Alan Quinlan: Slide in Leinster standards needs to be halted now to save their year
Published 21/11/2015 | 02:30
Last week I must have sounded like a doom-and-gloom merchant by predicting a tough time for the Irish provinces as they sought to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup. This week I'll play the Grim Reaper and say Leinster's chances of exiting the pool stages are slim after their defeat to Wasps.
Before a ball was kicked in the pool, it was always going to be tough for Leinster given the draw. Wasps, Bath and triple-champions Toulon - it doesn't get much trickier.
But with all due respect to Wasps, who are a side on the up, of the three teams in their pool, a home game against Dai Young's side would probably have been regarded as the easiest of their six matches. Having not even earned a bonus point from that game at the RDS, they now face an almost impossible challenge.
Last week's result adds more credence to the argument that English Premiership sides are beginning to overtake the Irish provinces.
With their big budgets they can attract the top players now. Standards across the water are on the up, and apart from Connacht, no other Irish province can say the same at the moment.
Despite having a slim chance of qualification from their pool now, today's away trip to the Recreation Ground to face Bath is a huge game for Leo Cullen and his side. They were so far below par last weekthat they need a big showing today to kick-start their season. Imagine where confidence levels would be if they came home with another heavy defeat.
I have no doubt that we'll see Leinster respond today though. All week they'll have been at each other's throats in training, we'll definitely see a lift in energy and intent against Bath. I just wonder will we see the quality lifted as well.
When I asked myself what went wrong for Leinster last weekend a few things were clear. The fact that last weekend's side hadn't played together as a unit this season was a problem. Yes, they had plenty of Ireland players back and 15 internationals started, but Cullen's Leinster set-up is not a carbon copy of Joe Schmidt's Ireland. Much of the blame for last year's poor results was placed at Matt O'Connor's door, but maybe the problem is a bit closer to home. Have Leinster the quality players they once had?
Between retirements and injury, Leinster were shorn of some of their on-field leaders last week. Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Jennings and Kevin McLaughlin are experienced voids to fill. Yes, Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa are back, but Sexton had a tough World Cup and Nacewa was out injured. Add into that add the injured Rob Kearney (right), Ben Te'o and Luke Fitzgerald and you see some reasons for a drop-off in quality.
That long list of explanations for the defeat might sound like excuses, but when things start going against you it can be very hard to arrest that fall in standards.
The Leinster skill-set and execution that brought them such success in Europe in the last few years wasn't evident last Sunday and has not been seen for some time. Even the basics of the game: their passing, kicking and catching were not as fluid as they once were.
Over the last few years the Ireland team have been heavily built on the back of Leinster's successes in Europe, but their last win was in 2012. Last week's squad had 15 players who played for Ireland at the World Cup and after such a disappointing conclusion to that tournament, a certain lethargy or hangover must be expected.
I'm sure every Ireland player has struggled to get their focus back on their provincial duties - I always found it tough to flick a switch and leave club or international woes behind when I swapped squads like that. But because Leinster have so many more players affected by that setback than the other provinces, perhaps that explains the lead-footed display.
As expected, Cullen has changed the squad again this week - most of the eight changes are enforced - but it will be interesting to see how this Leinster team copes with the challenge.
For sure Leinster fans, players and management should be worried to see that sort of an anaemic performance, and they really need to get their heads right for today's clash.
And it won't be easy in Bath. Mike Ford has assembled an exciting side full of talented ball players. If Leinster are to win this one, I suspect it will be a victory carved from a huge pack performance.
Despite not having Sean O'Brien, Leinster have some big ball-carrying weapons in Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Sean Cronin, and if they can dominate up front, gain set-piece dominance and kick their points, they have the ability to take a notable scalp.
Despite suffering a record home defeat in Europe so recently I don't think there is a need for panic yet, but there is cause for concern.
The players have to suck it up, get over their recent setbacks and get back to winning ways.
If they don't it could be a long season for everyone at Leinster.