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Sunday 19 January 2020

Too much in reserve

Leinster strength in depth will tell as in-form Ulster make trip to the RDS

14 December 2019; Ciarán Frawley of Leinster kicks a conversion during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 4 match between Leinster and Northampton Saints at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
14 December 2019; Ciarán Frawley of Leinster kicks a conversion during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 4 match between Leinster and Northampton Saints at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Despite their unbeaten record in Europe this year and five wins from seven in the PRO14, I still feel that Ulster will travel to the RDS this weekend in hope rather than expectation.

The IRFU player management protocol will dictate that both sides have to rest key players and the bottom line is that Leinster have a far stronger strength in depth than the visitors.

That, added to the fact that the RDS is not a happy hunting ground and that Ulster have two must-win home derbies against Connacht and Munster to come, means that while Ulster will come to try and win it is also a game they may not earmark as a priority.

The PRO14 is about winning key home matches, keeping the rotation system ticking along and making the play-offs later in the season, preferably at home.

It is also about fighting on two fronts and developing a squad, like Leinster has, that can win games while missing key players.

Looking at the bigger picture, and following new Irish head coach Andy Farrell's recent announcement of his 45-man Irish training squad, there are a few ex-Leinster players, now with Ulster, that have serious points to prove.

The one making the most ripples is their outstanding scrum-half, John Cooney. Cooney has been around the block and started his career with Leinster before a spell at Connacht and is now shining with Ulster.

Cooney has certainly put the disappointment of missing Joe Schmidt's cut for the World Cup behind him and at the moment is the form No 9 in Europe.

Certainly, those from Ulster would say that he deserves his chance to start the Six Nations in February, if Andy Farrell picks on form, but in my opinion, it is not that simple.

Cooney is interesting in that he follows the French mould of a scrum-half. In France they call the No 9 'the general' for obvious reasons. In fact, at one stage the French used the scrum-half to throw the ball into the lineout.

The No 9 is regarded as the most dominant player on the field in terms of dictating and implementing team strategy. He is often the goal kicker as well.

Decisions

Cooney assumes that general's role with Ulster. He is given free licence to snipe and make decisions on the hoof. He is also an excellent goal kicker so he makes decisions there as well. He is the most dominant player on the park.

If Cooney is to start the Six Nations ahead of the incumbent, Conor Murray, then you would have to ask a few questions of the coach.

Will Cooney have the same latitude to play his 'off the cuff style' for Ireland as he does for Ulster? And if he was to start, will he be given the goal-kicking duties as well?

The answer in both cases is probably 'No' - and if you take those two key areas away from him, does he still has the same confidence?

I think, given the way Cooney has been playing, he should be given an opportunity in the Six Nations at some stage. Otherwise you are making a mockery of picking on form.

Whether that will come in the key matches, I can't say - that depends a lot on how Ireland want to play under Farrell.

Elsewhere Marty Moore, also a Leinster prodigy back in the day before he got lost in the English Premiership, comes in as another serious tighthead option, and may allow Leinster's Andrew Porter to concentrate on where he is best - on the loose head side of the scrum.

No recall

There was no recall for another former Leinster veteran, Jack McGrath, who is out with injury, although other players that were injured have been included in the 45-man squad.

It is not so long ago that McGrath was the starting Lions prop against the All Blacks - surely, he still has plenty to offer?

Leinster see five backrow players in Farrells 'stocktaking' squad, but no place for back rower Jordi Murphy.

Murphy can count himself very unlucky, as he has been playing well. His performance against Clermont in Europe was outstanding.

Of course, it is the new coach's job to make his own selections. Murphy may have fallen victim to the 'jack of all trades, master of none' thinking. Murphy's ability to play in all three backrow positions has not helped him establish where he is best.

With his contract ending this season, Murphy could well end up across the ditch in France or England with his versality and consistency a real asset for most clubs.

Back to the Pro14 and I believe Leinster are just too good at the moment.

Despite both teams making a host of changes for this pre-Christmas fare, Leinster will protect their unbeaten record on two fronts.

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