Could Leinster's biggest strength become their greatest weakness?
The conveyor belt is moving... too fast?
It's been an incredible start to the season for Leinster. We have to stop saying that, really, considering it's January. The eastern province have won all 10 of their Pro 14 games and became the first side to guarantee a Quarter Final after just 4 rounds of European action after blowing their pool away with 4 wins from 4. Even taking into account the decimation of their squad for the World Cup, and injuries, Leo Cullen's side have a strength in depth unrivalled by anyone at home or abroad.
They can lose Johnny Sexton and Ross Byrne to Ireland or injury and still have Ciarán Frawley or Harry Byrne take the reins. Cian Healy could be absent and Leinster still pack down with the quality of Ed Byrne or Peter Dooley. As for the backrow? Take your pick from Scott Penney, Max Deegan, Will Connors or Caelan Doris to step in for Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan or Rhys Ruddock.
It sounds great on paper, it looks even better on grass. But could it become a problem?
High profile departures from the reigning Pro 14 champions in the last three seasons have included Joey Carbery, Nick McCarthy, Jack McGrath and Jordi Murphy, the former pairing heading south and the latter two landing in Ulster in search of regular game time. With whole new generation of talent again rearing its head, and the number of starting places stubbornly refusing to increase, could Leinster be facing an exodus of young, ambitious talent in search of consistent starting jerseys?
Barry Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery dug into the issue on this week's House of Rugby;
MURPHY: "But how do you keep them happy?... If you're a big French side, would you come in and just offer (them) a chunk of cash? I would imagine that will happen, if you look at the wealth they have at 10 as you said. Ciaran Frawley was unbelievable the other night, what a brilliant player. And then, I haven't seen a huge amount of Harry Byrne but everyone's saying he's potentially going to be even better than Ross. Ross is playing brilliant rugby, you've Johnny Sexton. At centre they've a wealth of talent as well, do you reckon they'll be able to hold onto those players?"
FLANNERY: "I think it's only when you get to that point when you're knocking on the door and then your realise you're not going to get a go, that that's when you decide to go. So I don't think Scott Penney will be looking to go, and I think for a lot of the French teams it would take for a coach who knows the landscape of the Leinster squad to go over there and say 'yeah we can go off and sign this big name guy who plays in the Six Nations or this guy from the Southern Hemisphere and he'll cost us X amount of money, or we could go and we could target some of these young guys here who are ultimately going to go back to Leinster, or back into Irish rugby but they're going to go away and we'll get unbelievable value for them for 3 or 4 years', and they know what it is to work in a champion's set-up and they've really good work ethic.
"I think it's the guys who are on 23, 24... You know, Scott Penney is still going to back himself and say 'yeah I'll take van der Flier's place or I'll take Dan Leavy's place', and it's only when he's consistently fit and he's there and he knows that maybe Robin McBryde or Leo (Cullen) isn't... or maybe they'll only get an opportunity every once in a while, and if they don't take it then probably that's when I think they'll leave. But I think they'll leave to get game time to come back again, but they may not come back into Leinster because the conveyor belt of players that's coming up behind them all the time."
The idea of players plying their trade abroad is of course complicated by the IRFU's unwritten rule that those not playing in Ireland will not represent their country on the international stage. High-profile players such as Simon Zebo and Ian Madigan have fallen foul of this in recent years, while Johnny Sexton's sojourn in Paris was given a rare pass. Trimble noted the difference in moving early, while Fla was quick to point out the benefits of making those kind of moves;
TRIMBLE - "The ones that leave early are the ones that look to come back, but the ones that leave at 24... I mean I'm not saying, obviously they've still got plenty of time left, but that's more of a 'this isn't working'... more of a long term move."
FLANNERY - "Chris Farrell made the jump from Ulster pretty early, and getting exposure to the highest level of rugby that you can play is the most important thing. I used to look at Tom Hayes when he was at Munster, John Hayes' younger brother. Like, Tom was a brilliant player, never got opportunities at Munster really because you would have had Mick O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Donnchadh O'Callaghan, Donnchadh Ryan. (They) would all have been in the pecking order ahead of him. And then he went across, he went to Plymouth and then he went to Exeter. And whilst there was so many second rows in Munster, he was kind of just another good second row, in Exeter he suddenly became integral to their team. He was their captain, he got them promoted, he became the main man in that set-up.
"So that's where the benefit of getting players to go away and get as much game time as they can and then they eventually become another option to come back into Irish rugby. But it is, looking at Jack McGrath, he probably decided 'well ok, I can compete here (Leinster) with Cian (Healy) all the time for loosehead, or else I can go up to Ulster and play regularly as a first choice'. And even behind him then you had Ed Byrne and (Peter) Dooley as well. The strength in depth is huge there. It's hard to see them being stopped."
Any club team in world rugby would be envious of Leinster's depth. The question is just how many of these players can Leo Cullen keep happy while handing starting jerseys over their heads?
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Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble are joined in the House of Rugby studio by Jerry Flannery as they look back on all the Guinness PRO14 action, preview some big Champions Cup games and look ahead to the Six Nations.