Patience key as Leinster look to get ruthless
Published 12/01/2013 | 05:00
It is literally the million dollar question.
Can Leinster perform an act of unfathomable escapology and somehow extricate themselves from the depths of a seemingly despairing qualification quest?
Failure to do so will mean a loss of revenue nearing the seven-figure mark and the IRFU bean counters will also be spluttering into their watered-down G'n'Ts, particularly if Munster also mess up their qualification route.
The odds are against Leinster, although not prohibitively so, given their outstanding pedigree in this competition recently. History cannot aid their progress over the next 160 minutes but it can help to inform them.
It shall be interesting to see how Leinster react to being forced to attack from a position of weakness.
We have become almost comfortably familiar with them acting the flat-track bully against all and sundry during their remarkable four-year rampage throughout Europe since picking up the first of their three titles in 2009.
Beginning such a crucial week against a ravaged Scarlets side staring down the barrel of a third crushing defeat in successive matches will help.
We will argue that no side in European rugby can have faced such an arduous succession of away matches in a row – Ospreys first-up (32-3), followed by Ulster (47-17).
Oh, and for good measure, next up they host Heineken Cup favourites Clermont at home, where their dwindling supporters are becoming less enamoured with Simon Easterby's short reign by the week.
Minus Rhys Priestland, George North and Jonathan Davies, it defies trade description to label their team a patchwork effort; Leinster's severest competitor today will be their own complacency or inaccuracy.
During the week, Joe Schmidt, whose own reaction to being pinned against the wall is also interesting to observe, was ruminating upon what contingency plans may need to be in place around the hour mark were his side still struggling to attain the bonus-point win they require.
(In reality, they will probably be seeking to score as many tries as possible, given their scant return of three thus far and the fact that tries scored will be the first determining factor for qualification purposes).
He has, it seems, unfurled the answer: Brian Gerald O'Driscoll.
You can count the number of times Ireland's greatest player has been benched for his club on one hand but Schmidt is clearly risking a longer game here. Little point shellacking the Scarlets if his side are ambushed by Exeter next Saturday.
Hence O'Driscoll will be kept in reserve for either emergency service or further rehabilitation, as he continues his comeback from ankle ligament surgery.
On the other hand, the coach had little hesitation in plunging Isa Nacewa back into action, as well as retaining Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney after their encouraging returns against Edinburgh last weekend.
The decision to start Isaac Boss is interesting, given the coach's usual proclivity to feature Eoin Reddan's characteristically less physically engaging and more free-flowing game.
Schmidt has clearly tasked his side with softening up a Scarlets outfit that could be justifiably excused for leaving both the stomach for battle and their mental engagement at customs.
Process, not product, will be the side's watchword.
The message from Leinster is not to expect any Sevens rugby in the opening skirmishes.
"It's like any game," Schmidt says. "If your line-out's going really well, you might go to your line-out a bit more or you might go to your scrum a bit more, or if you feel they are a little fragile on the edges. That's always part of coaching.
"I don't think that's too much different this time, in that we might say 'we've built a bit of scoreboard pressure, let's try to now chase the game a little bit more' and that might be something that we do.
"Especially in the second half, if we feel that we have a buffer on the scoreboard. But we're just focused on getting the buffer first.
"If we can build some scoreboard pressure then not only are we prepared to open the game but they are effectively forced to open the game up to try to bridge that gap.
"Sometimes I think if you start to chase a game from the start, that scoreboard pressure can be against you and allows your opponent to play very conservatively because they know you are chasing the game.
"If you are chasing the game when it's nil-all and you're in the first minute, I think that's a dangerous circumstance."
That's the folly of chasing a bonus point from the off, particularly against a side who can play freely without the baggage of needing a result. For Scarlets, this is an exercise in redemption and Leinster must undermine this carefree approach with ruthless physicality from the off, not hare-brained inanity.
While Leinster's chances of making the knockout stages may seem improbable, their timing for an audacious attempt is impeccable.
This is the first time they've unfurled a full-strength squad for a bracket of Heineken Cup games this term and, after running amok against Edinburgh last Friday, they pointedly reminded themselves just how potent a unit they are.
"We're only just behind Ulster in tries scored in the Pro12 at the top of the league, so we have actually got a really good try-scoring record this season," says Schmidt, before admitting, "just not in the Heineken Cup."
He continues: "People have probably made a lot of Clermont and the number of tries they've got, but after two games we'd scored two tries and they had one.
"We've probably used more guys in the Heineken Cup this year than we have in past years and that maybe has just interrupted our flow a little, along with some pretty good opposition, who do a pretty good job of interrupting your flow as well."
They need to turn on the tap today. Expect part one of Mission Improbable to be achieved handily.
Verdict: Leinster to skate past the handicap mark and earn five points
Leinster – R Kearney; I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; L Cullen (c), D Toner; S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Reps: A Dundon, H Van der Merwe, M Bent, T Denton, R Ruddock, E Reddan, I Madigan, B O'Driscoll.
Scarlets – L Williams; A Fenby, G Maule, S Williams, K Phillips; A Thomas, T Knoyle; P John, K Owens, J Adriaanse; G Earle, R Kelly; R McCusker (c), J Turnbull, K Murphy. Reps: M Rees, R Jones, S Lee, J Snyman, S Timani, G Davies, J Davies, A Warren.
Ref: J Garces (France)
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