I feel that before I go into how Leinster will fair against Zebre this weekend, I think it’s important to take a look at how last season went for the boys in the blue. I know you don’t want to, but it’s important that we address the elephant in the room!
Unfortunately, from a Leinster perspective, reviewing last season is like having to talk about a big night out you had the night before where you made an absolute show of yourself and you’re left agonisingly mortified the following morning! We’ve all been there, and Leinster were definitely the talk of the town amongst the rest of the group by the end of the season, and not in a good way! Like myself, they were left in a hungover mess with only big takeaways to fill them!
So, Leinster lost out on a chance to lift the Champions Cup, and also reach another league final by a combined total of 4 points! Before both games, Leinster were tipped to lift both trophies and only a drunken fool would have said otherwise. The expectation was very high, which was nothing that the Leinster players weren’t used to, and it really looked like a double was on the cards again. Then disaster struck on two separate occasions within 3 weeks, and all of a sudden, we ended our season trophyless and dejected. I honestly couldn’t believe it, especially in the manner of how we went out.
It was a very odd finish to our season given the dominance and incredible performances the squad put in throughout the whole season in both competitions, it really wasn’t anything any fan would have imagined. But maybe that was part of the problem, and why it did end that way. I go back and forth on whether I truly believe this, but perhaps the Leinster coaches, backroom staff, and players got just a tiny but too comfortable at the top and felt that winning was somewhat inevitable. Don’t get me wrong, the strong performances they put in throughout the season really showed how much winning meant to them, but after rewatching some key games, including our dismantling of Toulouse in the semi-final, where we truly challenged by anyone when we had our full strength team? Did the wins we racked up have a positive impact? If you look at how we lost to La Rochelle and the Bulls, they attacked us up front and challenged every single facet of our game for 80 minutes. Up until that point, I hadn’t noticed many teams challenge us so aggressively. Our game plan appeared to go out the window in those games too; we couldn’t score a single try in the Champions Cup final, that’s very strange given we scored more tries than any other side in Europe throughout the rest of the competition. It felt like; if you try to bully Leinster, they get rattled and lose shape.
Whatever the reasons are for the drop in form and the manner in which we lost out again on the big stage in Europe, I feel very confident that the lads in the Leinster camp must have a newly found hunger, drive and invigoration to succeed once more. I believe that if Leinster are to have glory days again next summer, they will need to change their approach and game plan to challenge the bulkier teams in Europe as I fear that a lot of teams will take a leaf out of the Bulls/La Rochelle playbook as a blueprint to turn us over.
Right, that’s that out of the way! So let’s try to forget about last season and look forward to a cracker of a year for Leinster. We take on our first opponents in the URC tomorrow with a trip away to Zebre. There’ll be a lot of lads togging out for Leinster who will be eager to put their hand up for more regular gametime and also challenge Cullen & Co. to select them for Champions Cup games later this year.
Here’s the team selection for tomorrow, KO 1pm on RTE:
15. Max O’Reilly (9)
14. Rob Russell (5)
13. Jamie Osborne (19)
12. Charlie Ngatai (0)
11. Dave Kearney (173)
10. Ross Byrne (128)
9. Luke McGrath (175)
1. Ed Byrne (85)
2. Rónan Kelleher (36)
3. Michael Ala’alatoa (25)
4. Ross Molony (139)
5. Jason Jenkins (0)
6. Rhys Ruddock CAPTAIN (210)
7. Scott Penny (41)
8. Max Deegan (84)
16. John McKee (3)
17. Michael Milne (17)
18. Vakhtang Abdaladze (17)
19. Brian Deeny (2)
20. Alex Soroka (5)
21. Nick McCarthy (46)
22. Ciarán Frawley (56)
23. Will Connors (25)
I really like the look of this team. Not many of our first choice players but the players selected are of a quality that I feel most other URC teams would have nailed on their starting 15! Incredible depth is on display, that’s for sure. Two notable starters are Charlie Ngatai and Jason Jenkins.
Ngatai has been signed from Lyon where he was part of the team that lifted the Challenge Cup a few months ago. A versatile center who can also place kick will make him highly valuable in the squad. After watching him against Harlequins, he seems to have integrated well and already showed some of his quality; very much looking forward to seeing how he goes. The other lad, Jenkins, was signed from Munster…….. I know, I know. BUT, if you have been asking yourself, “when will Leinster sign a big bulky player to challenge lads like Skelton?”, then have a look at Jack Conan’s interview with this fella. Jenkins is huge, and will be a hefty player to bring in as lock. His career at Munster was massively hampered by injury so it’s hard to analyse how good he is, but I trust that Cullen and Lancaster signed him for great reasons so I’m eager to see what he can bring to the squad.
It’s great to see Dave Kearney back, his form last season was incredible, but he suffered one or two injuries that kept him sidelined towards the end of the season. Jamie Osborne has showed a ton of class throughout last season, he seems to light up the field when he has the ball going forward, but also a great defender.
We will also see the return of Kelleher, Deegan and Connors; three excellent players that I’d love to see feature heavily for us throughout the season.
As for the rest, there’s some new talent and old heads who will look to shake off the cobwebs and battle their way to a successful start to the season. Overall, a strong and exciting selection to take on the Italians.
Zebre will be looking to start their season on a high, they have some strong players who can cause us trouble if given space and opportunity. It was too long ago that they were able to send us away with a 3 nil victory and could have drawn/won the game.
Where the game will be won
I think both sides will look to ease their way into their first game back without trying a champagne rugby approach. Ball handling, territory and potentially a change in game plan will be deployed to get into their stride and try things out. The set piece will be of massive interest to me as this is where we have lacked at times to defend when threatened. Leinster will need to defend the ruck and lineout if they want to gain any territory and build momentum. Zebre will most likely look to attack us hard at the ruck to slow down and disrupt our running game so a key element of our potential success will stem from there.
Given that Leinster has never been defeated by Zebre, I don’t expect them to get their first win against us tomorrow. Although they will most likely threaten us for the first 30-40 minutes, I think there are just too many wise heads and exciting talent in this team selection to let the game slip away.
I feel that Leinster will pull away in the first half and win comfortably by the full time whistle. My first cheeky prediction of the season is that Jamie Osborne will score the first try of the game.
Zebre 8 – Leinster 38
Result: Zebre 29 – Leinster 33