LEINSTER, THE REIGNING Heineken Cup champions and Pr012 runners-up, will be forced to test their much lauded strength-in-depth in the opening weeks of the new season.
On top of the usual enforced late arrivals of international talent the province is contending with several long-term injuries.
Luke Fitzgerald, David Kearney, Sean O’Brien, Eoin O’Malley and Rhys Ruddock headline the list, and head coach Joe Schmidt admits that picking a starting XV in August has been more difficult than usual.
It’s not just the internationals for us at the moment,” Says Schmidt alluding to the queue for the treatment table, “manoeuvring our way through a few pre-season games ahas been quite a challenge, but we’ve gone the full spectrum – a win, loss and a draw.
“There have been some good and bad stuff in amongst that, (but) there’s been enough good stuff to get us a little bit prepared for what will be a little bit of a tougher challenge than we’ve had.”
The challenge which lies in wait at the end of this week is the Llanelli Scarlets. A more intriguing season–opener than many given that Simon Easterby’s side will also provide hurdles to be crossed in the Heineken Cup group stage. However, the Welsh outfit are in much the same boat and will also be far from their best.
That leaves the early season exchanges to fall into a familiar pattern with those not involved with Declan Kidney’s given a chance to prove themselves at the top level.
The experimentation might not go as far as another call for Jordan Coghlan to play at inside centre. Ian Madigan is braced to make his 50th senior appearance for the blues with new signing Andrew Goodman vying for contention behind Isa Nacewa.
Still, Schmidt’s consistent will to provide competition for places is based upon players putting a hand up for selection in these early-September clashes:
“It gives them some confidence later in the season to try and put pressure on some of the international guys. On occasion, the odd international guy hasn’t been selected for a big game and someone else has because they’ve been in situ and doing a really good job.
“So that’s part of the job we throw out to them: yeah, there’s 12 internationals, but you’ve got the first shot at the jersey. But it also means the responsibility of looking after that jersey and making sure that the work you put in is at a level that keeps us competitive.”
So, with Scarlets set to provide an early glimpse at some of the standard required in the European campaign this season, some others who hope to received an opportunity to ‘look after’ the jersey will be new arrivals Tom Denton and Quin Roux.
At this stage, it seems that Denton will be Schmidt’s preferred choice to partner Leo Cullen on Saturday night at Parc Y Scarlets.