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Friday 17 August 2018

Blueprint is coming of age

Age Grade dominance bears fruit for Leinster

Eventually, the weight of evidence and numbers has to tell. The ugly truth in the modern world is that professionalism brings structure, organisation and streamlined systems in which all things being equal the biggest should become the best sooner or later.

Suggestions of Munster's demise in the Heineken Cup may be greatly exaggerated. The media push for Leinster's dominance may be premature.

After all, it was just a few months ago that Joe Schmidt was being hoisted on his own petard when Leinster lost three of their first four Magners League matches and Munster were runaway leaders in the same league. They still are.

The short-sighted wanted instant evidence. The headline writers wanted a hook on which to hang something more than just their coats.

Those that work in the game will insist, quite rightly, that time must be given for new personalities to blend, for new ideas to ferment, for a new way of thinking to evolve.

To reveal the deadly truth, you have to scratch the surface. These are the facts: Leinster have totally dominated Age Grade rugby for the past five years.

For example, they have won the Under-18 Schools Inter-provincial Championship for the past five years for the gain of three Grand Slams, the Under-20 Inter-provincial Championship for the last five years with four Grand Slams and the last three Youths (U18) Inter-provincial Championships with one Grand Slam.

More significantly, they have also been the clear, dominant force in the numbers of players supplied for international duty. On December 30th, Ireland U18 Schools rocked the vaunted England U18s, comprised of players from the Aviva Premiership Academies, professionally conditioned and coached for the past two years.

Ireland held a two-point lead (12-10) until the 62nd minute when England's power and pace told on an Irish side simply out on its feet. It was a monumental effort from a highly touted Irish collection that will be nurtured appropriately.

Guess what? It was also dominated by the presence of 10 Leinster players with Munster (3) and Ulster (2) completing the starting 15. Moreover, the two outstanding individuals came from St Michael's College, future Leinster Academy players in Luke McGrath, the captain, and 16-year-old Dan Leavy a blindside made out of granite.

New Ireland Under-20 coach Mike Ruddock has taken control of what is touted to be a very exciting Ireland Under-20 side, retaining many of the backs from last year's U20 Six Nations Championship win with the likes of Leinster's Andrew Conway and Brendan Macken certain to figure and Alex Kelly, Peter du Toit and Sam Coghlan-Murray pushing to start. More significantly, Leinster also provides the prospective first-choice props in James Tracy and Martin Moore and flankers Mick Kearney and Jordi Murphy, while Munster will probably be restricted to lineout ace Dave O'Mahony as their only first-choice player.

In fact, it is Ulster who seems to be making greater ground.

The last time Ireland completed the U20 Grand Slam was with a 36-25 beating of Italy in March 2007. There were 10 Leinster players on board, including Cian Healy, Felix Jones, since transferred to Munster, Ian Keatley and Jamie Hagan, since transferred to Connacht. Keith Earls was the only Munster contributor.

The trickle through effect has been staggering. Leinster often play exceptional 20-year-olds Rhys Ruddock, already capped at senior international level, and Dominic Ryan in a back row that also includes O'Brien, 23, and Jamie Heaslip, 28.

Munster-bred Sean Cronin, 24, Richardt Strauss, 24 -- he is committed to qualifying for Ireland -- and Cian Healy, 23, can only improve and even senior statesman Mike Ross, 31, a late starter, could have four years left in him at tight-head.

Munster are still looking to David Wallace, 34 and Alan Quinlan, 36, in their back row. Denis Leamy, 30, is still strong. But, James Coughlan has been mentioned as an up-and-comer. He is a slow burner at 30 years of age.

Paul O'Connell, 31, and Donncha O'Callaghan, 31, and Mick O'Driscoll, 32, show no sign of being confronted from within, other than by Ian Nagle, who is mooted to be on his way to Northampton Saints.

Ronan O'Gara is 33; back-in-favour Peter Stringer the same age. The reason these men are still around is not because they're irreplaceable. It is because the quality isn't there to replace them.

Sooner or later, the evidence of Age Grade rugby has to tell.

Maybe, it is already.

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