George Hook: Leinster must keep it tight in Champions Cup showdown - I have zero faith in Gopperth's playmaking
Published 04/04/2015 | 02:30
The squeezed schedule for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup does nobody any favours. Just two weeks have passed since the conclusion of the Six Nations and the sides left in European competition have had very little time to prepare.
Of the eight quarter-finalists, Leinster are perhaps the worst affected, with 13 players unavailable to the province over the majority of the Six Nations.
Even last weekend, when Matt O'Connor had an opportunity to test his strongest XV against Pro12 leaders Glasgow, he was hamstrung by the IRFU player welfare system: Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, Mike Ross and Rob Kearney were all missing from the match-day squad, while Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Luke Fitzgerald were confined to the bench.
It was hardly the ideal preparation for their biggest game of the season so far. Bath were also hampered by the international window, but not to the same extent.
This game is season-defining for Leinster. Three years ago, the prospect of Bath leaving Dublin with a win in such a crucial game would have been unthinkable. Today, Leinster fans have every reason to be nervous.
Last Friday's try-fest against Glasgow made for entertaining viewing, but the manner in which Leinster coughed up scores was alarming. There were periods in the first half that resembled a mid-summer night's tag tournament rather than a professional contest, such was the poor standard of tackling.
A repeat of that ham-fisted defending by Leinster today will suit Bath down to the ground.
It has been a long time since Bath were a major force. Jack Rowell's arrival at the Rec in 1978 led to a period of domestic dominance, with six league titles in eight years from 1986 to 1994.
Bath, in those days, managed to combine strength and aggression up front with beautiful, stylish play out wide. They were one of the first club sides in Europe to embrace a professional set-up.
Times have changed since those glory days at the Rec and today Bath are fighting to be counted among the elite sides in Europe. A win in Dublin would go along way towards re-establishing them as a force to be reckoned with.
Leinster, meanwhile, are struggling to maintain the success of recent years. Matt O'Connor has yet to find a style of play that gets the most out of the personnel available.
Fans continue to measure this team against the glory days of Brian O'Driscoll, Jonathan Sexton, Rocky Elsom and Isa Nacewa but the expectations are badly out of sync with the reality of the performances every week.
Bath are at their strongest in broken play. They have a formidable openside in South African Francois Louw and a talented, fearless play-maker in George Ford. Bath will look to play the game at a maximum tempo and hope that Leinster run out of steam.
Against Ireland in the Six Nations, Ford was strangled into submission. His performance that day did him little justice and I imagine he will be itching to put that right in Dublin today.
To get the most out of his flying attackers out wide, Ford will have to get quick ball to the likes of Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Kyle Eastmond. If Leinster do not slow the ball down they will be in danger of conceding tries.
So the pack must take ownership of the game and dominate possession. The sum of the power in the Leinster back-row far outweighs the opposition, and Sean O'Brien, Jordi Murphy and Jamie Heaslip will be expected to carry the ball and take on the Bath defence at every opportunity.
Isaac Boss has been picked ahead of Eoin Reddan for this exact reason. The New Zealand-born scrum-half must keep the ball tight and demand every effort from his pack to make themselves available off ruck ball. Cian Healy and Sean Cronin will also get plenty of chances to test out the Bath fringe defence.
I have zero faith in Jimmy Gopperth's ability to get the best out of his back-line, so if O'Connor is relying on his fly-half to win the game, Leinster will struggle. Similarly, Ian Madigan and Ben Te'o are still virgins in the centre partnership stakes and one wonders how they will fare against the more experienced Eastmond and Joseph.
Bath have absolutely nothing to lose this afternoon. I expect them to throw the ball around and test Leinster's defence at every opportunity.
If Leinster try and match their opponents' expansive game-plan they will lose. But I would hope that the pack and scrum-half have enough experience to guide Leinster to victory. Their season depends on it.