Friday 28 October 2016

Brent Pope: Sparkle will come back as long as wins keep coming for Leinster

Ian Madigan
Ian Madigan

It smacks of a bit of deja-vu, this season. The Leinster camp are once again saying that criticism of their team not scoring tries does not matter.

I can't blame them or their coach. After all they are still the only Irish side still fighting competitions on two fronts, in Europe and domestically.

But miss out on the top four of the Pro12 and then lose away in France to Toulon and the fans may just run out of patience.

The important thing to me as both an ex-player and coach is that Leinster are still winning. That is the reality and it is, as Ian Madigan correctly pointed out, all that matters.

But the reality is this. Not for the first time this season there was little if any real atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium last week. Maybe the Leinster supporters have been spoilt over the years. Maybe the expectation is too high after the loss of world stars such as O Driscoll, Sexton and Nacewa, or maybe injuries and unavailability of many of Leinster's key players means it is taking longer for them to gel.

But the natives are getting restless. Ian Madigan is dead right, it will hardly matter if Leinster doesn't score another try all season if they win all their remaining games and once again are crowned European Champions.

But without some five-pointers along the way that would be extremely difficult. Last week, Bath's ill-discipline and their inability to hold onto the ball (turning over possession to Leinster 18 times) cost them the game.

Leinster's discipline on the other hand was excellent and in fairness has been pretty good for most of the season. But just surviving on other teams' mistakes in front of goal won't always cut it.


Leinster have the ammunition, it's just a case of the execution. Players like Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and others are players that can light up the field with creativity and spark. All they need is to find that confidence and things can fall into place in one game.

In many regards, I feel for Leinster coach Matt O'Connor. All year he has had to face a team coming and going and the public expecting the type of performances that Ireland were putting in during the Six Nations.

But patience is key when building sides, and it will take a few weeks for the "marquee" Irish players to find their mojo in a Leinster shirt. Again, that could change in a heartbeat - hopefully this weekend.

Leinster's Kiwi centre, Ben Te'o, is no different from the hundreds of good rugby league converts that take a season or two to understand the complexities of the 15-man game.

Only Sonny Bill Williams in recent years has made the transition smoothly, and Williams had the distinct advantage of playing rugby union as a teenager.

Like Bath's "Slammin" Sam Burgess, Te'o will advance with every game, as he brings a rugby league offloading game. He just needs time and an injury-free run at it.

That does not mean I am just papering over the cracks, Leinster still need to find more space, especially in a modern game that has sadly become dominated by rush defences.

And if they kick as badly as they did at times against both Glasgow and Bath, then they need to make sure that they at least kick well and that they use their chasers to get the ball back.

mazy run

How many times last week did we see Bath and English fullback Anthony Watson hare upfield on a mazy run after he counter-attacked from loose Leinster kicks? He made the most yards and beat the most defenders from fullback - that tells a story.

Even with Watson in the sinbin and Bath struggling to plug the holes, there looked to be plenty of space in behind the Bath backline. But Leinster seemed a little unsure as to how to use it.

Sometimes, the secret of rugby is just to play what's in front of you first, not to be too structured. The space is always out there - the secret is to find it.

While the Dragons away is probably not the glamour fixture of the Leinster rugby calendar, it is a vital game for Leinster.

They still hover dangerously outside the top four in a competition they have always held close to their hearts and with tough matches to come against the likes of Ulster, (which in many ways could be an eight-pointer) Leinster simply must win.

It is also another match to gain that momentum, confidence and team sprit I talked about before the trip to Marseilles to take on the might of Toulon.

Watching the French heavyweights last weekend, it is clear to see that they are a star-studded side, but with serious chinks in their armour.

As they did in the pool stages of the European Cup and at times domestically, Toulon do not always play as well as the sum of their highly paid parts. Leinster will travel to France with what is in reality a full Irish international side, many of whom featured prominently in a Six Nations winning campaign.

Granted Toulon are a World XV, but some of their players are tagged as veterans now and probably travelled to France in the first place to stretch out international careers that were coming to an end.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going and the best way that Leinster can answer their critics is to keep winning. The rest will come.

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