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FEATURE Leinster have made their big call, but something still needs to change

Leinster have made their big call, but something still needs to change
1 week ago

Just over a year ago, sending Sam Prendergast out on loan to Connacht seemed like a smart idea. The Kildare native was fresh off a Six Nations Grand Slam with the Under 20s and had acquitted himself well in his first two senior Leinster starts, on the jaunt to South Africa.

Then 20, Prendergast could head West and join his older brother, Cian, at Connacht and provide some competition for Jack Carty. Even in May 2023, a clutch of Leinster supporters found the notion unpalatable. Ross Byrne was back in Andy Farrell’s good books, and Harry Byrne could also be in the Ireland mix when Johnny Sexton retired after the World Cup, they argued. Prendergast would be needed.

One season on, Leinster have another Champions Cup Final defeat to rue, but are still in the United Rugby Championship hunt. Prendergast, the Byrne brothers (with 22 combined starts) and Ciarán Frawley have shared around the 10 jersey and Leinster have pushed their chips behind Ross for the run-in. Still, no matter how the URC is decided and how the Blues fare, you sense something needs to change.

Sam Prendergast
An audacious piece of skill from Sam Prendergast against Ulster went viral (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

We will start with Prendergast and his role with the province. He accrued 16 more senior appearances, including four starts, and had his first taste of Champions Cup action, around the turn of the year. In recent outings against Connacht and Ulster, he demonstrated an attacking nous and a willingness to take calculated risks. He had the benefit of coming on, in the quarter final, when Ulster were flagging and gaps were appearing. He had fun out there.

One moment had James Lowe, Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park and the rest of the Leinster bench gasping. In the final stages, he received a pass from Luke McGrath and opted to run it, from just inside his half. He veered from Mike Lowry and chipped ahead for himself, only to spot Max Deegan charging in support. With Ulster’s Stewart Moore racing in, Prendergast flicked a pass to Deegan with the outside of his boot. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” proclaimed Ryle Nugent, on commentary, as former Leinster outhalf Ian Madigan, sitting alongside, practically purred.

Sam was in camp in that, kind of, apprentice role. He was really impressive. He was covering a bit of fullback, as well, in training and it wasn’t a bother to him. Then, when he slots in at 10, he is impressive there.

Garry Ringrose

It is that hue of confidence and skill, with a side of temerity, that his Leinster teammates have come to recognise as part of Prendergast’s make-up, over the past two seasons. Speaking with Garry Ringrose about him, earlier this year, the Leinster co-captain highlighted how the former Newbridge College star was not at all fazed when called to train, in Portugal, with the senior Ireland squad.

“Sam was in camp in that, kind of, apprentice role,” said Ringrose. “He was really impressive. He was covering a bit of fullback, as well, in training and it wasn’t a bother to him. Then, when he slots in at 10, he is impressive there. He has that willingness to try and learn and that humbleness, knowing he wants to get better. At the same time, he can show some really cool bits of skill, under pressure, too. The stand-out thing is his willingness to learn and try figure things out.”

Ross Byrne
Ross Byrne is a starter for Leinster but he will be feeling the heat from his rivals for the No 10 shirt (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Compared to Wallabies legend Stephen Larkham, in his breakthrough season, the 21-year-old has also been likened to a man that dominated Leinster for 15 years – Johnny Sexton. Both are tall, with Prendergast stretching a couple of inches beyond Sexton’s 6ft 2ins. A refrain becoming common for Pendergast is one Sexton lived with for most of his career – put on some timber, fill out a little, and he will take some stopping.

For now, and the remainder of this season, the Byrnes still get the ball when the match starts. However, when that Prendergast loan to Connacht idea was recently revisited, Leinster fans were not having it. He is far from the finished article, but it would be folly for Leinster to send him West when he could be putting teams away for them. Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins described Prendergast as a ‘lovely player’ with huge potential but the door looks closed on that loan.

David Humphreys will soon be taking over from David Nucifora as IRFU Performance Director. His ‘In’ tray will be stacked to over-flowing but he will hope to address the matter of Leinster having five 10s on deck.

We are left, then, with a log-jam that will need sorting out. David Humphreys will soon be taking over from David Nucifora as IRFU Performance Director. His ‘In’ tray will be stacked to over-flowing but he will hope to address the matter of Leinster having five 10s on deck, ahead of the new season – Ross and Harry Byrne, Prendergast, Charlie Tector and, ostensibly, Frawley. There is also Jack Murphy, who was with the Ireland U20s this summer, son of Ulster head coach, Richie.

