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Friday 20 October 2017

Leinster have to pick up pieces after shock loss

Captain Nacewa is a doubt for Munster and Champions Cup with a calf strain

Leinster players during the Guinness PRO14 match against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster players during the Guinness PRO14 match against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. Photo: Sportsfile

Fickle enough business this rugby. One week you are looking at the bright side of life; the next the view is darker than dirt.

What the Scarlets showed last season and the Cheetahs on 'Friday fright night' is that Leinster's vaunted defence can be awesome against ordinary attacking teams and can be awful against superior attacking systems.

Despite all the hullabaloo about the South Africans being duds in the PRO14 League, the Cheetahs are sitting pretty in third place in Conference A.

They are above the champions of two seasons back, Connacht, and Welsh powerhouse the Ospreys.

Don't forget, the Cheetahs were decimated by the departure of their best men and given a matter of weeks to come together for the PRO14 League.

In comparison, coach Leo Cullen put out a team at Toyota Stadium that had a full pre-season and contained nine Ireland internationals and Isa Nacewa.

The significance of the loss of captain Nacewa to a 16th minute calf strain should be revealed sometime today from the results of a scan.

Jeopardy

He will not be there to play Edinburgh next Friday night and Munster a t The Aviva. The opening two rounds of the Champions Cup could also be in jeopardy.

In an overall context, the way The Cheetahs physically blew Leinster away in Bloemfontein shines a light closer to home.

Sure, Leinster have an Academy in place that produces regular internationals and those with the potential to get there.

Rory O'Loughlin of Leinster in action during the Guinness PRO14 Round 4 match between Cheetahs and Leinster at Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein.
Rory O'Loughlin of Leinster in action during the Guinness PRO14 Round 4 match between Cheetahs and Leinster at Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein.

But how many of them will reach their potential as long as they sit in a Blue queue?

No 8 Max Deegan, the 2016 U20 World Player of the Year, will have to wait his turn behind Jack Conan and Jamie Heaslip, when the latter returns.

Heaslip has been unable to give a solid date for his comeback, a most worrying sign for Ireland's bionic ma n.

Anyway, imagine the patience needed by any self-respecting back row forward, like the superior 19-year-old Caelan Doris, who was flown out as cover to Bloemfontein last week.

There are seven Ireland back row internationals ahead of Doris on the Leinster roster, without even taking Deegan into account.

At least, Connacht's Cian Kelleher, Munster's Conor Oliver and Andrew Conway, Ulster's John Cooney and Nick Timoney will find out where they can go in the game because they will play.

The beauty of this is, if they are good enough, they can always come home.

On mature reflection, there were many men that looked physically out of their depth last Friday.

Don't forget, these are the nights on which impressions are made for what is about to unfurl in The Champions Cup in less than three weeks.

Leinster missed 31 tackles against Southern Kings, which would have ensured complete concentration on that area for the Cheetahs.

What happened from Saturday to Friday? They improved by just four to fail in the tackle 27 times on Friday night for a bewildering total of 58 in two matches.

Noel Reid, Ross Byrne, Mick Kearney and even the normally rock solid Josh van der Flier all missed three tackles, according ESPN player statistics.

This does not account for the volume of dominant carries made by The Cheetahs. It was a clear case of men against boys.

"We knew The Cheetahs would come hard," relayed coach Leo Cullen.

"Allowing them to build that lead, we made life more difficult for ourselves.

"We just didn't manage the ball particularly well.

"We left ourselves with way too much to do," he conceded.

Luckily, there is little or no time to dwell on what happened as Cullen's old friend Richard Cockerill will be at The RDS this Friday night.

"We need to turn the page quite quickly. It is the nature of the League," he said.

"Again, we've a very disjointed week. Edinburgh will be gunning for a win, no doubt, knowing Cockers as I do."

Stuart Lancaster returned to Dublin last Wednesday to take training on Thursday and Friday.

It is likely there will be a host of changes for Edinburgh given the physical toll taken on those in South Africa.

Lastly, it has been said that the Cheetahs' second victory is good for the PRO14.

It could even be good for Leinster, as long as they turn the negatives into positives, especially in the month to come.

If they can't, Europe could already be all but out of reach after two rounds. There is nothing to focus the mind like failure.

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