Pope: Heaslip sets tone for Blues brigade
LEINSTER coach Matt O'Connor will be delighted with his European Champions Cup return of two wins out of two.
With the Guinness International Series lurking just around the corner, and two crucial back-to-back European matches against Harlequins in December, tonight's Pro 12 match against Edinburgh is the perfect chance for O'Connor to look at some of his other fringe players.
It is one of the oldest clichés in rugby to say "that a good team is one that can still play ugly and win" and Leinster has shown that over the past two weeks, despite being far from perfect, they still have a European habit of knowing how and when to strike.
At times it has not been pretty, in fact it has been pretty darn ugly, but Leinster have the control of their pool in their own hands now, and can only get better with some tinkering in problem areas, and of course the hopeful return of some key personnel from injury.
Any team that loses the likes of Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll in one season, and has a list of walking wounded that would flatter any international side but keep winning, is doing remarkably well.
So how is the Leinster report card looking after two Champions Cup games? Some players, namely captain Jamie Heaslip has excelled, while others such as Seán Cronin, Dominic Ryan, Ian Madigan, Daragh Fanning and Devin Toner are not far behind him.
In the backs Eoin Reddan made a significant difference when he came off the bench last week in Castres, and it was a good tactical decision by O'Connor to start with the more muscular play of Isaac Boss as Leinster eventually wore the less well conditioned French team down in the latter stages.
While Madigan looks a serious option at No 12 even possibly No 13 for Ireland in a World Cup season. Over the years when I felt it was justified, I have criticised the play of Heaslip. I felt that at times he was guilty of picking games he wanted to perform in. On the recent Lions Tour to Australia I even felt that Heaslip was somewhat fortunate to tour at that stage, only really making it at last minute following some huge performances for Leinster near the tail end of the season.
In fact in Warren Gatland's mind at least Heaslip probably went on tour as the second choice No 8 behind Toby Faletau, and had England's Olly Morgan been fit at that stage then Heaslip may not even have made it.
But as he always does, Heaslip responded well, and ended up as the in-form No 8 on that tour.
Heaslip has that type of talent and ability, in the last two weeks he has led from the front, both as a captain for his younger players to follow and as a talismanic individual player.
He is not the biggest player out there in terms of raw physical power, but his intelligence and ability to draw two defenders to him is immense.
Like All Black No 8 Kieran Read, Heaslip uses the ball and utilises his game intelligence rather than just rely on muscle. He carries with such a great body position that it allows him as a smaller man to get a little wider at ruck time and also more significantly over the gain line.
When Seán O'Brien returns, and with Heaslip in this sort of form then Leinster and Ireland have as good a back row as any team in the world. High praise indeed coming from a Kiwi!
But more than just his play with the ball, it has been Heaslip's on and off the field leadership skills that have impressed me the most this season. He has become the ideal captain.
Not all is rosy in the Leinster camp however, and they will know it.
Leinster still have a lot of areas to work on starting tonight against Edinburgh, a team that sits two spots behind them in the league.
Leinster are still guilty of letting teams into the game far too early, something that questions Leinster's early game focus.
As I said earlier they will not always be able to claw back teams as they managed to do against Castres and Wasps, just look at when they lost to Connaught in Galway, a game they really should have won if they had just taken the many try scoring chances they were afforded in the second half.
So Leinster need more of a return on investment when they have a team under pressure.
Good teams will always score and then decide that when a team is vulnerable go all out to score again immediately - continue to test the mental strength of the opposition when they are down, Leinster still play in fits and starts.
Last week Leinster dominated for almost all the first half in terms of both possession and territory, and while Castres were making twice as many tackles Leinster did not execute the killer blow until the latter stages of the game.
Leinster must play more to their strengths and that means setting up multiple phase play by using their key ball-carriers like Cronin, Heaslip, Ryan, and Jack McGrath and eliminating turnovers.
Four out of five of Leinster's first half raids into Castres 22 last week resulted in soft turnovers against a team that was retreating.
It has been no surprise that in the last two games that when Leinster have been able to get the likes of Eoin Reddan, Heaslip and Cronin running into space they are finding serious holes in and around the opposition rucks as other teams tire.
Leinster's best game-plan relies on quick ruck ball, effective and aggressive clean-outs, speeding up the tempo of play, pick and go at speed and focused long-term ball retention. We have only seen it in spurts, we need to see it for longer periods.