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Sunday 22 October 2017

Kirchner can repay faith of O'Connor

WHEN Leinster purchased, the currently sidelined South African full-back Zane Kirchner, last year I thought they would have been better served spending the money elsewhere.

This was not a reflection on the affable Springbok after all he was a relatively seasoned international with a collection of international caps under his belt.

At the time I just thought that Leinster needed cover for other positions rather than wing or full-back.

In my opinion Leinster still had a number of players that could have covered the back-three, and and when the likes of Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney returned from international duty Kirchner would find it hard to make it into the starting XV anyway.

DOUBLING

With this year's Pro 12 doubling as qualification for Europe, Kirchner's availability when the Irish internationals are gone, a bit like Ica Nacewa, could prove vital to Leinsters success later this season.

Towards the tailend of last season and in the first two games of this season, Kirchner has been outstanding, creating positive attacking play by using a skill set garnished from playing both on the wing and at 15.

In a game often dictated by long periods of tactical kicking, Kirchner has been excellent. A safe pair of hands at the back to compliment Rob Kearney, quality lines of running and good off-loading has seen Kirchner repaying Matt O'Connor's original faith in him.

It also gives Leinster a potent back-three when one adds in the considerable physique of Darragh Fanning.

While not as quick as either of the other two internationals, Fanning compliments the trio with a power-based game.

Based on last weekend's performance in the RDS Kirchner is finally finding his feet, away from the shackles of the kick and chase Springbok game into a player embracing the running play of Leinster, he will be missed against Connacht tonight.

A great golfer once said: "If I can hit the green once, then I should be able to do it every time".

Winning rugby is about consistency, and a lot of that is psychological and based on experience and self-belief, all great sides have that hint of arrogance, that belief that they will win every time they play.

Leinster's main problem last year was too many periods of inconsistency, one week they could be world beaters ie against Northampton, the next week disappointing ie against Northampton. Despite the porous nature of the Scarlet's defence last week (also rudely exposed by Ulster) Leinster still upped their game impressively from their disappointing loss in Scotland.

After a nervy start where they tried too much too soon, the Blues were then very patient in attack, playing through the phases and using their ball-carriers like Seán Cronin and Jamie Heaslip wider than they had against Glasgow.

Leinster's backline also linked particularly well, with Kearney and Kirchner proving to be game-breakers almost every time they touched the ball.

In my opinion the big difference came in the speed of the ruck ball, slow in Glasgow, and that was almost solely due to the presence of flankers Shane Jennings and Dominic Ryan.

When the game speeds up and is more broken in its structure, it is a real advantage in having two openside flankers, it is very much a New Zealand way of playing the game, ie moving away from bigger heavier forwards to lighter more mobile players.

It was also the clinical cleaning out of the ruck by the three Leinster loose forwards that released the ball back on a plate to scrumhalf Isaac Boss, the three Leinster forwards repeatedly driving past the ball and allowing the likes of the impressive Ian Madigan, Kearney and Kirchner to attack on the front foot, a huge difference from trying to cross the gainline standing flat-footed and with slow second or third phase ball.

Madigan is without doubt a prodigious talent and is the type of player who always looks to turn defence into attack. Always looking for the half break, Madigan was world class again last weekend.

Outhalf is obviously Madigan's preferred position, but like Dan Carter and others he has the ability to play No 12 equally as well, communicating well and understanding how to defend in that position, it also allows Leinster to use a better kicking game from either positions 10 or 12 and from either side of the field.

RETURN

I am sure Madigan was a little disappointed in the impending return of Johnny Sexton, but if Madigan continues to play the way he is capable of, then Leinster and Ireland will have to find a position for him.

The negatives for Leinster last week were that they took a while to get up to speed, and tried too many 50/50 plays before they settled into some sort of structure, against better teams in Europe this might cost them. There were too many first-up tackles missed, especially in the first quarter and a home scrum that creaked at times.

Overall O'Connor will be happy with how his players responded especially after Glasgow. Connacht will be another step up again. Never easy on home soil anyway, Connacht are now buoyed with confidence after two excellent wins in-a-row.

The Galway-based side have a nice balance of youth and experience this year, and they have a rugged, hard-nosed pack that will take some taming especially at home.

Overall it's a hard one to call. Leinster can call on the likes of Seán O'Brien and Jack McGrath and they may well need them, as they will need all their big name players to step up, otherwise the home side will fancy another scalp.

The pressure is on - it should be a cracker.

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