Monday 26 September 2016

Leinster and Ulster need to plot the right course

Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30

Les Kiss says he is not concerned that his team are drifting out of games when they need to be driving their opponents into the ground. Photo: Sportsfile
Les Kiss says he is not concerned that his team are drifting out of games when they need to be driving their opponents into the ground. Photo: Sportsfile

You could have come away from the double bill that was Ulster winning in Kingspan and Leinster doing the same in Murrayfield on Friday night, believing that these days we are all about blistering starts and stuttering finishes in this country.

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Against a fragile Scarlets side Ulster did as their coach had bid them, and got off to a flyer. On a great night for fast rugby Ulster went straight into overdrive, offloading as if they were on day release from the Ireland camp, where it would be unfair to say the practice is virtually verboten - but if you get it wrong there is a high price to pay.

Nine times in the first half they got the ball successfully out of the tackle. Scarlets, 11-0 down after 20 minutes, looked like they had been given a late call to fill in for someone else. Zip along to the final quarter and Charles Piutau, whose hands sometimes didn't operate in the same time zone as his feet, produced a game-saving intercept. Don't be fooled by the 19-8 scoreline: Ulster looked increasingly frustrated that they couldn't put the game away.

This was a recurring theme last season, and reared its head last week in Treviso when a bonus point eluded them.

Here is a classic example: on the hour mark, leading 11-3, and five metres from the opposition line, they were blessed to get a penalty decision against Scarlets loosehead Wyn Jones when it was Ulster's Ross Kane who clearly was at fault in the scrum. Instead of tapping it over for three points, Rob Herring opted to re-scrum. Wasted points were bad enough, but taking a punt on another lucky call from a confused referee, Ben Whitehouse, was not great judgment from a man winning his 100th cap for Ulster. Sure enough, Whitehouse did Kane on reset. Glasgow, next weekend, will lap up that looseness.

Les Kiss says he is not concerned that his team are drifting out of games when they need to be driving their opponents into the ground. Rather he's relieved that they are not falling out altogether. Well, not yet. Glasgow, beaten by Cardiff on Friday, is a huge game for them. Their injury list comprises Luke Marshall (head), Stuart McCloskey (broken nose), and Peter Browne (two stingers).

Over in Murrayfield, Leinster's day-glo boys had a downright menacing look about them as they bullied Edinburgh. A bonus point by half-time was more than they had hoped for. What must have been more satisfying was the way their line speed was devouring the Edinburgh attack.

Dan Leavy was leading the charge. As a schoolboy there was a freakish element to the flanker in the way he had a physical edge over his contemporaries. Then, when he was hardly out of school a wet week, we remember him coming off the bench in a pre-season game for Leinster against a typically bruising Saints side. He scored a try that looked about three years ahead of its time.

Staying fit has always been a challenge for Leavy. We're seeing his impact now that he is in that happy place. And we're wondering if also we are witnessing the immediate impact of Stuart Lancaster. Seemingly he has waded in to his new job rather than paddling around the edges

From the Academy up to the senior team, he's making changes as he goes. The most obvious has been with the line-speed of Leinster's defence. This is what his former colleague Andy Farrell is doing with Ireland, but on Friday it looked to be dramatically quicker. And the players -with Leavy outstanding - seemed to really enjoy its effect.

Not unlike Ulster, however, they looked flat for periods in the second half. For both it's an interesting situation to be in: a slight improvement and they'll be established as contenders; a few degrees in the other direction and they could be blown off course.

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