Saturday 25 November 2017

Cullen will need all hands on deck for Bath clash

Leinster coach Leo Cullen
Leinster coach Leo Cullen

In sport excuses are useful in temporarily papering over the cracks, but they won't change the facts. While Leinster can call on plenty of extenuating circumstances for last week's defeat against Wasps - such as limited time together, a new coaching team and plenty of injuries - the fact of the matter remains that Leinster is at last chance saloon's door already.

Years ago as I was leaving a rugby match in Lansdowne Road, I happened to leave the ground behind a team that had conceded a last minute try to go 20 points down. Their coach calmly told his players "Not to panic."

I laughed and said to one of the players as I passed him by, "Actually I think it's time you did panic" to which he smiled and nodded in agreement.

Of course teams have lost their opening home games in this tournament and recovered to qualify, but in a group of death that contains Wasps, Toulon and last year's Aviva Premiership runners-up Bath, another Leinster loss without a bonus point would realistically see the guillotine fall on Leinster's 2016 European ambitions, after just two weeks.

The All Blacks always made a pact, that they might lose a single game, but that they would never lose two in a row, and while I accept Leinster are not the All Blacks, they do have to adopt the same philosophy and approach to this game as if it is knockout rugby, because really it is.

Out-half Johnny Sexton, himself well below his best last week, has called for "a Leinster reaction" but one feels at this level of the game it will take more than just a bit of fizz to get things back on track?

New coach Leo Cullen has lifted the European Cup as a captain more times than any other in this competition, and he is a well-respected and affable rugby man and honest in his own admittance at the start of the season that he was a little shocked to be given the role. Last weekend he must have thought: "this is a fine mess I've got myself into?"

But win or lose this weekend, Cullen must be allowed to bed in and as a reference point he only needs to look back to his early years under Joe Schmidt to know that even Ireland's coach also did not have an easy start with Leinster? In fact Schmidt's fifew games with Leinster all resulted in losses that prompted one rugby pundit to famously say that Leinster's eventual double Heineken winning coach "had lost the dressing room and had to be replaced."

Against Bath some of the senior players, many of whom have been around the Leinster team almost as long as Cullen, must step up. He has had to deal with almost all his squad being away on point duty with Ireland but that was to be expected.

World Cup woe

In fact he probably got many of those players back a week earlier than most of us thought, but the returning Irish players struggled to perform last week, and that was excusable, often it is hard to adjust to different game-plans and to new players around you, it is also often difficult to just banish memories of a disappointing World Cup exit, but they're are professionals and must put that behind them.

Leinster's backline was cobbled together last week, and while players like Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney are experienced the combinations did not have enough time to gel.

Injuries to key players like Ben Te'o and Isa Nacewa who have been running the cutter, while the Irish players were in the UK changed the way that Leinster attacked and defended.

Fingers crossed more of Leinster's regular players start this week.

The problems for the Blues began up front. Their scrum was marched back on almost every put in, and more concerning was after Seán O'Brien's untimely exit was a lack of alternative gain line ball carriers?

It has been a problem for Leinster for the past two seasons and in this regard their recruitment drive should have included another Rocky Elson, Brad Thorn type of purchase. Granted these players don't grow on trees but if you look at all the outstanding performers in the last world cup they were all ball carrying loose forwards.

If they looked hard enough I am sure there are plenty of powerfully built Polynesian wrecking machines playing lower level rugby in New Zealand that could have been enticed to one of Europe's elite provinces.

Just look at Wasps, they managed to get a young ball carrier like Nathan Hughes, a 6ft 5 inch, 125kg player recruited from the Auckland ranks?

Games are so tight defensively nowadays that the prerequisite has to be getting over the gain line first then laying the ball back effectively so that the scrum-half and his backline moves onto the ball. Teams have worked Leinster out, slow ruck balls means no penetration elsewhere?

Last weekend they were proactive in setting up multiple phases but after that Wasps just committed one or two players to each ruck and let Leinster huff and puff across the field. Not one player opted for the pick and go drive, apart from maybe O'Brien? Wasps on the other hand used their ball carriers well, positioning players like Hughes and second row Joe Launchbury in places where they were most effective.

The secret to a winning game-plan is to identify who your power players are and put them into positions to break the opposition open. Can Leinster get their season back on track? Of course they have been in worse corners but it requires more key players to be available to Cullen this week.

Based on last week alone Leinster would not beat Bath, but like the All Blacks, Leinster must decide collectively to not to lose two games in a row and scrape one back.

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