The first home game of the season always brings an excitement to the RDS. The anticipation of the year to come, the new faces and the old ones. Trophies to be defended. What a year it’s been? No time to rest on our laurels.
Seldom have we welcomed back such a successful and medal covered crop of players. Six Nations, Pro 14 and European winners. There will be a special buzz of excitement in the air.
A nice early Saturday evening kick off, 5:15, should give supporters plenty of time to have a few beers and get into the swing of things, with the promise of a few afterwards also. And for those with young families, or who need to travel to the city, this earlier time gives a better chance to pack the stadium.
We welcome the Dragons to Dublin, and their manager, Bernard Jackman, returns to his old stomping grounds. He has many fond memories, no doubt, however, we’ll hope to send him home with some material for nightmares this time around.
The scoreline was 54-10 in Leinster’s favour the last time they visited. It was during the November international window, and many of the first team (for both sides) were missing. A few in that Leinster team, Larmour and Conan for example, could now be considered to have made the jump into the front ranks.
The Dragons have had a similar start to Leinster this year, one win and one narrow loss, although they have not managed to earn a try bonus point while Leinster have done so. But Leinster have gained their six Pro 14 points on the road, their Welsh opponents played both games in their Dragons den.
They will not be satisfied by the loss to Treviso, a team that they will be battling on their conference table all season for the chance to get into the Challenge Cup. Losing at home to them is a big, demoralising start.
Their game last weekend against the Southern Kings was scrappy; they got home with the win but afforded the Kings two bonus points. The Kings are the worst team in the League by a long distance. They outscored the Dragons in tries but failed to bring home a result.
Bernard Jackman will arrive in Dublin an uneasy man. He might have a trick or two up his sleeve. Last year they opened brightly, scoring the first try of the match. But Leinster’s class soon overcame them.
Leo Cullen comes into the game with the same ratio of wins to losses but an easier mind. Two tough games in Wales, one against divisional rivals Scarlets, a team we played four times last year, when you take the semi-finals in both competitions into consideration, is a dramatic way to start the season.
While he will be disappointed we did not manage to steal a second narrow victory last weekend, there was a lot of promise in the way the team worked hard to get back into the match. Mistakes were made in both the openers, but that makes it easier to know what to work on in training.
Leo’s biggest problem is trying to get enough game time into the European first team players in time for the first match in that competition, only four more Pro 14 games. Most of them were involved with Ireland over the Summer and have only come back in gradually over the last few weeks.
Neither first choice scrum halves have settled yet. Box kicks have gone astray, there have been knock-ons at the ruck, and more than a few difficult to field throws. There is such healthy competition for the first team spot that this should soon sort itself out.
This is not a position of strength in depth; an injury to either McGrath or Gibson-Park will cause us to struggle. Nick Kennedy has simply not had enough game time to warrant confidence that he could take over.
Ross Byrne has had a solid start to the year. If there’s a change from last season it’s that he has developed his defensive game. He has made multiple hard tackles on the crash ball carrier coming up the ten-twelve channel in the opening rounds. He’s also been on the receiving end of some huge hits, but has picked himself back up quickly. There is something more physical about him, a growing presence in the back-line, and yet he had not bulked up too much.
Again, at half-back we may struggle if we pick up any more injuries. Ciaran Frawley is injured at the moment, and Joey Carberry off to ply his trade for Munster, so should Byrne or Sexton pick up a knock we will have to draft an academy player or use Noel Reid in the position. The latter has not played much there.
Despite losing Jordi Murphy in a transfer to Ulster and Jamie Heaslip retiring after a long injury, the competition for the back row seems as healthy as always. The imminent arrival back of both Josh Van Der Flier and Sean O’Brien from injury is eagerly awaited. Cullen will soon have a selection headache.
We have enough strength in the front row and the back line for now. There are a few players out with injuries, Barry Daly and Jack McGrath falling victim during the first game and at training respectively, but you feel we have enough cover there. We also have decent cover at lock, although Toner, Ryan and Fardy are well ahead of Nagle, Malony and Mick Kearney.
I expect the crowd to be in great form on Saturday, still congratulating ourselves on the victories of last season, satisfied with the start this one, and buoyant about the season to come. Season ticket holders will be eager to see what they get this year in their gift pack. And the expectation that the Dragons will be the sacrificial victim to properly kick off what’s looking like a promising year.