Thursday 27 October 2016

Brent Pope: Leinster heart holds the key

Leinster’s Ross Molony wins a lineout in last weekend’s European Champions Cup victory over Bath at the RDS Arena, Ballsbridge Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster’s Ross Molony wins a lineout in last weekend’s European Champions Cup victory over Bath at the RDS Arena, Ballsbridge Photo: Sportsfile

Leinster travel to the Ricoh Arena tomorrow (3.15) looking to show just how far they have progressed since their 33-6 home defeat in November that nearly derailed their whole season.

Leinster will find it tough because with Wasps desperately trying to qualify for the knockout stages, and Leinster with only pride to play for, you would have to fancy the home side.

However, Leinster is in a purple patch at the moment, and with confidence, momentum and nothing to lose it makes them a very dangerous adversary for the Londoners who will be decidedly more nervous than they were after their easy win in the RDS.

Since being forced to forget about the European Champions Cup for this season at least, Leinster have gone from strength to strength. Each step has moved them a little further along the healing process, and a positive way to approach the second half of the season.

After the premature departure from a competition that Leinster have always embraced, Leinster coach Leo Cullen suddenly had to refocus, set himself and his team new season goals and set about rebuilding both his team's and supporters' confidence.

His first focus was obviously on the Pro 12 and with it the local derbies in and around Christmas, then it was to win away against the Ospreys in Wales before revisiting and putting to bed their 2015 European form with an impressive home win in the European Cup against Bath.

This weekend a similar win, albeit away to Wasps in the Ricoh Arena, would represent a huge turnaround in form since their opening loss to the same side in the first game of the 2015/16 European campaign.


All any coach can ask for is that his players give him 100 per cent, and despite a nervous and possibly premature start to his coaching career Cullen has managed to extract Man of the Match performances this season from several of his young charges, with the likes of Josh van de Flier, Garry Ringrose, James Tracy and Ross Molony all more than rewarding their coache's faith in them.

In fact what a year it has been for the relatively unheard of Van de Flier, this week announced in Joe Schmidt's larger Irish training squad.

With Chris Henry due to return at some stage and the returning Tommy O'Donnell back it's hard to see if the young Leinster No 7 will see any International game-time but it is proof to every young academy player that if you work hard enough and believe in your ability then coaches like Cullen and Schmidt will give you an opportunity to prove yourself.

With nothing but pride to play for last weekend against Bath, Cullen impressed as a forward-thinking coach by promoting some of his fringe players, thus allowing them the chance to show what they can do at a level higher of the game.

Last week's game was a little disjointed for large parts of the match, not helped by Baths ill-discipline but when the game did eventually spring into life Leinster's young guns looked well worth their win.

Leinster's upward trajectory in 2016 needs to continue this weekend against Wasps, simply because more than any game this season Leinster want to avenge, it is this one.

Leinster's failure to grab even a losing bonus point in the RDS always meant that in such a tough group it was always going to be an upward battle just to bounce back and the team faced a mini crisis.

At that stage Cullen also had to try and assimilate disappointed Irish squad members back into the provincial game, and that combined with some unfortunate injuries and retirements made it hard to start the new season off in an overly-positive fashion

Having said that the manner of the Wasps defeat hurt, and for a lot of gloom merchants one game spelt the end of Irish rugby.


Leinster now have a perfect opportunity to just show how far they have come in a short period. It will be a real test however, especially given that Wasps still have something tangible to play for and Leinster don't, but one senses that the hosts are not in the same sort of formidable attacking form they were before Christmas.

Wasps were denied a historic away win in Toulon last week after the reigning champions again rallied in the last quarter to win 15-11, but it was a victory more based on defence rather than attack, and they did not impress me as the same confident side that whipped all before them prior to Christmas.

Leinster's Ben Teo will relish taking on his fellow Kiwis in Wasps Jimmy Gopperth, Frank Hali and Charles Piutau, but like last week the game will be won or lost up front.

Wasps big No 8 Guy Thompson remains a danger man for the Blues, and again he was one of the weekend's star performers, not only scoring an individual try in the south of France, but more significantly led the way in his number of hard yards gained.

He will have to be marshalled by Leinster's potent back-row. It's not rocket science to suggest that Leinster keeps the bouncing ball away from the likes of Piutau, and Johnny Sexton knows this, but again it will be dictated by if Leinster can dominate, the set-plays and negate the likes of Thompson and George Smith over the ball.

Selection-wise Cullen must continue the development of his Leinster team by again mixing experience with the exuberance of youth.

The newer players to the squad need to perform consistently in an effort to gain the respect of the more experienced players, that way all the players are kept honest with no one player feels that their position is certain.

In some positions Cullen has a luxury of choices or selection dilemmas, especially the back-row.

Another serious option has been added in the engine room with the outstanding performance last week of new second row, and deserved Man of the Match, Ross Molony.

Cullen and Schmidt will be delighted that another second-row has suddenly emerged in an area that was starting to look thin both at provincial and national level.

You would have to think that Wasps desire to stay alive in this competition will give them the edge, but if Leinster continue to show that heart plays a huge part in sport then it will be a close call.

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