Wednesday 29 March 2017

Tony Ward: Worrying to see Leinster not even threatening to score a try

Jamie Heaslip, Leinster, is tackled by Stuart Hooper, Bath
Jamie Heaslip, Leinster, is tackled by Stuart Hooper, Bath
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Mission accomplished, a place in the last four in Europe achieved . . . and yet. There was something shallow to this latest win in the top competition against quality opposition.

And Bath are unquestionably a quality outfit - not quite ready to take their place at the top table, but getting there.

Leinster won because when backs were to the wall, they put bodies on the line, which when combined with experience, home advantage and perhaps most importantly a really solid scrum, eventually squeezed them home.

A lot of good there, so why my lack of enthusiasm? It rankles when you see a Leinster backline with oodles of possession, countless passing movements, reasonable precision, yet scarcely a line-break.

Perhaps I am being overly critical but you felt on Saturday that no matter how much they ran the ball, no matter how many wrap-arounds or decoy runners they introduced, they were never going to break down the well organised Bath defence.

It was frustrating in the extreme to see them huffing and puffing but never threatening to blow the house down. Not even close.

The win was fantastic for Irish rugby, but I am worried about what might lie ahead in Marseille in a fortnight's time.

Leinster see last year's quarter-final defeat to Toulon at the Stade Felix Mayol (29-14) as 'one that got away'.

That fighting attitude is admirable but for the life of me, other than a lineout and rumble close to the opposition line, I could not see where tries might possibly be coming from on Saturday.

The same criticism was levelled at Ireland at various points during the successful Six Nations defence, but what Joe Schmidt developed was a plan of action built around accurate kicking from his halves backed by an ultra-competitive chase.

By contrast, some of Leinster's box-kicking in particular was wasteful. Far from pressurising the opposition in the right areas, it brought Bath - mainly through their adventurous full-back Anthony Watson - into a game which should have been beyond them well before the end.

Did Leinster deserve to win? Possibly but had they blown it at the death they would have had no one to blame but themselves.

The potential is there, that we know, but unless a little more invention can be introduced between both centres and Rob Kearney, then lateral running will only play into Toulon's hands.

If there was little room to pick the Bath midfield lock at the Aviva, then it will be mission impossible to get any change out of the Mathieu Bastareaud/Maxime Mermoz axis.

That is negative thinking, perhaps, but Saturday's touchline to touchline running just does not inspire confidence ahead of the brutal reality that now awaits.

I don't share the view that Leinster needed to put Bath away in style as an announcement of semi-final intent, but for their own collective confidence going forward, there was an obvious need for something beyond six hard-earned penalties.

On the plus side, there were substantial performances from the consistently outstanding Jamie Heaslip, from Sean Cronin - the most dynamic hooker in the country by a mile - both props, particularly Cian Healy, Ian Madigan off the kicking tee and Luke Fitzgerald defensively.

Beyond that I'm struggling, although the individual and collective desire could not be questioned.

Bath by comparison continue to look a rounded emerging force under Mike Ford.

They were well organised defensively without the ball and much more threatening with it than the home team.

In George Ford they have an out-half who plays what he sees, as much as the pre-ordained 'plan', while Watson and Leroy Houston were top notch.

It was Leinster's day, yes, with much done, but so much more to do.

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