Cavalry arrive in bid to save Leinster's season
THE cavalry has arrived. Hopefully it's not too late for Leinster's cause as they enter a season-defining three weeks.
The defending Heineken Cup champions are on the ropes and struggling to keep their balance as their bid for a historic third Heineken Cup win in a row teeters on the brink of oblivion.
Leinster have been looking decidedly mortal this season. Last weekend's Pro12 win over Connacht was desperately needed. The four points that came with the 17-0 win were hugely welcome.
But of more importance was the stopping of the rot that had set in. A three-match losing streak had been unheard of for this generation at Leinster.
They weren't in free-fall but were wavering. Only time – and crucially results – will tell if the Connacht match has seen them strengthen their foundations to a level where they can turn the corner on their season.
Having the peerless Brian O'Driscoll back on the pitch can only help in that regard. And when he's joined by the returning Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, it's as close to perfect as any team can expect with just over half the campaign played. But has it come too late for their season?
They can absolutely make a Pro12 play-off place. They are sixth in the table with 10 matches to go. Only three points separate them and second-placed Scarlets, who have 38 points. Ulster are a further nine points ahead and will, barring a catastrophic run of results, top the table. However, when it comes to the league, it matters not that you stagger over the line, only that you cross it. Any place in the first four positions will earn a play-off spot.
It's not so straight-forward in the Heineken Cup. The Pro12 title has yet to be claimed under Joe Schmidt and certainly it is a trophy they would enjoy collecting.
But, with the greatest of respect to that competition, it is secondary in importance. Their season hinges on how they fare in the Heineken Cup. As things stand today, their interest in that competition is tenuous at best. The home and away losses to Clermont in December have cut them to the bone.
Clermont should finish their pool campaign by defeating Exeter at home and then beating Scarlets, leaving Leinster chasing a best runners-up spot.
In order to give themselves a fighting chance, Leinster will need to win with a bonus point at home to Scarlets, which is certainly achievable, and follow that up with another four-try win away to Exeter to finish the pool on 20 points.
But even that might not be enough to get them through. If Leinster do reach that maximum of 20 points, they could still be passed out by runners-up in a number of other pools.
However, Leinster's players cannot be concerned with what might or might not happen elsewhere when they are back in European competition. Tonight in the Pro12 they face an Edinburgh side who they have defeated in their last four meetings.
Leinster will win tonight. Edinburgh just do not have the form or players to hugely trouble a side as jam-packed with quality as Leinster. But it's how they win that's important, because they have to do so by scoring tries.
It's also hugely important that the returning trio of Lions get up to speed immediately because at least two of the three will – fitness permitting – be included in the starting team in the Heineken Cup the following weekend, with Fitzgerald likely to be in the squad.
It is incorrect to suggest that Leinster have been struggling to score tries. They have 32 scored in the Pro12 and only Ulster have scored more than them in the competition. But they have not been as prolific in European competition.
If you consider just how successful Leinster have been in the Heineken Cup, it defies belief that they have only scored three tries in their four pool games so far. That kind of return is appalling for a team that has dominated the competition over the last four years.
They are hugely fortunate that all three players returning from injury have pedigree when it comes to scoring.
In 103 appearances, Fitzgerald has amassed 125 points, Kearney has 185 points from his 121 Leinster appearances, while O'Driscoll has 286 points from 164 games played. They also have records of scoring in Europe.
What is unfortunate is that time is very much against their side in what flanker Kevin McLaughlin doesn't shy away from describing as one of Leinster's "most important" ever. You don't win any competition in January, but you can certainly be knocked out of the more prestigious one.
It is slightly disingenuous to suggest that Leinster are looking beyond tonight's game. You can never afford to take any opposition for granted but this game is very much a means to an end for them, with the aim being to peak on the following two weekends.
"From our point of view, January is a huge month," said McLaughlin. "We're still hanging on in both competitions and it's all to play for, but we're coming into Europe at a slightly different angle than last year."
That angle is not to be leading from the front as they did when topping their pools in the last two seasons. They have been hit harder this season than any other by injuries and have looked decidedly threadbare at times as a result.
The return of the aforementioned trio and the imminent comeback of Isa Nacewa from injury – expected to be next week – will certainly help with the confidence issue. That is only half the battle facing Leinster, though.
They also need to put in a level of performance that will further feed their confidence for the bigger tests ahead. In this regard it will be informative how their scrum goes this weekend with Mike Ross restored to tighthead.
Michael Bent started against both Ulster and Connacht in the last two games and didn't cover himself in glory.
Leinster need their set-piece to be solid and on top to get the best from their spectacularly exciting back line. It's not a coincidence that in the games they have struggled this season, their scrum has also faltered.
Hopefully, from Leinster's perspective, they can show improvement in this facet and that in turn will help those outside to do their thing. The cavalry is here, is it on time to save their season?
EDINBURGH – G Tonks; D Fife, M Scott, B Atiga, T Visser; P Francis, G Laidlow; A Jacobsen, A Titterrell, W Nel; G Gilchrist, S Cox; S McInally, D Basilaia, D Denton. Reps: S Lawrie, R Hislop, G Cross, P Parker, N Talei, R Rees, J King, S Visser.
LEINSTER – R Kearney; F Carr, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; L Cullen, D Toner; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: A Dundon, H van der Merwe, M Bent, T Denton, S Jennings, I Boss, I Madigan, A Conway.
Edinburgh v Leinster, Live, TG4, 7.35