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Where to now for Leinster

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Where to now for Leinster as the 'Drive for Five' continues

The parallels between Ireland’s deflating Six Nations opener against England in February and Leinster’s loss to Saracens in the European final are easily made.

Leinster were hammered continually behind the gain line as Saracens test-quality pack dominated collisions and forced Leinster into their shell in a similar fashion to how Ireland were beaten into submission in Dublin in February.

It has to be said that this Saracens team that has been constructed is a modern marvel, with a host of the world’s best forwards in the midst of their peak years as athletes offering at least another two or three years to continue this run, many of whom have been homegrown through Saracens’ youth system.

England lock Maro Itoje is such a luxury that they can use him in the backrow to accommodate two other international locks – George Kruis and the reformed Wallaby Will Skelton. The 24-year-old Itoje has re-committed until 2022, while Skelton and Kruis are still in their late twenties. Skelton has foregone an opportunity to play at this year’s World Cup by re-signing with the club on a new two-year deal.

When both Vunipola’s are healthy, the impact they bring is irreplaceable for both England and Saracens. They are 26 and 28-years-old respectively, with many prime years left ahead. England hooker Jamie George, also 28, has cemented himself as the country’s number one throwing option, another piece of Saracens’ puzzle that isn’t going anywhere.

With the arrival of Wasps and England fullback Elliot Daly next year, they will have three Six Nations-quality starting fullbacks on the roster with Welsh international Liam Williams and Scotland’s Sean Maitland. England captain Owen Farrell is locked down on a five-year contract until 2022.

There isn’t going to be an attritional decline for this superpower of English rugby for at least three more seasons, which means that a number of Leinster’s ageing stars will have to regroup and find a new peak in order to topple them for more European glory.

Rob Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Devin Toner, Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, and Scott Fardy are all stars entering or already in the twilight of their playing careers. O’Brien is a confirmed departure, while many are speculating Kearney is heading to France. The rest will inevitably experience a dip in athleticism with age in contrast to Saracens’ core.

Whilst O’Brien has long been a talisman for Irish rugby, the baton had already been passed on in recent times, as he battled mounting injuries, two standout young loosies have begun international careers. Losing young flankers Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier to injury this year has been significant for Leinster’s European ambitions.

In combination with Jack Conan, they are one of the most athletic back rows in Europe, with unrelenting drive fuelled by youthful exuberance, manic physicality and disruptive ability at the breakdown. Leavy was voted the man-of-the-match in the semi-final win over Saracens last year, illustrating the kind of difference he can make.

On balance, if all three are available next year, the back row would be one positional unit stronger than Saracens.

This is important for two reasons – superior back row strength will somewhat mitigate the ball-carrying impact that Billy and Mako Vunipola or Maro Itoje bring in close quarters. Leavy and van der Flier have the combative nature to slow the roll, as well as finely tuned engines to compete at a high number of rucks around the paddock to slow the recycle down.

Turnovers from the pack this European season have been limited with prop Cian Healy leading the team with eight.

Leinster players have publicly made it clear that the team under Leo Cullen has more emphasis on attacking from broken play than what the national side does under Schmidt. Turnover-generating machines are fuel to the fire for sides geared towards counter-attacking rugby, and having Leavy and van der Flier back will offer the impetus to provide more of these chances to free the likes of dangermen James Lowe and Jordan Larmour.

One former Leinster player that possesses the ability to change the balance of power in this rivalry is now with Munster.

Tadhg Beirne opted to return to Ireland with Munster after a run of injuries lead to being let go from Dublin three years ago. His newly minted two-year deal will prevent any homecoming, but with a monstrous 15 turnovers in this Champions Cup, he is just the kind of game-changing force that could be used alongside James Ryan that would seriously alter how effective Saracens’ pack would be.

Not to discredit how important Devin Toner has been but Beirne’s production is undeniably on a different level to anyone, whilst his toughness would bring the kind of edge required to unsettle Saracens. A Leinster return is unlikely at this stage, but it is a move that Ireland could make to match it with England.

A return to full fitness for Leinster’s pair of 7’s will help level the playing field. It is rare for every side to have a fully fit contingent so just who is available on the last weekend of European rugby next season for both Saracens and Leinster will determine a lot as it did this time around.

Mark McCall after Saracens’ European win:

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Where to now for Leinster as the 'Drive for Five' continues