rugby

So there are lots of reasons for Leinster fans to pause before marking their calendars with the domestic and European final dates. On the other hand, there are the players.

  • Sexton is the finest game manager in the northern hemisphere; arguably the world
  • Garry Ringrose’s absences last season showed just how valuable his defensive nous and attacking spark are to club and country
  • Tadhg Furlong is the best tighthead in the world
  • Rob Kearney has looked back to his best lately
  • Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Cian Healy, and James Ryan are all excellent players.

And then there’s that backrow. Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Max Deegan – as well as Ruddock, O’Brien, and Doris.

Finally, that outstanding squad is coached by Stuart Lancaster and managed by Leo Cullen. The two formed a dream partnership last season and that seems likely to continue. Moreover, Cullen knows exactly what it takes to dominate in Europe, having captained the Leinster team that won three cups in four years.

Stuart Lancaster
Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster, left, and head coach Leo Cullen prior to the Guinness PRO14 match at the RDS Arena in Ballsbridge, Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

If that weren’t enough, cult hero Felipe Contepomi has returned to coach the backs. So there are plenty of points that indicate how well prepared this champion team has prepared themselves, for the Guinness Pro14 and European Professional Rugby Club (EPRC) competition.

Magic 8 ball: will Leinster win again?

It’s not going to be easy – fighting on two fronts never is. The Pro14 was stronger than ever last season and looks set to improve again. The Champions Cup pool [which Leinster is in] of Toulouse, Wasps, and Bath might not be as brutal as last year’s, but it will be no walk in the park. Racing 92, Saracens, and Scarlets will all be determined to avenge themselves after last year’s disappointment.

Yet Leinster, still look like the team to beat in 2018/19.

They have the players, the coaching team, the heritage. The bookies have them as favourites for both competitions and it’s not hard to see why. So can Leinster win again this season? Many think there’s more than a decent chance of at least one title.

 

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