The Leinster argument over Frawley, if they find themselves pressed, would be his versatility across the backline. The Skerries man would desperately love a sustained run in Leinster’s 10 jersey but his ability to plug into a number of positions has worked well at Test and club level, so he could be talked into maintaining the status quo for 2024/25. He is going nowhere. Harry Byrne has made his most starts (11) and appearances (17) in his five Leinster seasons and was called back into the Ireland fold for two Six Nations appearances. He played a supporting role in a winning campaign. That being said, the 25-year-old has been surplus to requirements when the likes of Frawley, Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien returned from injury.

Of all the Leinster 10s that could head to Connacht for a season, Harry would top my list. Many at the province are not keen on the prospect – they are competing on dual trophy fronts each season, Joey Carbery’s nudge to join Munster did not end well, for the player, and Leinster associations improve chances of national team inclusions. Ulster wanted Deegan for 2024/25 but the back-row is staying with Leinster, too.

We then have Ross Byrne. He is well regarded by so many at Leinster but has not proved to be the 10 to get his side over the line in big games. He has been given the 10 jersey for the crunch games, this season and last, and has not convinced. He had his best Leinster game, all season, in the Champions Cup quarter final win over La Rochelle, then fell back for the semi-final squeak against Northampton and was washed over against Toulouse.

With the Connacht loan now unlikely for Prendergast, we have that young, exciting, green play-maker situation against Byrne, the safer option but one who has struggled to raise his ceiling. Leinster’s pre-season would make for a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary.

For much of the professional era, Irish rugby supporters were embroiled in ‘Who starts at 10?’ debates, when it came to the national team. We have Humphreys vs. Ronan O’Gara then Sexton coming for O’Gara’s jersey.

What may clarify matters, for Leinster, the IRFU and the players involved, is how Andy Farrell sees it. His touring squad for South Africa will be named, later this month, and all eyes will be on the out-halves selected to travel with Munster’s Jack Crowley. Gut-feeling is that Ross Byrne will not head south, so that leaves Harry Byrne, Frawley and Prendergast. If Farrell goes for the latter two of that trio, the flag is planted.

For much of the professional era, Irish rugby supporters were embroiled in ‘Who starts at 10?’ debates, when it came to the national team. We have Humphreys vs. Ronan O’Gara then Sexton coming for O’Gara’s jersey. From 2013 to 2023, Sexton reigned supreme. The sense is that Crowley vs. Prendergast will shape most of the next decade.

Ciaran Frawley
Ciaran Frawley narrowly missed the chance to become a hero, missing a late drop-goal against Toulouse (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images)

France, in 2018 and 2019 respectively, gave 19-year-olds Matthieu Jalibert and Roman Ntamack their Test debuts. Both were fast-tracked through the age grades into the U20s, then given their head with the senior side. It was deep-end stuff, yet it has paid off. Given the grip Sexton had on the 10 jersey, in Ireland, such expediency was not required but that time is fast approaching.

Farrell has already indicated that he sees Prendergast as a Test-worthy option by bringing him to Portugal, earlier this year. It would benefit him, and Ireland, more to see if he can run the Leinster ship, next season, than having that safer space with Connacht. There is a degree of sympathy for Ross Byrne, but he cannot say he did not get his chances. For him, leading Leinster to a win over the Bulls, in a febrile Pretorian setting, would be gigantic, on many levels.

Comments

5 Comments
N
Noot 7 days ago

Prendergast will get far more gametime at Connacht than he will being 3rd/4th choice at Connacht. I don't know why this article doesn't mention the reason Wilkins is looking for a 10: JJ Hanrahan, Connacht's standout standoff this season, is out until the start of next year at the earliest. So, if Sam comes west, he'll be up against Jack Carty for the 10 jersey. With Jack on the way towards retirement and a ways away from his peak form of 2021/22, Sam will be getting a lot more time to develop his game, as well as learning from a 10 like Carty who has plenty of faults but is renowned for his kicking in play and wide passing (parts of the game that Prendergast has shown a real knack for). Also worth noting that I've heard (no idea if it's true) that Prendergast initiated the talk for a loan move this time around.

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