Crash test dummies evolve into vital cogs in Leinster's machine
Mike Ross and his front-row buddies are the first line of a very impressive defence, writes Neil Francis
T he front row -- yeah -- Darwin's waiting room. These people are normally in an ante-room down the hall from the waiting room.
As a constituent component of the tight five, I always felt that the back row felt they were intellectually superior to what was in front of them. As a consequence, we were obliged to think the same about the row in front of us. Let's face it, most of them are pretty dumb and it followed that on the field, in the bar and latterly in print you just felt compelled to denigrate (that means belittle, lads) them. They really couldn't do much on the paddock except give away penalties at scrum time and flounder into rucks when the ball was gone. What economic value did they hold?
Scrummaging -- sweet Jesus. When I die I hope it's in a scrum -- the transition from life to death would be barely perceptible. De-power the scrum and these Bonzos are down the labour exchange. This was the constant and over-riding prejudicial sentiment that I held for front-row players.
That changed last Saturday -- only a bit -- well enough to make a point in print, predicated by the need to embarrass other groups within the Leinster team that played against Leicester.
I wrote three weeks ago about Mike Ross. Barely two years ago if Rubens was still alive, would he have been drawn by Ross's voluptuousness? Today he would have no interest in him. Ross's body shape has changed markedly; it looks like he has lost at least two stone and his BMI is also down significantly. Due to a combination of unlikely circumstances -- Hayes' obsolescence, Buckley's scrummaging incompetence, Van der Linde's disappearance and Wright's surgical convalescence -- Ross has been catapulted into the position of unlikely hero.
Of the four tightheads in his way, the Stade Francais-bound Stan Wright (bad move Stan) was the most significant removal. Out from early on in the season because of an Achilles tendon injury. Happenstance dictated that the Leinster machine got to work on Ross and the time, energy and expertise spent on non-Irish qualified Wright was diverted to Ross. He blossomed. He still has a bit to go but there was compelling evidence of vast improvement, I suspect a lot of it engendered by the nuggety troika he has attached himself to. There is chemistry and competition there in that Leinster front row and it inspired one of the best performances I've seen from an Irish front row at any level.
They might not eat that much pudding any more, but if you are looking for proof of how well they played, the tackle stats are the first point of reference. They are a cause of some embarrassment to some of their colleagues. Richardt Strauss (pictured) made 13 tackles; Cian Healy had 11 and Ross 8, a combined total of 32. Two tackles more than their esteemed and much vaunted back row of Sean O'Brien (13), Kevin McLaughlin (10) and Jamie Heaslip a lowly 7 -- one fewer than Ross.
The entire back line made 34 tackles in total, only two ahead of the 'crash test dummies'. A staggering effort. Their front row's contribution was brought into sharper focus when you compare and contrast it with the Leicester front row's total of 19.
If you are trying to convey meaning into the difference between the sides, it was this, the industry shown by Leinster's front row. To try and further the significance of their contribution you have to establish the quality of their tackles -- outside of O'Brien. Most of the car-crash tackles were affected by the Leinster front row and they were ravaged on most of Leicester's prime ball carriers. Most of them were stopped dead on the line and they were hurt for good measure.
The combined carries for the Leinster front row was 57 metres compared to a paltry three for Leicester's front row (maybe Leicester don't use their props as gainline raiders) but it begs the question: if you are not doing something then what are you doing? There were only 15 scrums in the game. That's about average for a dry day, but if our props were running around the paddock like spring lambs -- it meant that Leicester were not able to spit-roast our scrum. Fearsome reputations, but the Tigers could not deliver in an area which they had hoped to dominate.
Toulouse might look to replicate what they did last year in the semi-final, but I don't think they have the personnel or the ability to do it away from home.
It is a sign of how comfortable Leinster were on the gainline that the game's outstanding player, Isa Nacewa, did not have to make one
single solitary tackle in the 80 minutes. The same luxury was afforded Keith Earls in the England game. It just shows you how defensively replete Leinster and Ireland are on the line -- even with Kurt McQuilkin back in New Zealand.
The cream on the cake is that Strauss and Healy are not only exceptionally quick and powerful runners, they are week in, week out Leinster's best offloaders. The world was turned upside down by their performance. Congratulations.
Leinster have acquired critical mass and have acquired inspiration from an unlikely source. They look pretty good at the moment, but I'll keep my money in my pocket. The one sure way to stop a runaway horse is to bet on it. Leinster will have to do more than tackle against Toulouse.
PS: Why did Munster offload Sam Tuitupou, I wonder?
Sunday Indo Sport