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Sunday 11 December 2016

Fitz needs extended run as a centre of attention

Leinster and Ireland's Luke Fitzgerald
Leinster and Ireland's Luke Fitzgerald

Playing the likes of Toulon, Wasps and Bath in the European Challenge Cup over the next month is a pretty tough prospect for any new coach trying to hit the ground running.

And against this background Leo Cullen will surely welcome a tough duel this weekend against unbeaten Guinness Pro 12 leaders the Scarlet's. 

Cullen desperately needs assimilation time with his team just too fine tune his selections for Europe, especially given the limited preparation time that the former Leinster captain has had this season.

Admittedly most of the other teams can also claim RWC distractions during the last two months. Especially the star-studded French heavyweights Toulon, who lose most of their players to various overseas sides, while England's somewhat unexpected exit from the tournament at the pool stages has allowed both Bath and Wasps some extra lead-in time with their returning players, not that it seems to have helped, as both of Leinster's English opponents in Europe are currently languishing in the bottom half of the Premiership.

As the European Cup has always proved, it is vital that Leinster win all their home games and are still in the competition this side of Christmas. But first things first, and as the All Blacks proved in the World Cup, winning becomes a habit and that a winning mentality going into Europe is vital for Leinster - so that must start this weekend after a pretty mixed start to the year.

It is a chance for Cullen to roll out what he thinks is his strongest team for the first time this season, and another chance for the returning international players to reintroduce themselves into the systems of Leinster and Cullen as opposed to Joe Schmidt and Ireland

Strugglers

As one would expect Leinster, with the bones of a full international team, beat perennial strugglers Treviso to set up this weekend's mouth-watering prospect against the unbeaten Scarlets.

Cullen will be reasonably satisfied with last weekend's bonus-point win without getting carried away.

Especially in the first half when Treviso dominated large periods. But even with a lack of quality possession in the first 40 minutes and their chief playmaker Johnny Sexton in the sin- bin, it was Leinster who still dominated the scoreboard. And with all their internationals back in harness later in the game, Leinster eventually pulled away.

Tonight clash sees a different proposition for the home side, and the Scarlets are going from strength to strength under ex-Auckland Blues coach Wayne Pivac who unlike a lit of other coaches in the Welsh provinces, seems to be getting the best out of his charges especially flanker James Davies who continues to impress for them with a series of excellent performances that surely won't have gone unnoticed by Warren Gatland ahead of the 2016 Six Nations

The task for Cullen is to quickly mould this team into a European force again, and while on paper he has the players to do it, what he needs is an exciting and winning game-plan and a camaraderie within the team.

Some players will have serious points to prove to the national coach before the Six Nations, especially the likes of Fergus McFadden, Marty Moore, Luke Fitzgerald, Isaac Boss, Ryse Ruddock, Richardt Strauss, Jack McGrath, Tadgh Furlong and others who may feel that they may have been a bit underused over the past eight weeks, especially Fitzgerald, one of the standout performers for Ireland despite limited appearances.

The prospect of Fitzgerald being given a protracted period in one position ie the centre excites me. To me Fitzgerald has always had the makings of a good centre (although possibly at 13) despite playing the majority of his games for Leinster and Ireland on the wing.

The ex-Blackrock Schools star has bulked up in recent years and has the power game for the centre of the field. Despite a number of injuries Fitzgerald still has the ten-metres of dynamic speed that you need in that position, and with Ireland and Joe Schmidt, still searching for Brian O'Driscoll's natural replacement, then in my opinion it is worth investing in Fitzgerald for a permanent stay in one position rather than shifting him in and out of many. It will be interesting to see how he adapts.

Leinster to stop the Scarlet' winning run and send a European message to Wasps

Coaches can learn from Jones’ style

While Japanese coach Eddie Jones, just failed to be named as the 2015 IRB Coach of the Year, that accolade going to former Leinster man Michael Cheika, many pundits were in Jones' corner after his largely unheralded Japanese scored three wins in the World Cup, including a historic win against two-time RWC champions South Africa.

In many ways Jones and his team showed Northern Hemisphere coaches the way forward in terms of skill and appreciation of technique, especially in defence. When faced with opposition players that were significantly larger than they were (most sides are) Jones employed a chop-tackle philosophy at the breakdown.

It meant that the first Japanese defender cut the ball-carrier off as low as he could, and that allowed the second defender who was not involved in the initial tackle the chance to get on the ball quickly and affect the turnover.

It worked well as the Japanese managed to turn over a lot of South Africa's ball especially in the collision areas where most thought that they would struggle.

Unlike other more physical teams who use a more traditional defensive method, ie where two physically charged defenders often tackle one attacker, one up high and one down low to either knock the ball loose, or knock the player back, it not only means taking two players out of the game, but it also means that those two defending players have to roll away quickly when the ball carrier goes to ground.

Old fashioned

It also sends a message that less injuries would occur if the tackles were the old fashioned way ie around the boot laces. The problem is that this type of tackling does not prevent the offload which was in many ways the most significant factor in their World Cup.

It did show that with smart, outside the box thinking coaches can play to their strengths, one would assume that Leinster's new coach, Leo Cullen, would have been keeping an eye on the way the game is being played on the world stage and wondering what will work best for his team.

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