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Monday 11 December 2017

Brent Pope: Time for Blues to show their teeth

Ian Madigan in action for leinster
Ian Madigan in action for leinster

Despite a poor performance last weekend in Italy, the odds are still very much stacked in Leinster's favour for this tomorrow's clash with table-toppers the Ospreys.

Leinster have won their last 17 matches in the RDS since a 29-all draw with this week's opposition back in 2012, but they will need to significantly improve their attitude and form to beat an Ospreys team determined to bounce back after their first defeat of the Pro 12 season to Ulster last week.

Leinster were fully expected to take all the points on offer against a Benetton Treviso team already missing key players and yet to register a single win in this competition, but perhaps that was where the problem started?

LACKLUSTRE

Leinster coach Matt O'Connor has already stated that he was disappointed in his team's lacklustre showing, especially in the second-half when the visitors struggled to get any type of positive foothold in the Italians' half.

Things were not helped on match day with the late withdrawal of international Luke Fitzgerald who was due to press his claims as an international No 13.

Fitzgerald's wretched luck continues with a recurrence of a groin strain that has plagued his progress this season, it was another cruel twist of fate for a player once ear-marked for greatness when he first burst onto the scene as a teenage Lions player.

Further blows for Leinster came with the injuries to hooker Richardt Strauss and experienced flanker Kevin McLaughlin.

But despite losing three players of such stature, it merely wallpapered over the cracks in a Leinster side still struggling to find any real consistency or form.

Some of the Italians' scores, especially those from Andrea Pratichetti and Dean Budd exposed a seriously soft centre in Leinster's defensive pattern, with Leinster players backing off tackles and making the most basic errors. They will have to raise their game a notch or two for the visit of the Ospreys.

Despite the injury hiccups O'Connor must have still felt that his new breed of Leinster men would have had enough in the tank for a make-shift looking Benetton side.

Perhaps the day started off too easily for them when big Leinster winger Darragh Fanning coasted over for a try against a team low on confidence and not having tasted any sort of victory since April.

From that early try until the concluding minutes of play when Leinster tried to salvage an unlikely victory via an off target Jimmy Copperth dropkick Leinster struggled.

Leinster's spasmodic record of just four wins and three defeats before this game showed that unlike in other years when the Leinster players not involved with the Irish teams often took their chances to nail down a first team slot, this team is currently one that relies too heavily on its key players - they were simply not consistent or hungry enough.

Excuses are wearing thin. Leinster still had a rake of Irish internationals to call on last weekend as well as two highly paid and experienced Wallaby and Springbok internationals.

You would have felt that Leinster should still have dominated this match. They didn't, in fact the day belonged to the brave Italian side who had little more than pride to play for, but in the end were a little unfortunate just to draw, especially when you consider that Leinster hardly seemed to get into the Benetton half in the second spell, and one of Leinster's tries, a charge down by promising young hooker Bryan Byrne was in many ways fortuitous and very much against the run of play.

Leinster are still lacking cohesion, and despite winning games we are yet to see a definite pattern of play that indicates the style of play that O'Connor is trying to implement.

It seems that this team is relying too much on moments of individual brilliance to provide the inspiration, rather than the glue of a collective, consistent effort. Yes, we are often told this is a team in transition, but in reality with so many players pulled out for international duty all teams are. In reality Leinster has greater strength in depth than most teams in this competition.

They have more experience than most teams in this competition, and they have also spent large amounts of money trying to buy in key signings to plug the gaps.

One of Treviso's tries was particularly alarming, especially for O'Connor. After a disrupted Leinster scrum, not for the first time in the match, Benetton flanker Budd ran almost unchecked over the Leinster line.

COMMUNICATION

Despite a feed against the head (which is hard to defend) defence is still all about communication, if you have lost the ball then let someone know so that heads are not simply left buried in the scrum.

O'Connor had a right to be livid, in many ways it showed just where this team was mentally last weekend - still on the plane. Depending on the fitness of his returning players, O'Connor must introduce some much needed tenacity into his team, before the all-important back-to-back Champions Cup fixtures against Harlequins in a couple of weeks' time, and his first selection if available, must be Ian Madigan at outhalf.

Madigan is sadly becoming Mr Versatility and he must get some game-time in his preferred position at No 10, if not now then when?

But it is teamwork that is most needed this weekend, a journey back to the ideals of playing for your jersey, guts and glory. It needs to start at the RDS tomorrow, a message must be sent out that Leinster mean business.

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