Wednesday 17 January 2018

Brent Pope: Time for Blues to tear up their playbook

Leinster's Sean O'Brien
Leinster's Sean O'Brien

LEINSTER will need to produce their best performance of recent years against Toulon on Sunday if they are to continue on with any meaningful rugby this year.


On recent form it’s hard to see where they will pull the win from. It’s always achievable given their considerable talent on paper at least - but they need to start playing positively.

Two weeks ago in the World Cup Cricket Final, New Zealand’s Brendan McCullum was criticised in some quarters for irresponsibly throwing his wicket away as he sought to attack the Australian bowlers from the very first ball.

McCullum who had been one of the main reasons that New Zealand even made it that far, summed it up by saying: “that he always approached every ball the same, to attack it, to go after it and that he was here to play”.

It did not work this time, but McCullum’s approach was refreshing.

This weekend Leinster need to attack Toulon and tear up both the formbook and the playbook at the same time because that is what it will take to win.

Penalties, kicking and defence will not win Sunday’s match; bravery and a willingness to step out of their comfort zone might. Two games will now define Leinster’s season, a potential win against European heavyweights Toulon and then another performance in the final, but it will require a complete transformation in form, and an eradication of Leinster’s present malaise.

To win in France former European Champions Leinster must, in my opinion, abandon any real discernible game-plan, and hope that they can just play well as individuals first and then gel together as a unit.

The main question is do they have the time?

While Toulon rested a couple of their marquee stars for last weekend’s fixture against Grenoble, for some strange reason Leinster’s coach Matt O’Connor rested almost all his starting team.

Surely when you are trying to build momentum, confidence and team spirit then you select your best team? And at least try and register a moral victory the week before a big match and at least go into battle knowing you have some confidence momentum. Instead Leinster will hope they can pull everything together in a few training sessions.

Last week in Wales Leinster’s largely second string team, started well, but again eventually capitulated after a litany of bad decision-making, rash and ineffectual tackling and bad adherence to the basics of the game.

Leinster looked to be cruising to a win, and in fairness young Leinster players such as Ben Marshall and No 8 Jack Conan where at least putting their hands up, while Kiwi rugby league signing Ben Te’o was having his most productive game since he arrived in Dublin.

But then it all horribly wrong, the Dragons fought back, breaking Leinster’s porous defence especially around the fringes, and when Te’o was yellow carded for a silly shoulder charge, and winger Darragh Fanning knocked on, the Dragons celebrated two defeats against last year’s Pro 12 champions.

Apart from the likes of Rob Kearney I can’t accept that the other Irish players needed to be rested, who in particular needed the rest?

Irish and Leinster game-breakers Seán O’Brien, Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin Reddan and even Jamie Heaslip did not play all the matches for Ireland, some only played a couple and in my opinion could have done with an extra lead-up match for Leinster, especially when they are coming back into a team with new patterns of play and personal.

Leinster’s performance against the Dragons was in many ways a reflection of their play this season in that they have either not started well and then struggled, or conversely started positively but then failed to kick on.

Their season has been spasmodic, marred with some pretty average performances and defence. But Leinster have always been a big game team, and this weekend it does not get any bigger.

It’s still hard to fathom where Leinster’s giant-killing win will come from. Especially away in France and with pedantic English referee Wayne Barnes in charge.

Barnes may yet prove to be Leinster’s unlikely saviour, given Toulon’s poor set-piece game. Toulon have weaknesses, they have one of the worst lineouts in the French Top 14 and at times their scrum has creaked in the absence of world class front-rowers.

Granted they are a World XV on paper, but a lot of their key players are now a lot older, the secret for a Leinster success, as Grenoble showed last week and Wasps in part, was to retain the ball through the phases when Toulon are very vulnerable.

In fact last week three of Grenoble tries came after they had retained and recycled the ball for more than 10 phases.  Move the ball to the wider channels as quickly as you can, and get the likes of Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney into the game early.

Kearney, like Anthony Watson for Bath, should be instructed to leave the kicking game in Dublin and be encouraged to counter-attack from deep as he did so powerfully a few years ago.

Ex-Leinster forwards coach Jono Gibbs hails from the best breakdown school of rugby in the world, New Zealand, and by all accounts Gibbs’ work with Leinster in this area was excellent, something that he has now taken to Clermont. Leinster’s breakdown and collision work has not been as effective since Gibbs’ departure, but the players have the skills.

Leinster need quick ruck ball, they need to clean out more effectively, combat Toulon’s physicality in the loose, and then have a cut off Toulon’s lineout.

On his day O’Brien is world class, he has an ability, like his Toulon counterpart Steffon Armitage,  to get his low slung yet powerful body over the loose ball and this must be his priority for the Blues.

Leinster’s back-row must win the race to the breakdown, and then attempt to slow the ball down for Toulon while at the same time speeding it up for Leinster.

In the backline Leinster need to play much flatter and attack closer to the gain-line. Last week in Wales and previously against Bath, we saw plenty of Leinster’s attack, and it looked promising at times, but it was all done far too deep, all orchestrated far too many yards behind the gain-line and always telegraphed.

When the moves are deep it is easy just for opposition defences just to rush up and then slide the attacking side across the park. Why not risk the small dink in behind? Why not risk acute angles of attack? Why not risk looparounds and decoy runners? 

Leinster must risk looking for space, simple around the corner or one-out forward plays just won’t cut it in a knockout semi-final, so they must bring something Toulon are not expecting. 

A betting man will find it hard to see where Leinster’s victory will come from, but winning rugby is like anything in life, you have to think like a winner then act like one.

Leinster still has that one big game in them this year, when the going gets tough....

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