herald

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Blues grind it out

Sexton and Van der Flier lead the charge

RELENTLESS: Josh van der Flier offloads during Leinster’s victory over Connacht on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
RELENTLESS: Josh van der Flier offloads during Leinster’s victory over Connacht on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile

It was just what the IRFU financial doctors would have ordered.

Leinster and Munster came away from the weekend feeling pretty good about themselves ahead of their annual showdown at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday evening (KO 6pm, eirsport).

There had already been 40,000 tickets sold before Saturday and there should be a nice bump in what they call the 'walk-up numbers' on the day of the game.

Leinster were grindingly good in wearing out Connacht for a dominant 20-3 victory that lacked only a bonus-point.

There was no one keener to take the fight to the Western Province than all-action Man of the Match Josh van der Flier.

The 25-year-old flanker was a tornado-force tackle machine in defence. He cranked up 23 of them and led the line with relentless, stamina-sapping intensity.

"There was a huge focus on defence," he said. When the Leinster selection was made by Leo Cullen, it was obvious there was still a hangover element from how they performed at the Sportsground last April.

There were just two starting survivors from that down day in wing James Lowe and number eight Jack Conan.

"We were a bit off in defence last year and that resulted in a loss," said Van der Flier.

"We knew we had to be at our best or close to our best."

And they were, at least in what they had to do without the ball.

Once again, the leadership value of Jonathan Sexton was copper-fastened by his total commitment to the collision. There were 13 tackles in a typically combative shift as Connacht understandably looked to run him into the ground.

There is a great deal more to come from Leinster's much-vaunted offence where numerous line-breaks and promising positions were wasted with turnovers.

The intuitive understanding between Lowe and Jordan Larmour was wasted somewhat by the fact they resided on the wings, often the width of the field apart.

When they are working in close proximity, there is a sense that something magical is about to happen.

It looks like Cullen and Stuart Lancaster are confident they will figure it out themselves.

It was the suffocating intensity and organisation of Leinster defence that really choked up Connacht.

The longer the home side held the ball, to edge the possession stakes (56 per cent to 44 per cent), the further that they were away from Leinster posts. They spent too much time reeling backwards in contact to come anyway close to the potency they showed against Scarlets.

"There were moments of that game where we certainly matched Leinster," said coach Andy Friend.

"But that's why they're a champion side. They can hold on and keep that consistency for 80 minutes and there's no let-up."

Connacht certainly weren't helped by a mediocre return of completing just 81 per cent of their tackles, leading to 28 missed.

This is the sort of lethal injection into Leinster's attack that they just couldn't survive.

Worse again, the Westerners gave away 15 penalties and deserved an idiotic, malicious red card for Dominic Robertson-McCoy's stamp to the head of star performer van der Flier.

"We're a developing side and we now know where we sit.

"We've the yardstick now of what makes a champion side."

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