Baird's move to blindside adds even more dynamism to Leinster's backrow options
As if Leinster’s backrow options weren’t impressive enough, Leo Cullen has decided to complicate matters further by adding Ryan Baird to the mix. The 21-year-old lined out at blindside flanker for Leinster A in their defeat to Ulster A last Friday, following an appearance at No 6 in the surprise Pro14 defeat to Connacht.
A dynamic and athletic presence on the field, the emergence of Baird as an option in the backrow leaves Cullen with an intriguing selection picture ahead of Saturday’s rescheduled Guinness Pro14 derby against Munster. As it stands, Cullen has nine players fit and available for selection in the backrow.
It’s an embarrassment of riches few teams can match, and while injury and international windows will often leave Leinster with a smaller pool of players to draw from, getting the balance right, and keeping everyone happy, will only become more difficult for Cullen given the amount of players pushing for selection.
Here, we look at the nine players Cullen can chose from when selecting his backrow to face Munster this week.
Ryan Baird (Age: 21; Leinster caps: 17)
One of the most exciting young players on Leinster’s books, Baird burst onto the scene with a stunning hat-trick against Glasgow last February, and would have made his international debut by now if it wasn’t for some unfortunately timed injuries. While he has already been touted as the future of Irish Rugby at second row, the 21-year-old is currently at a very interesting point in his early career, with Cullen trialling him at blindside in the backrow in recent weeks. The dynamic Baird is familiar with the position from underage level and has all the tools necessary to make the switch permanent, so it will be interesting to see where Cullen, and Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, feel his attributes can be best utilised going forward.
Jack Conan (Age: 28; Caps: 97)
At one point he was being talked about as the obvious successor to CJ Stander at international level but Conan’s career has hit a rocky patch in recent seasons. Broke his foot in training following Ireland’s opening game at the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the coronavirus lockdowns meant he didn’t play for Leinster again until September 2020. A neck injury saw him miss all of November and December, so the powerful 28-year-old will be desperate to make up for lost time and re-establish himself in a backrow that looks as competitive as ever.
Will Connors (Age: 24; Caps: 22)
Another player who had a breakthrough season last year following a long injury lay-off, his impressive performances leading to a senior international debut in October. His chop tackling tends to get the headlines, but Connors’ defensive work rate and line speed also deserve praise.
Caelan Doris (Age: 22; Caps: 36)
At just 22, Doris is already a leading man for both Leinster and Ireland and was one of the few players to emerge with real credit from what was a disappointing autumn international window for Ireland. Doris brings a relentless work ethic and is also capable of adding a little bit of stardust thanks to his superb footwork. Both Cullen and Farrell will see Doris as a major player of the next few years, and the No 8 jersey already looks like his to lose.
Scott Fardy (Age: 36; Caps: 68)
Yes, he’s almost exclusively used as a lock, but Leinster haven’t been shy to push him into the back-row when needed during games. That versatility may hold some sway when Cullen is looking at the bigger picture of selecting a well-balanced matchday squad and deciding who gets a spot on the bench. Has made a massive impact since arriving in 2017, but will turn 37 in July, so his days in a Leinster shirt are likely coming to a close.
Dan Leavy (Age: 26; Caps: 71)
Arguably the best backrow player in Ireland before suffering a devasting knee injury in March 2019. Made a welcome return to action in October and while he is still finding his feet there have been some impressive flashes in his play, while his versatility has seen him start at 6, 7 and 8 recently. Cullen and Farrell would love to see him return to the force of 2018, and if all goes to plan he can be a key player for club and country again.
Josh Murphy (Age 25; Caps: 39)
Has made five starts at blindside this season, including a late call into the Champions Cup team that beat Northampton Saints when Doris pulled up injured. Continues to make steady progress but has a way to go to outmuscle some of those ahead of him for the big European games.
Rhys Ruddock (Age: 30; Caps: 183)
Having missed out on international selection in the autumn Ruddock was a rock as Leinster scorched their way through the Pro14 with a string of bonus point wins. As a result he was named the province’s Player of the Month for October, November and December, during which time he flitted between the No 6 and 8 shirts with ease. Only Ulster’s Marcell Coetzee (62) and Gavin Coombes (50) of Munster have made more successful carries Ruddock (48) in the current Pro14 campaign. At this point he might be the first name on the Leinster teamsheet, although it remains to be seen if that’s enough to get him back in the Ireland picture.
Josh van der Flier (Age: 27; Caps: 88)
On his day he’s as good as anyone on this list, and his tackle stats are evidence of a tireless worker. When he plays for Leinster it’s generally as a starter – 12 of his last 15 appearances have been in the first XV – but tends to shoot up and down the Ireland pecking order more often than he’d like.
Scott Penny (Age: 21; Caps: 20)
Currently nursing a neck injury, Penny has been clocking up plenty of minutes in the seven shirt over the last few months, showing more game intelligence than his 21 years would suggest. A strong carrier with a keen eye for the tryline, scoring six tries in as many outings this season.
Max Deegan (Age: 24; Caps: 65)
Already capped 65 times by Leinster, Deegan had been making great strides for both club and country, making his Ireland debut last February, but isn’t expected to feature again this season as he recovers from an ACL injury.
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