Sunday 20 January 2019

Blues must get off to a positive start

THIS weekend, last season's Rabo Pro 12 champions Leinster welcome the Scarlets to the RDS tomorrow.

With this year's Guinness Pro 12 series also acting as a qualification ranking system for the European Rugby Champions Cup there is obviously more pressure on all the Irish sides to perform.

However, nothing much has changed in terms of seasonal planning. To be successful in this competition teams must look to win the majority of their home games early on in the season, and then attempt to grab points on the road, especially around Christmas when some of the lesser equipped provinces lose key players for international duty.

In that regard Leinster are perhaps luckier than most, given their success in recent years is as much to do with their strength in depth and rotational squad system as it is about a number of big name stars.


But already we can see that Leinster are going to find it very difficult without Brian O'Driscoll's dynamism, something the Blues got used to over the last decade and a half.

Having already suffered a pretty disappointing loss to Glasgow in the first game of the season, albeit away in a province where not too many teams will win, it was still a game Leinster could have just as easily won, especially after gaining back all the momentum in the second half.

Leinster boss Matt O'Connor will be grateful that he has the option of a few of his big name players to return notably Ian Madigan, Jamie Heaslip and second row Devin Toner.

Toner, in particular, had an impressive season last year, when the 'Human Tower' finally announced his arrival on the international scene as a quality second-row. Early in his career Toner may have been regarded as 'a work in progress' some scribes unsure if he had the aggression or overall skill-set to make it, but under Joe Schmidt, Toner has emerged as a second-row of real class.

Toner still needs to get his body position lower when attacking the fringes of opposition rucks and mauls both in attack and defence, but he has managed to improve that side of his game immensely, his mere bulk and body length allows him to cross the gain-line even if he just falls in the tackle correctly.

Again like with O'Driscoll in the backs, Leinster really need to find a suitable partner for Toner in the shape of a Leo Cullen, Nathan Hines or a Brad Thorn-type enforcer.

Madigan will offer some more dynamism in the back play, even if he starts in the centre, while Heaslip's inclusion will not only give Leinster some leadership, but also allow them to have a more balanced back row.

Seán O'Brien is a quality No 8, but he really needs to be able to just concentrate on one position this year, especially in a World Cup year.

Although Leinster will be disappointed with last weekend's opener, this competition has always proved one thing - it is a long season. Two losses in-a-row would be unheard of for the Blues and O'Connor will be anxious to put things right.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Leinster's overall play last week was the fact that they looked so out of sorts early on only to put themselves back in a position where they should have actually won.

The fact that Leinster had clawed themselves back when they looked dead and buried in the first half was testament to their strength in depth but they need to start more positively against the Scarlets.


So what of the Scarlets this year? To be honest the Llanelli-based side looked pretty good at times against Ulster, coughing up a 32-32 draw in a game they will view as one they should have definitely won.

The Welsh side looked fully in control early on, but Ulster staged an impressive comeback.

The Scarlets will know that they made the fatal flaw of losing two points in their opening game at home and will put some pressure on themselves to get something tangible from the RDS.

The Welsh side do have some dangerous playmakers, especially in Welsh outhalf Ryse Priestland and big, ball-carrying No 8 Rory Pitman, and a lot of Scarlets' game-plan revolves around these two key players, while in Kiwi journeyman Regan King they have an experienced and defensive organiser in their backline.

Leinster will have studied the large number of defensive holes in the Scarlets defence last week, and despite dominating possession the Welshmen did not use it well.

Leinster must improve their continuity play, lines of attack and dynamism. They must also start more positively; if they do they should register their first win of the season and allow everybody to breathe just a little easier.

Leinster need to find a suitable partner for Toner in the shape of a Leo Cullen, Nathan Hines or a Brad Thorn-type enforcer.

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