Thursday 27 October 2016

Blues could still upset the odds

THERE is still a possibility, that Leinster could still make the semi-finals of this year's Pro 12 competition, in fact the bookmakers put them at 22/1, not only to make the cut, but then to retain the Pro 12 title.

But their loss to the Dragons two weeks ago effectively means that even if they were to win their remaining three games they will still have to rely heavily on a number of other teams doing them a good turn.

Of the leading group the Ospreys currently fourth, and a clear two wins (eight points) ahead of Leinster look most vulnerable, especially given that two of their games are away from home, and have tough enough fixtures in the Galway Sportsground and against current leaders Glasgow to come.

In a nutshell Leinster really have to win all their remaining games tonight in Belfast against Ulster who also have a home semi-final (and potentially final) on their minds.

A home semi-final not only means a better chance of making the final it also means serious revenue, vital when all provinces are struggling to balance the books.

I still think that the Leinster coach Matt O'Connor put all his eggs in one big Toulon basket two weeks ago by not playing his top flight team against the Dragons.

A win there would have still had them in with a good chance of qualification, especially with Benetton at home as a potential five-pointer.

One has the distinct feeling that if Leinster just made it into the Top 4, then despite an average season so far, they still have the players and the game to win it outright.

But unfortunately despite rushing out to a commanding lead against the lowly Dragons they let that game slip against a pretty ordinary team, and have since paid the price with all the results that particular weekend going against them.

If Leinster somehow manage to get through, then in reality, despite some inconsistencies throughout the season that would constitute a pretty good return on investment.

Leinster restored oodles of pride with their gutsy display in Toulon, and it was a 'shot in the arm' for those of us that still hold dear the old school values such as bravery, guts and team unity.

With Leinster's prodigal son Jonny Sexton due back in his old colours soon, Leinster can at least feel confident that they can still challenge at the very highest level in Europe, and with the possibility of some more high profile signings to come Leinster are in a pretty good place.

Most of the media hype surrounding coach O'Connor has died down, and this has been helped by what seems to be a unified player support for the Australian.

The Leinster think-tank will know that letting a coach go a year out from his contact, and given the World Cup year that's in it would be a serious mistake.

The media has a right to their opinion and I would be a hypocrite if I didn't say that at times Leinster have not hit their straps this year, but I do agree that with players coming and going on international duty and the retirement of some world class players then O'Connor's brief was never going to be easy.

The best view is always what the players think first, not what the media think, that is not saying that 'player power' should always win out in the decision-making process, it's just they are the people that need to respect and work with a coach every day.

After all Joe Schmidt was said by some in the media to have "lost the dressing room" after his first few months in charge of the Blues and look what happened there.


A week is a long time in sport and Leinster need to prove two things tonight - firstly that they are desperate to stay afloat in this competition, and secondly prove that the epic display against Toulon was not a one off.

It will be hard. Leinster played an exhausting 100 minutes last weekend and have only had a short turnaround to face a fresh Ulster side at home, but then again Leinster has proved they relish the challenge, they remain a big game, knockout team.

Leo Cullen's forwards more than held their own against Toulon, with the backrow, and big lock Devin Toner particularly impressive.

Leinster also proved in an area where they were traditionally weak for years ie the front row that they can now call on two complete international front rows, few teams in Europe can match that strength in depth.

Thankfully South African lock Bakkies Botha's cynical foul on Leinster prop Cian Healy does not see the Irish loose-head miss out.

Botha was so far offside when he landed on Healy's shoulder, he knew what he was doing and should have been yellow-carded, as should others in the Toulon pack.

Leinster's tight channels and set-piece game were very good against Toulon, but you felt that the slippery conditions favoured Leinster, especially early on when Toulon were trying to create too much too early and made a host of basic mistakes.

It probably helped that Steffon Armitage was not on the park at that stage, and that out-half Freddie Michalak was. Toulon on a dry day with a decent playmaker at 10 may have been a much different proposition.

Leinster flanker Seán O'Brien's head-to-head with Irish teammate Chris Henry will be intriguing, and a game within a game.

Henry is a different sort of player to O'Brien in that he is a more old-fashioned type of No 7, a nuisance at the breakdown, but more of a fetcher and link player.

Conversely O'Brien is the new mould of open-side flanker, the type of player who uses his immense strength over the ball in attack and defence and has the extra ability to crash and bash with ball in hand, two different styles of players but equally as effective.

No doubt Irish coach Schmidt will see huge advantages in carrying both types of flankers at the next World Cup, something that is crucial given that weather conditions in the Northern Hemisphere can change by the day, it allows Schmidt and Ireland two different ways of playing - 'horses for courses' game-plans.

Leinster flanker Seán O'Brien's head-to-head with Irish teammate Chris Henry will be intriguing,

and a game within a game.

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