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Sunday 22 October 2017

Blues have chance to pick up pieces

Ian Madigan
Ian Madigan

There appears to have been a lot of soul-searching in the Leinster rugby camp this week and in the minds of many of Leinster's disillusioned supporters.

In a tough week for all concerned, the media focused on Matt O'Connor's grim appraisal of Saturday's referee Ian Davies and his interpretation - or lack of - the ruck laws, while Jamie Heaslip publically exhorted his player to respond with some sort of backlash this weekend against Zebre.

Although no one will admit it, Leinster are somewhat fortunate that this week's opposition, despite some hometown grit over the past two matches, are still one of the lower ranked teams in the League. It may just gives Leinster some wriggle room.

The importance of winning was echoed by Munster coach Anthony Foley when he talked about the difference a week makes in terms of creating momentum and installing much-needed confidence in his side, something they were struggling to do with prior to last weekend's derby win.

Ironically, it is now Leinster who need a performance, especially with a new-look European Cup looming.

WOUNDED

Leinster's walking wounded list reads like a 'who's who' of international talent but their draw in the new European competition could have been much worse.

Their first opponents, Wasps, despite announcing big plans, are still languishing in the basement of the English Premiership, and Leinster will feel that they do not need to be at their absolute best to win their first couple of European games.

Leinster's injury crisis does not excuse their limp performance in the Aviva, where the visitors simply bullied the home side, especially at the contentious area of the game, the rucks.

Despite O'Connor's insistence that Davies did not police this area vigilantly enough, Munster still had the measure of Leinster, blowing past the ball and clearing out the rucks, led by talisman Paul O Connell.

From the first minute of the match Munster targeted Leinster's underbelly and attacked and defended close to the breakdown, a bit like Glasgow had done earlier in the season. Munster flooded more players to the breakdown and often drove Leinster off their own ball.

Every coach in Leinster's European pool will now see that as the way to beat the Dublin-based outfit, and Leinster can expect that every forward pack in their pool will be instructed to manhandle Leinster in the short areas of the game (it will start in Italy tomorrow).

A backline is only as good or as talented as the ball you give them, and at the moment Leinster's ruck ball is just too slow, allowing opposition defences added line speed and time to get their defence organised, exactly what Munster did last weekend.

Time after time, despite Leinster having a good share of the possession, they were constantly on the back foot. Munster either came up in a flat line or used nominated players to rush up and force Leinster infield.

It meant that far too often the Leinster backs simply crabbed across the field, going nowhere. At one stage Munster were so confident in their defence patterns that they left big Leinster winger Darragh Fanning unmarked some 15 metres away from the nearest defender. Munster simply backed the fact that they could slide across the field and easily nullify Leinster's attack.

The blowing out of rucks that had been pretty effective against Cardiff, led by Shane Jennings, was ineffective, and despite Dominic Ryan having a good game defensively, Jennings' experience at the breakdown area was missed, as was the ability of the likes of Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien to punch holes in the Munster fringe defence.

Sean Cronin was Leinster's only really productive ball-carrier, and when the livewire hooker was tackled Munster isolated him, camped all over the ball and denied Leinster' any continuity play.

Even last year the likes of O'Brien and Healy would have been on Cronin's shoulder to keep the play going. Leinsters support play, always a feature of their fast-paced game plan, just is not there at the moment and to compete in Europe against the bigger physical packs, Leinster need it back. They need more explosive players to stand up in the tackle, offload and take the play on, otherwise teams will just strangle Leinster the way Munster did.

positive

The positive news for the Blues is the arrival of a player who will hopefully help Leinster's need for a serious yard-gainer. Kiwi native and explosive Australian and Samoan rugby League star Ben Te'o. Te'o signed on the dotted line in August but his debut has been delayed due to his club's success in Australia.

Te'o, who at least played rugby union as a teenager, will bring a serious off-loading game to Leinster's threequarter line. He is also a physical and powerful defender.

O'Connor will hope that the powerful Kiwi will adapt to the Leinster centre fairly quickly. It is not a given - the rugby world is littered with big name league stars that could not make the transition.

It is early in the season and yes, Leinster will find Zebre tough, especially at home, but they must win and also deliver a quality amd confident performance to take into next week's home match: Leinster to win by 10.

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