Saturday 22 July 2017

Heaslip factor to lift Blues

Hugh Farrelly

IN these pages last month, Jamie Heaslip outlined his rugby goals for the next 12 months. "Win everything," he said simply. "I don't play to lose."

While the sentiment may have been a tad unrealistic (as demonstrated by Leinster's one from four league record in September) the intent was admirable and, if you were a team-mate of Heaslip's, inspirational. Which is why Joe Schmidt's decision to name the Kildare man as captain for tonight's Magners League clash with Munster at Lansdowne Road looks such an astute call.

Leinster are up against it, riddled by injury, playing well below par and facing a Munster side that arrives at the sold-out Aviva-sponsored stadium with the type of confident strut that stems from being the only team in the league with a 100pc record.

In this situation, Leinster need leaders and Heaslip is imbued with just the type of Henry V 'follow me' quality required to drive others on. He has captained Leinster once before, in a 38-23 win over Glasgow at the RDS in November 2006.

Crossovers

That team included the likes of Fosi Pala'amo at prop, Christian Warner at out-half and Michael Berne in the centre, with Heaslip, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Devin Toner the only cross-overs between that match and this.

So, while not quite the captaincy rookie he has been made out to be, in this instance, experience is irrelevant, Heaslip is an Ireland captain-in-waiting and to see him appointed captain here, is a significant step along that road.

Whether it will be enough to inspire victory is another matter. Munster have looked more assured with each outing and have conviction where Leinster have been indecisive.

In spite of having to cope with similar injury and player-management issues as Leinster, Munster look very settled. New signings Wian du Preez, Sam Tuitupou and Johne Murphy have settled in extremely well while hooker Damien Varley and second-row Donnacha Ryan have been furthering their international claims in the absence of Jerry Flannery and Paul O'Connell.

And together with the individual displays, there has been a collective will to Munster, based around intensity in contact. Their scrum has benefited from the extra focus placed upon it this season while the return of Denis Leamy has been a big plus, the Cashel man proving an excellent captain in O'Connell's absence as well as producing a string of impressively physical performances.

Leinster have been struggling everywhere bar the scrum, where Mike Ross has been doing damage at tight-head. Their lineout has been shaky, their defence sloppy and laboured possession has led to a lack of zip in attack.

The delayed return of Jonathan Sexton has been a mitigating factor. Isa Nacewa is in superb form but having to fill in at out-half is not ideal for player or province.

With the November internationals looming, Irish rugby needs a strong Leinster performance. Schmidt fields an all-Irish international three-quarter line, all of whom have represented the Lions, with another Irish Lion at full-back in the shape of Rob Kearney.

If they come off second best to a Munster backline whose jerseys 12-15 are filled with southern hemisphere players, the portents for Ireland are not good.

Leinster's recent record in this fixture has been well publicised but, given their lack of form, talk of their "drive for five" has had something of a hollow ring.

Furthermore, the home advantage that Leinster thrive on at the RDS has been nullified by the switch to Lansdowne.

The atmosphere will lift Munster, who will have thousands of their own supporters present to roar them on, and the fact that Leinster were familiarising themselves with the stadium yesterday emphasises how the 'home' factor has been somewhat neutralised.

Brian O'Driscoll is looking forward to performing in front of a record Magners League crowd but says the mindset is the same wherever Leinster play.

"I'm really excited about it," he said. "I have been there a few times and done a few press things on the pitch but I have deliberately not gone on any tour to keep me fresh for the first time I play there. The fact that it is Munster there heightens it and makes it that bit more special. I don't think your build-up changes whether you are home or away.

"It doesn't make any difference if you are playing in the RDS, the Aviva or Donnybrook. The pitch is the same size. It is just fantastic that we will get to play in front of 50,000 people."

O'Driscoll has put the onus on the Leinster players to produce the intensity that has been lacking so far. It's an opportunity for a fresh start, a chance for Leinster to put September behind them and make a statement of intent for the rest of the season.

That is easier said than done. While the Munster line-up oozes experience all the way through to a bench that contains Marcus Horan, Mick O'Driscoll, David Wallace and Peter Stringer, Toner and Dominic Ryan have had little exposure to matches of this magnitude.

But there is tremendous quality in this Leinster side. O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald, Kearney and Shane Horgan know what it takes to beat Munster, while scrum-half Isaac Boss has been around long enough not to be intimidated by tonight's opponents.

And given the caning they have been getting on and off the pitch, there is no shortage of motivation either.

It's enough to induce a significant improvement in performance which should ensure a close contest although Munster are widely expected to pull clear in the second half.

But there is just this nagging feeling that, with Heaslip at the helm and O'Driscoll and Co out to make a point, Leinster might just pull off the upset their season craves.

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster v Munster

Live, TG4, 7.30

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