Friday 21 October 2016

Brent Pope: Blues must be quicker out of the blocks if the want to avoid early exit to Bath

Leinster's Sean O'Brien arrives for squad training. St Gerard's School, Bray, Co. Wicklow.
Leinster's Sean O'Brien arrives for squad training. St Gerard's School, Bray, Co. Wicklow.

WHILE Leinster probably start this game as slight favourites based mainly on who they have coming back and given they are at home, it is the visiting side Bath, that has the better run in.

Bath currently sit a respectable third in the Aviva Premiership and the west country side have had a couple of timely wins to bolster their momentum and confidence for this knockout European match.

Conversely Leinster's recent form has been spasmodic to say the least.

Having slipped outside the top four in the Pro 12, and having won just one match from their last five league outings hopefully Leinster will know that they have a history of pulling out big performances in big matches. Fingers crossed.

Leinster do hold a healthy lead in the head-to-head games between the two European heavyweights over the years, but that record will count for nothing against an ambitious English club determined to return to the halcyon days of the 1990s.

Both teams will welcome back a host of internationals, but it is Leinster who perhaps have the greater experience to call on, especially up front in the crucial area of the tight five, where the likes of experienced internationals Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Devin Toner should give them an edge in the set-piece game.

Leinster will need to hammer home that advantage in the tight channels, because whatever back-row Bath decide on they have world-class options in players like ex-Springbok, Francois Louw, Wallaby Leroy Houston, and Samoan Sevens star Alafoti Faosilva to call upon.

A Southern Hemisphere-born loose forward trio that will cause Leinster major problems at the breakdowns and in the loose if allowed to play, especially Louw, who is already renowned as one of the most abrasive ball-carriers in the English club game.

Bath will also arrive with a particularly physical backline and despite a slow transition to the 15-man game, rugby league convert Sam Burgess still carries a pretty impressive frame, as does his other English team-mates Anthony Watson, Kyle Eastmond, Fijian born winger Semesa Rokoduguni and the most impressive English back in the Six Nations, Jonathon Joseph.

Last weekend in the RDS against Glasgow, for the first half we saw just how difficult it is to assimilate international players straight back into the domestic game, especially after such a protracted period away, and it's even more difficult when they have been basking in major success elsewhere.

For the first half and not for the first time this season, Leinster looked out of sorts, especially in their kicking game, kick-chase and defensive organisation. Far too many times the Leinster kicks out of hand were too long, too loose or straight to the opposition players rather than to space.

The kick-chasers were ineffective at either putting the opposition under serious pressure in the air, or at least giving themselves a decent chance to win the ball back.

Defensively the Leinster backs shot up out of line or sat back flat on their heels and as a result Glasgow bounced to a handy but well deserved lead.

Whatever Leinster coach Matt O'Connor said at the break appeared to work wonders, and in the second half Leinster were a completely different unit, a side that at least looked capable of beating Bath, but not if they give tomorrow's visitors a similar start.

Leinster simply needs to start games better, all season we have seen them struggle with an early game malaise until they eventually find their dynamism.


Yes, they have been good enough on paper or via individual flair to turn games around, but sooner or later that slow start will come back to haunt them.

Bath emerged from a tough European group with a series of late results, but they still look the one team in all the quarter-final match-ups that could actually pull off an away win.

Their 'Sugar Daddy' has invested millions in player recruitment, facilities, coaches and structures and is determined to drive Bath back to being the club that once dominated the English and European game.

The key to success for both sides is how the relative 9-10, 12-13 channels perform, both in attack and defence.

Bath has a game-breaker in English out-half George Ford, and his relationship with his scrum-half will be vital.

We might expect the experienced Peter Stringer to come off the bench at some stage, but it is usually for Stringer's superior passing skills late on when the game frees up.

In many ways the structures or team patterns may simply go out the window for both sides, meaning that a lot of the international players simply have not had enough time to re-adjust to their respective teams ways of playing. At times they will just have to play what's in front of them.

Over the last two months the Leinster players in the Irish team have learned to play with complete confidence and hold the winning picture, and that together with the added experience and dynamism that the likes of Seán O'Brien provides should be just about be enough to see them home.

Leinster need to start well and play the territory game first, keeping things reasonably structured and tight if need be.

If Leinster kick loosely then it is just playing into Bath's hands, they want a loose game.

Leinster should have a slightly better lineout than Bath so they should kick early to gain and retain possession, build the phases patiently and take the chances that present in the opposition 22.

If Leinster's big guns fire, as they often do at this stage of the competition, then O'Connor's men will win by a whisker.



If Leinster's big guns fire, as they often do at this stage of the competition, then O'Connor's men will win by a whisker.

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