Saturday 23 September 2017

Blues must copy Saints template and harness pain for a massive response

Leinster’s Jack McGrath is tackled by Northampton’s Stephen Myler in their Heineken Cup game
Leinster’s Jack McGrath is tackled by Northampton’s Stephen Myler in their Heineken Cup game

Trevor Hogan

In the aftermath of Saturday's clash at Lansdowne Road, noise bellowed from the Northampton changing-room.

The whooping and singing from the English players echoed across the hallway. Hearing shouting and banging from the opposing changing-room in your home ground is one guaranteed way to make a defeat all the more painful. And Saturday will undoubtedly have hurt the Leinster players.

It had been a total reversal for Northampton in the seven days since conceding 40 points at Franklin's Gardens. And there can be little denying they deserved their loud celebrations.

Widespread talk of "embarrassment" and humiliation about their performance last week fuelled a relentless determination that was clear from the outset. Their character and ability had been questioned and there was an unmistakable focus even in the warm-up as coach Jim Mallinder rallied his players.

This Northampton mindset was clear in a number of areas, none more so than their workrate in defence. Courtney Lawes epitomised the Northampton hunger, and an early chop-tackle on Rob Kearney set the tone. Last week, Kearney would have got through the half-gap, but this time, there was undeniable extra urgency in the English side to plug holes and shut down space.

Lawes' aggression was matched, in particular, by the outstanding Luther Burrell and Samu Manoa, whose line-speed and physicality consistently pressurised Leinster's ability to hold their shape in attack.

Leinster's high-tempo game was also disrupted at crucial stages by Northampton's work at the breakdown. Here Calum Clark and George North secured vital steals on the floor after some great line-breaks -- particularly from Luke Fitzgerald -- had threatened to finally unlock the Northampton defence.

Any time that Leinster gained yards, Northampton hunted the next breakdown, and Clark and Alex Waller punished any Leinster delay in getting there. Dylan Hartley was also to the fore in slowing down Leinster's ruck ball, stopping them achieving real momentum.

Clark and Tom Wood stalked Eoin Reddan at every opportunity, pressurising his box-kicks, while Lawes, Manoa and Christian Day hounded the line-out jumpers and their ball delivery. Their attitude on any loose ball really signalled their intent, Hartley and Wood pouncing on anything that moved. These were loose balls they weren't getting near last week.

The pivotal phases showing Northampton's determination came at either end of the second half.

Straight after the interval, Leinster had opened with huge urgency and strong, direct carries from Rhys Ruddock, Jamie Heaslip, Jack McGrath and Fitzgerald brought them to within inches of the line.

In this position Leinster are usually ruthless, generally coming away with at least five points. This time, however, Northampton were ready, and their desperation and commitment to defend their line was clear in their low body positions around the pillars of the breakdown.

They also ploughed into the counter-ruck, leaving Leinster to settle for just three points from a penalty -- and giving the psychological edge to the English side.

This resilience was mirrored in the final phases of the game after Heaslip's quick tap penalty. Here Northampton withheld relentless Leinster charges -- despite the Irish province's strong 'leech' support runners -- for over 19 phases, before the line-speed from Burrell and Jamie Elliott forced the final error.

Leinster's inaccuracies at the breakdown and in attack will hurt all the more considering how clinical they were in these aspects last week.

Still, on reflection, they will recognise that they displayed huge aggression and intensity at various stages in the game. Mike Ross put in some massive hits plugging the inside in defence, and aside from the first try, Leinster shut down Northampton well.

They repeatedly repelled the English side's maul, blitzing it in waves, and exposing Hartley's decision-making in persisting with kicks to the corner. Ruddock, Sean Cronin and Heaslip epitomised a tireless work-rate, with Cronin and Mike McCarthy getting some important poaches at the breakdown that almost turned the tide.

Indeed, it was Brian O'Driscoll's 79th-minute steal that set up the last-ditch effort that could easily have pinched the win. But Leinster's intensity and accuracy was overshadowed by Northampton's.

The result still leaves Leinster in the dominant position in the pool, and they will now look to harness their own pain for a big response.

Irish Independent

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