Alan Conway takes a look at the season ahead for defending Heineken Cup champions Leinster Rugby
Fresh from their historic achievements in last year’s Heineken Cup, Leinster Rugby start the 2012/13 as very much the team that everyone will be trying to match and overtake as the most dominant side in European rugby chase an unprecedented third European title in a row.
While their 42-12 dissection of Ulster in Twickenham at the end of May secured their third Heineken title in four years, Leinster’s season ended on a disappointing with a narrow defeat to the Ospreys in the RaboDirect Pro12 final at the RDS just a week after they saw off Ulster.
That defeat will surely have hurt more than any they suffered as it was the third time in a row that Leinster made it to a domestic final and ended up on the wrong side of the result.
This year Joe Schmidt will look to build on the success that has been achieved over the last number of years. They have, once again drew their old rivals Clermont in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup and the back to back games in December will go a long way to deciding the faith of that pool.
Should Leinster navigate the pool stages it would take a brave person to back against them making another Heineken Cup final as Schimdt has instilled a laser like focus into his side to the point that the believe they can win no matter who the opposition is.
Domestically Schmidt will be looking to the younger members of his squad to continue their progression which has seen Leinster develop one of the deepest squads in European rugby.
With the likes of Luke Fitzgerald, Sean O’Brien, Dave Kearney and Eoin O’Malley out for a number of months a window has opened for the younger players in the squad to show Schmidt and the other coaches just what they can offer.
The likes of Ian Madigan, backup No 10 to Johnny Sexton, Dominic Ryan, out for most of last season and Jamie Hagan will all be given ample opportunities to show what they can bring to the table in the opening weeks of the season with the majority of front line internationals not returning until week 3 at the earliest.
One area of concern ahead of the new season is in the second row. The loss of World Cup winner Brad Thorn will be a big one, such was the esteem that he was held in by fans and players alike. Captain Leo Cullen is not getting any younger and one could argue that Devin Toner has not made the progression that many would have expected.
It seems doubtful that Thorn could return to Dublin a second time and if he doesn’t then Leinster may well have a problem come the latter half of the season.
While their may be concerns in some departments, when you look at some of the players that Leinster have at their disposal it makes for impressive reading.
Think ERC European Player of the Year Rob Kearney, who was exceptional all season but took his game to new heights in that Clermont semi final.
Think the likes of Isa Nacewa, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, the twin towers of destruction in Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien and the master conductor Johnny Sexton.
On paper Leinster look like one of the strongest teams in Europe, and in reality they are the measuring stick of European Rugby.
Such is their vaulting ambition that anything less then a place in a Heineken semi-final (at the very minimum) and a top four finish in the RaboDirect Pro12 would be seen as substandard.
A recent tour of their new training facility in University College Dublin makes for impressive viewing. Leinster are building not just for the here and now but for sustained success in the years to come.
Expect more silverware to make its way to Leinster over the course of the next nine months with a third Heineken Cup in a row a realistic aim for this group of players. It promises to be a season where more blue magic will be created by Leinster.
Leinster season prediction
Heineken Cup: Winners
RaboDirect Pro12: Finalists