Sunday 30 April 2017

Leinster locate the clinical edge needed to make Lyon statement

Connacht 24 Leinster 37

Tiernan O’Halloran of Connacht tries to get in an off-load as he is tackled by Leinster’s Barry Daly (left) and James Tracy at the Sportsground on Saturday night. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tiernan O’Halloran of Connacht tries to get in an off-load as he is tackled by Leinster’s Barry Daly (left) and James Tracy at the Sportsground on Saturday night. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Few clues, perhaps, amidst this particular egg hunt, for those grasping for any sense of how next week's Champions Cup test in France may pan out.

With most of the first-team squad perched on their sofas spurning chocolate confection while watching Gogglebox or some such, there seemed little relation between events in Galway on Saturday night and Lyon next Sunday afternoon.

Bundee Aki of Connacht is tackled by Ross Byrne, left, and Noel Reid of Leinster. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki of Connacht is tackled by Ross Byrne, left, and Noel Reid of Leinster. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

And yet if you investigated wisely and scratched a little deeper, there was enough evidence unearthed to reveal exactly why Leinster's ever-evolving cast may be primed to return to a first European final since their glorious 2012 zenith.

As they secured a home semi-final in the Guinness PRO12 with two games to spare, a second-string side displayed all the characteristics of their more exalted colleagues who have thrived in Europe.

It was not perfection by any means, but the manner in which more than 50 players have adapted to a radically more effective and attractive game-plan this season will offer much succour as they aim to inflict upon Clermont the same sense of shock and awe that downed Wasps.

Surgically clinical, Leo Cullen's men thrived on limited possession and won pulling away in the end against a Connacht side whose sparkle had cast them in such dim light last term.

Ross Molony of Leinster is tackled by Bundee Aki of Connacht. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ross Molony of Leinster is tackled by Bundee Aki of Connacht. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Advancing

With Josh van der Flier and Adam Byrne, despite his defensive creaks - Dave Kearney's horrific ankle injury ruling him out - advancing their personal claims, Leinster's twin title tilt remains in tip-top shape.

"It's not something we think about," noted Cullen, ahead of a huge week.

"We watched these games last year and it was really frustrating. It sharpened our focus and reignited our desire to do well in these two tournaments.

"We walk into the dressing-rooms tonight and we're in most of the images in them winning the PRO12 final, so that's even a stark reminder right there. And in Europe, we were very, very poor. We've spoken about that plenty, so we have to make sure we're prepared this week."

Tiernan O’Halloran of Connacht is tackled by Dominic Ryan of Leinster. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tiernan O’Halloran of Connacht is tackled by Dominic Ryan of Leinster. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

They will do so on the front foot and with chests out, confident but not cocky; last season, too often, they were cowed and cowardly.

Saturday offered a prism through which we could view Leinster's advance, as much as Connacht's decline.

"We know they try to go to the edges," Cullen said of the champions they aim to dethrone.

"They try to push you, but we were trying to push our players to be brave on the outside channels.

"Because if you sit off and let them play, like we have been guilty of doing in the past, they can make you pay on the edges. They got us a couple of times, but overall we were pleased with it."

Rhys Ruddock of Leinster goes over to score his side's fourth try. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Rhys Ruddock of Leinster goes over to score his side's fourth try. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

He could just as easily be describing how next week's contest may transpire; even allowing for the step up in class, Leinster's intentions will define their ambition. Last season, their intentions limited them.

"They are playing the edges," noted Pat Lam. "They are playing with width, there is real clarity in what they are doing. Certainly, over the year when I first got here I used to watch and they were around the corner, around the corner, around the corner, so it was easy to defend.

"Now they can hit you both left and right, the reload back, which is something we prided ourselves on last year coming off the sideline.

"Obviously their three v two, two v one skills have improved. And then when you have a structure it's about the quality of their individuals.

"Sure, they left a lot of guys out, but there is still nine or 10 internationals there that can come in and that is the beauty.

"What is happening from that is similar to us, when a lot of people commented on unknowns coming through and blossoming if you get into the structure.

"So people like Adam and Josh van der Flier last year, Rory O'Loughlin, all these young fellas are coming in and it's easy.

"It's an enjoyable part of rugby as this is what we have to do and this is what we have been creating here."

Leinster had originally manufactured all this before Connacht, of course, before veering off-road after offloading the coach (Matt O'Connor) who brought them to within seconds and inches of a European final the last time they went to France.

Cullen knows what it is like to win - and lose - at this stage of the competition.

"It's taking every opportunity!" he said with a smile, albeit via a grimace, reminded of Jimmy Gopperth's agonising miss against Toulon.

"I can still picture that dropped goal going by, a foot-and-a-half... less? Listen, it's just great to be back in a semi-final. I've watched a lot of their games, we obviously know them well from over the years. The way they have evolved, they are a very powerful team, a great challenge."

Buttressing the bonus point, Leinster were also reminded of the importance of homework on the groundwork; Connacht bossed the breakdown, Leinster's men stranded behind the tackle, unable to clear out.

"Clermont will go hard at our ruck," Cullen warned.

Leinster are prepared. And primed.

Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun (E Griffin 12), B Aki, C Ronaldson; D Poolman, J Carty (S Crosbie 71), K Marmion (C Blade 37-40 blood; 74); D Buckley (JP Cooney 70), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 65), F Bealham (D Robertson-McKay 70), Q Roux (S O'Brien 21), A Browne, E McKeon N Dawai HT), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).

Leinster: Z Kirchner; A Byrne, R O'Loughlin (T Daly 74), N Reid, D Kearney (B Daly 48); R Byrne, L McGrath (N McCarthy 74); C Healy (P Dooley 52), J Tracy (S Cronin 52), M Ross (M Bent 52), R Molony, H Triggs (I Nagle 62), D Ryan, J van der Flier, R Ruddock capt (P Timmins 74).

Ref - I Davies (WRU).

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