THE OPENSIDE INJURY curse strikes again. Josh van der Flier will miss the business end of the season having had to sit out Leinster’s run to a historic double last year and poor Dan Leavy, the 24-year-old facing into a long and difficult road back after a horrific knee injury.
Leavy has been ruled out of the World Cup and will be sidelined indefinitely, the devastating nature of his latest injury setback engulfing the Leinster squad in collective grief for their friend and team-mate.
Penny is in contention to start this weekend. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
But professional sport demands the page is turned almost instantly, and the absence of van der Flier and Leavy now means the door has opened for those further down the openside depth chart, namely Max Deegan, Scott Penny and, to an extent, the returning Will Connors.
Just as Joe Schmidt will have to dig a little deeper into his number seven resources heading towards Japan, Leo Cullen has a smaller window to explore his options ahead of their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse on 21 April.
After losing Jordi Murphy to Ulster at the end of last season, and now two frontline internationals to injury in the space of two weeks, the eastern province’s capacity to absorb such deprivation of resources in one position will be truly tested.
It means the next two Pro14 weekends, and home games against Benetton and Glasgow Warriors, take on added significance in terms of selection and performance, even if Sean O’Brien is the obvious candidate to step into the breach for Toulouse.
Although fit, the 32-year-old remains some way off his best form as evidenced in Rome and Cardiff, while his influence was minimal before being replaced by Leavy early in the second half against Ulster last weekend.
The London Irish-bound flanker remains the incumbent number seven, but with O’Brien resting up in Dubai this week, opportunity knocks for Deegan or Penny on Saturday evening. Cullen’s back row selection for Benetton will be fascinating.
“I think the first thing would be getting our selection right,” scrum coach John Fogarty says about their options at openside.
“That’s something we’ve spoken about as a group of coaches and we’ll meet again this week, making sure we’ve got the right guys on the field. Some of the players have gone really well this season, there are other guys who have had mixed times so it’s important that we’re picking the right team. That’s the pressure that’s on us now.
“From this moment forward, we need to make sure selection is good, the guys who are selected are able to train and are training well and now we’re building up performances. That’s what’s at the forefront of our mind.”
Reputation, Fogarty insists, counts for nothing within the four walls of UCD. We saw that last week when Cullen left Rob Kearney out of his team for Ulster, instead selecting 21-year-old Jordan Larmour, while Jack McGrath was again dropped for Ed Byrne.
Leinster have used 55 players this season and their commitment to developing and nurturing academy prospects during Pro14 windows is not just for the future, but done so with every intention of making selections based on form, rather than any prior performance or achievement.
In that sense, both Deegan and Penny have every opportunity to put their hand up for the big semi-final games to come, starting with Saturday’s clash against Benetton at the RDS [KO 7.45pm, eir Sport/TG4].
Max Deegan has impressed in the seven jersey in recent weeks. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
Although reverting back to his preferred position at the back of the scrum against Edinburgh two weekends ago, Deegan’s performances at seven during the Six Nations period really stood out.
The 22-year-old has clearly benefited from consistent starting opportunities this term — he has started Leinster’s last five Pro14 outings, while coming off the bench in the Champions Cup pool games against Toulouse and Wasps — and has gone from strength-to-strength in blue.
After appearing to fall behind Caelan Doris — last year’s Ireland U20 captain — earlier in the season, Deegan has worked hard to show his worth to Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, regularly displaying his explosiveness, athleticism and appetite for work around the park.
A man of the match display against the Cheetahs last month was another powerful example of Deegan’s immense talent and potential and given the momentum and confidence he has built up in recent times, there is no doubt he can step up in van der Flier and Leavy’s absence.