herald

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Leinster can still ensure crucial home tie

Leinster’s Ian Madigan is tackled by Paddy Jackson of Ulster during the Guinness PRO12 match at Kingspan Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile
Leinster’s Ian Madigan is tackled by Paddy Jackson of Ulster during the Guinness PRO12 match at Kingspan Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile

The last weekend of pool play in the Guinness Pro 12 competition couldn't be more significant for all the Irish provinces, with semi-finals yet to be decided, and European qualification spots still up for grabs.

At this stage, five does not go into four, with Glasgow, Leinster, Connacht, Ulster and Scarlets all playing for Top Four PRO12 semi-final spots and Munster needing at least two points just to compete at the top table of European rugby next year.

Defending champions Glasgow Warriors and Connacht are currently in first and second place respectively in the table, but of course they go head-to-head at the Galway Sportsground for one of the home play-offs spots, with the winner guaranteed to take it.

History dictates that down at the RDS at the same time, Leinster should win at home to lowly Benetton Treviso, grab a bonus point and that will allow Leinster to leapfrog one of those teams and grab a home semi-final themselves.

However, like Connacht last weekend, any complacency or lack of focus this weekend at the RDS could see a much different outcome. Treviso have been poor, but they are just one point ahead of Zebre for the single Italian European qualification place and will fight tooth and nail to get at least something from their visit to the RDS.

The Italian outfit showed plenty of spirit and composure in usurping the men from the west last weekend, albeit at home, with the visitors resting key players.

Leo Cullen should have his key players back in harness this week, but Leinster need to be more one-eyed and disciplined in their approach this weekend.

Perhaps this sense of security played into Leinster's performance against Ulster in Ravenhall last weekend. They knew they had the luxury of a get-out clause this weekend but that is dangerous thinking.

As a result, Leinster lost focus against an Ulster team who were simply more desperate to win. A penalty try that was dubious, given that Leinster still had some defensive cover and the ball was rushing quickly into a small penalty goal area. To me, it was doubtful that Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar would have managed to cover both and score, but it was definitely a yellow card.

Another followed in the second half when Luke Fitzgerald palmed a ball back illegally, and as a result of this ill-discipline, Leinster struggled.

Capable

Even then, it was still a game that you felt Leinster were well capable of winning. Their set piece in general was good, especially the scrum, it was just the foolish penalties and a lack of concentration that saw Ulster run out convincing enough winners, on the scoreboard at least.

Leinster know that they need a big performance this weekend, firstly to get the mistakes and defensive lapses out of the system, but more significantly to build on confidence and momentum.

It seems that too often in the last two seasons, just when Leinster get a bit of a run on they come unstuck (especially away from home) and have to start the winning process all over again.

Any coach worth his salt will tell you that winning - like losing - becomes a habit, and that you need to be firing on all cylinders towards the business end of a competition.

Luckily, Leinster's home record is very good and Treviso should - and I repeat should - give Leinster a chance to fine-tune their game plan for bigger challenges ahead.

Leinster's defence, which has been so tight all season under impressive defensive coach Kurt McQuilkan, wilted a bit last weekend and overall Ulster looked the more dangerous attacking unit with ball in hand.

Some slick passing in the Ulster backline coupled with with timely intros from the likes of fullback Jared Payne too often stretched Leinster and allowed the likes of Andrew Trimble plenty of space on the outside.

As always, Leinster scrambled well, but like in the last 20 minutes against Munster other teams will have seen where Leinster might now be vulnerable.

Johnny Sexton's game was as intelligent and accurate from a territorial point of view as ever. It just needed more precision in the finishing off. From an Irish point of view, watching Irish coach Joe Schmidt must have been impressed with the performance of Ulster out-half Paddy Jackson, who has developed well despite limited game time with Ireland in recent games.

With Ian Madigan struggling to show what he can do and leaving Ireland next season, Jackson is making serious strides.

Leinster will win and get the bonus point necessary to see them back in the RDS, and I have a gut feeling that Connacht may just hit back against Glasgow. That will leave a mouth-watering semi-final line-up.

Promoted articles

Entertainment News