Sunday 23 October 2016

Now is time to blood players

Josh van der Flier has been one of the finds of the season for Leinster (Sportsfile)
Josh van der Flier has been one of the finds of the season for Leinster (Sportsfile)

After the Euro 2016 football draw last Saturday, Martin O'Neil and the Irish team found themselves in what seemed the toughest of groups. Some of the gathered hacks described Ireland as a "game but limited" side. Unfortunately, the same terminology could be used to describe the state of Leinster rugby at the moment.

Last weekend in the Stade Mayol Leinster fought bravely, even when they were down to 14 men (three times in the game). Leinster's defence, as it has been for most of the season was admirable. Leinster defence coach Kurt McQuilkan has done a great job in terms of commitment and organisation without the ball.

But Leinster never really threatened Toulon on attack, apart from the odd sortie into Toulon's 22 that never really led to much. Leinster, as they did against Wasps, built plenty of phases with ball in hand, but the problem was that Toulon just marshalled them across the field, slowed the ball up and then eventually poached it.

The reigning champions were no great shakes either, and at this time of the year the French sides often go into that Christmas malaise, especially away from home. Ominously for Leinster you always felt that Toulon were in second gear, and when they had to, they upped their game as they did in the second half.

And despite only scoring two tries they always looked comfortable. The scoreline flattered Leinster and given the territory and possession, Toulon really should have scored more points, but that was testament to Leinsters resolute defence.

This week, Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip has been saying that Leinster are not out of Europe yet. Mathematically he is right, but in all reality Leinster are out. It would be a miracle to qualify given that for the first time ever, Leinster have lost three games in Europe on the bounce.

Wat Leinster need is a huge performance tomorrow against a team that don't travel particularly well. Toulouse proved last weekend away to Ulster, as Toulon did in their opening day capitulation to Wasps, that despite all their big signings French sides can be disinterested and unmotivated at times.

The French Top 14 almost always dictates that you win at home and then lose on the road. Over the years it subconsciously gets into the players mind-set and becomes habitual.

Tomorrow in the Aviva Leinster have a chance to really put it up to the three times European Champions. Most rugby people are looking rather pessimistically on the future of the game in this country both at provincial and international level.

They may be right. Leinster cannot attempt to compete with the playing numbers and budgets in the Anglo- French game, and the divide may just keep getting wider for a few years while the Irish game finds its level.

Leinster have not helped themselves in recent years with some less than impressive foreign signings. This week we heard that South African fullback Zane Kirchner has resigned for another two years on what one can assume is a fairly hefty contract.

Unsung heroes

Nothing against the Springbok, but Leinster have the likes of Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Garry Ringrose, Isa Nacewa, Fergus McFaddern and others that can fill that spot week in week out. One of last year's unsung heroes, Darragh Fanning, was a club player who only cost the club a pittance and had a fantastic season.

So why do Leinster keep spending money where they don't really need to? Successful Grenoble coach and ex Blues hooker Bernard Jackman has often called me over the years asking about different players in New Zealand or for contacts. He even spent months there learning his trade.

Jackman has his finger on the pulse of promising players, those just under the radar in the New Zealand or Pacific Island game, and has in recent years got some pretty good bargain basement purchases.

Sometimes it seems that the provinces - and Leinster are not alone in this - just contact an agent who throws a few CVs on the table and away they go, with little research apart from video reputation.

They should be asking if that player is a good fit for the team or not. I can tell you for a fact that there are plenty of fabulous players in the Australasian and Pacific Island game that could do a serious job for Leinster, it makes economic sense.

I can see no point in the likes of Garry Ringrose and others like him not being given more of a chance in Europe in what is already deemed by many a transitional phase.

This year's outstanding discovery has been a young flanker, Josh van der Flier. He has come through the Leinster academy system and prospered. Europe is more or less done and dusted, and while Leinster fans demand to see the best team available, now is the time to start the rebuild process. That means giving youth its head and also tailoring the types of overseas players that you need to build the province around.

This weekend Leinster have a real shot at winning, but they need to speed the play up with a quicker clear out of the Toulon poachers at ruck time, and then play at their own tempo.

Leinster's set play, especially the lineouts and their defence systems were good in France, and they just need to find the creative side now, essentially the training park plays that will open up the space. Not easy against a team with the experience of Toulon.

The visitors know that another loss for them probably puts them in a precarious position and Leinster might get a backlash, but my feeling is that Toulon are already looking under their Christmas trees a little early and Leinster will run them seriously close.

My heart is with the Blues my head with Toulon. Toulon but only by a smidgeon?

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