Leinster looking over their shoulders at chasing pack
Published 27/04/2015 | 02:30
The post-match exchanges at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night took on an end-of-season feel for the Leinster contingent as Matt O'Connor was asked where 2014/'15 had gone wrong.
Instead, the real question should have been: how will you avoid 2014/'15 getting worse?
While the champions were busy handing back their crown in Belfast on a weekend when the identity of the top four was established with two games to go, those below them were making their moves with Edinburgh and Scarlets securing bonus-point wins to move above a Connacht side running out of steam in their chase for a sixth or even seventh.
The race for sixth place and an automatic European slot has long been considered a battle between those three protagonists in a league that had looked like it had been divided into three tiers, but the weekend's results have opened up the possibility of Leinster being dragged into an unseemly battle to qualify automatically for the Champions Cup next season.
They need six points from their final two games against Treviso and Edinburgh to ensure a top-six finish and form is against them.
Since beating Cardiff Blues on January 10, O'Connor's team have won one of their seven league games, accumulating 12 of a possible 35 points. Behind them, Scarlets have picked up 21 and Edinburgh 20, leaving them four and five points behind in sixth and seventh with two games remaining.
Since the turn of the year, only Connacht, Cardiff Blues, Treviso and Zebre have accumulated fewer points than Leinster.
With Leinster facing Treviso at the RDS, Scarlets playing Cardiff at home and Edinburgh away to Dragons, all three will hope to gain maximum points from their penultimate game.
That would mean Leinster going to Murrayfield on final day needing to avoid a four-try defeat. If they finish on level points with another side, the deciding factor will be matches won and, as it stands, they trail Edinburgh on that front while they're level with Scarlets.
In another season, it would be a handy run-in, but Treviso made life awkward for Munster in Cork on Saturday and they are just three points clear of Zebre in their own mini-battle for Champions Cup qualification. In a season in which they lost twice to the Dragons and drew in Treviso, Leinster can take nothing for granted. The resurgent Scots will have a shot at leapfrogging their opponents if they are five points behind on final day with Scarlets ready to pounce in Treviso should they make a mis-step.
They should have enough to secure their passage, but this is no place for the three-time European champions who could still conceivably have to qualify for the Champions Cup through the back-door in what their former coach Joe Schmidt described last week as "the ERC mind-wave about how they were going to work things out".
It became very clear last week that the New Zealander is unimpressed by his successor's work and O'Connor pulled an Arsene Wenger when asked about the Ireland coach's decision to publicly escalate their feud on the eve of his side's trip to Ravenhill, saying he hadn't heard or read the comments with his tongue firmly in cheek.
O'Connor didn't need Schmidt to tell him that Leinster's league form has not been anywhere near good enough this season and his intention is to use the final two fixtures of the season to improve their game.
"Across the course of it we've let points slip. We've lost a lot of games with tight margins. We've had a couple of draws that will be costly in the wash-up. We'll look at all those things at the end of the season and we'll make sure that we're better," he said.
"There's all sorts of things that we could be better at. I don't think there's one magic remedy that will fix our game. The reality is, we showed in Europe there's a hell of a lot of healthy things in our game, but it's about bringing those every week.
"Meritocracy has made the league more competitive. Points every week are at a premium - that's fantastic for the league - we probably haven't mirrored that rise in intensity as well as others and we need to have a look at that and make sure we're better moving forward."
"The league has improved out of sight. You can't be at 80-90pc and win in the league currently, you've got to be as good as you can be every week.
"That's the key learning. There's a load of individual things and a load of collective things we can be better at, but that's the challenge moving forward."
Initially, it looked like their last two games would be dead-rubbers, perhaps a chance to blood some of the Academy players who will be called upon during the World Cup period at the start of next season.
Events have taken over, however, and Leinster are now looking over their shoulders.