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Monday 18 December 2017

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WHEN Rob Kearney is fit to line out for Leinster, Ian Madigan must come back into the centre.

Last weekend Leinster gave the Wasp's backline far too much space, the result a couple of softish tries that modern defence systems really should be able to deat with. Leinster also struggled to make the number of creative line breaks in the midfield required to win at this level.

In fact, apart from Connacht, the one thing that was pretty obvious from all the Irish European Cup sides was a lack of penetration and creativity in the one area where it should come from - the playmakers in the centre.

Ulster showed a couple of glimpses of class from new Irish squad member Jarrod Payne, but Munster and Leinster never really threatened the opposition defence.

Leinster's best option at the moment is for Madigan to play 12 and move Gordon D'Arcy to 13. It may well turn out that Madigan's best position for his province is at 10, and D'Arcy's is certainly at 12, but it's a horses for courses situation at the moment and Leinster badly need Madigan's kicking game and his creative magic at 12.

OMINOUS

When Leinster's European group was first announced, it probably looked quite ominous. Harlequins, under my RTE colleague Conor O'Shea, were one of the top performing English Premiership sides over the past couple of years.

Wasps had a great European Cup pedigree and Castres were the Champions of France in the 2012/13 season.

That form book has been pretty well torn up this year. Harlequins and Wasps are having mixed seasons in the English game and Castres have only just managed to scrape off the bottom of the French League after a disastrous start to their season.

But Leinster beware, Castres are a wounded animal, and this weekend is already last-chance saloon for them. The groups are so tight this year that to lose a home game almost means that you are dead and buried.

In fact, last weekend Munster was the only team to go away from home and win. This weekend even they will find it hard to hold onto that against Saracens.

Castres realistically know that having already lost last week, without a bonus point, then lose at home to Leinster and its "curtains before Christmas". Castres will be buoyed by last weekend's impressive 51-10 win over highflyers Grenoble, who under ex-Leinster hooker Bernard Jackman have been enjoying a giant-killing run this year.

Like a lot of French sides, Castres are a different proposition at home and still have a fantastic record in the Stade Pierre Antoine. This year they have lost just once at home by a couple of points to Stade Français in the first game of the season.

Losing away seems to be the norm for most French sides, it is in their DNA, and how many times do we see French teams hammered one week then look a completely different outfit in front of their supporters.

The question is always this with French sides - are Castres more concerned about surviving in the French Top 14 or progressing in Europe? Will they risk their top players in Europe or save them for domestic battle?

There are a few things we do know. They will be aggressive up front and the Leinster forwards will have a fierce battle on their hands especially in the set scrum and the collision areas.

A lot of the Castres play revolves around a big gnarly pack and their street-smart halfback, South African Kockott. Kockott, the top 14 Player of the Year in 2012/13 and now included in the French squad, is Castres' little general and goalkicker.

In Scottish international John Beattie Castres also have a strong ball carrier at No 8, but like the high-profile signing of Scottish lock Ritchie Gray, Beattie seems a player beyond his best away from Scottish comforts.

Kockott will attack the areas where Leinster are deemed weak. They left far too many holes close to their rucks and mauls against Wasps, as they had done previously against Munster.

A major concern for Leinster has also been their inability to start games well this season, often having to mount a rearguard action to salvage the match.

Some players were claiming that "Wasps had scored a couple of lucky tryies and they never panicked" but that is always the party line.

In my book, another cliché comes to mind - "Never give a sucker an even break". Leinster know that, especially away from home, giving teams substantial leads will spell disaster. There will obviously come a time when Leinster cannot claw back. Just ask Jackman, whose team allowed Castre to score in the first minute last week, then conceded another 50 points, their biggest defeat in seasons.

coughed up

Last year Leinster coughed up a 14-point lead in Castres but came back to win - just. Games can just hinge on simple things. Last week had Wasps scored just after halftime and into the wind, then Leinster may not have made it back.

It's all about mind set, focus and small margins. Leinster must focus more positively in the opening quarters of games, where their ball retention and territorial game-plan has been weak.

Last week, Leinster's ball carriers were prominent for about the first 10 minutes then they went off the boil. Yes, opposition teams will have purple patches but Leinster when on top need to be far more ruthless and not just let teams back into the game.

Matt O Connor must use the punching power of Jack McGrath, Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock and Jamie Heaslip much earlier in this match; impose that quick ruck style of game that Leinster were developing at the end of last week's game.

France is no place for an arm wrestle with a big set of French forwards and some Fijian flyers.

Leinster need to up the tempo of the game and play at a blistering and tiring pace from the first whistle.

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