Brent Pope: Bath there for the taking as Leinster look to restore confidence
Dave Kearney and Jonathan Sexton both returned to pre-World Cup form with excellent individual performances against the Ospreys last weekend.
Kearney showed why Irish coach Joe Schmidt had so much time for him last season with two brilliantly taken tries in an empathic win against the resurgent Welsh outfit.
With Sexton once again controlling play, Leinster looked more the team of old rather than in transition, with three tries out of the top draw in terms of clinical finishing and organisation.
The encouraging displays over the past month, as Leinster seem to be improving each week, must see Leo Cullen far more confident about 2016, unlike provincial rivals Munster, who appear to be moving in the other direction.
The injury count from the Welsh win was not so promising and both province and country will nervously await injury reports on talismanic No 8 Jamie Heaslip and centre Luke Fitzgerald, with both players having to leave the field last week.
Heaslip must successfully complete the return-to-play protocols after a head clash, while the seemingly always unfortunate Fitzgerald appears to have what is now termed a stinger in this shoulder.
Cullen will need both these players fit if Leinster are going to continue to improve against Bath this weekend, especially against a side that, despite being strong on paper and fairly good against Toulon last weekend in France, are still struggling to regain their early season promise and form.
Bath halted a losing streak just after Christmas with a win against Worchester, but they still languish ninth in the Aviva Premiership, a position that their ambitious coach Mike Ford will not exactly be celebrating.
The secret for any successful individual sportsperson or team is to continue to learn, develop and push forward with every game. And despite the disappointment of Leinster dropping out of this season’s Champions Cup far too early after a record succession of losses, Cullen’s side still have a lot to prove in 2016.
As one well-known rugby commentator once embarrassingly said “winning rugby is 60 per cent psychological and the other 50 per cent is physical”. Apart from getting his maths horribly wrong, the old cliché still applies.
Leinster are in a good vein of form at the moment, especially in registering three good wins in a row in the PRO 12, and seamlessly introducing some fine new talent as well.
This weekend its back to the scene of the crime, with a European game against Bath in the RDS. Leinster need to win, not only to show themselves but also their supporters – that Leinster are not a million miles away from being a very good side again.
With some tinkering here and there, the Blues are still well able to compete at this level. In many regards, Leinster could have still been in Europe had they just got something tangible out of their two back-to-back games against underperforming Toulon, especially given they started both those games fairly well, being overtaken by Toulon’s experience, power and strength off the bench in the latter part of those matches.
Leinster could have also beaten Bath at the Rec had they just been a little more clinical at the right times in that match.
This week they face a nervous-looking Bath side that has certainly fallen from grace recently. And as Leinster will tell you, once you get into a bit of a slump it is often difficult to pull yourself out of it. Mentally, you begin to doubt your ability, and rather than go out and dominate teams from the get-go you tend to sit back, be overly cautious and build into the game, chasing a win rather than orchestrating one.
Bath are vulnerable, and Leinster need to strike quickly when the opposition is in this sort of form.
Any team that has a backline comprising the likes of Anthony Watson, Matt Banahan, Kyle Eastmond, Jonathan Joseph and George Ford is dangerous, especially from broken play, but Leinster might be able to turn the screw up front if their front five can just dominate.
The secret against Bath must be in Sexton’s ability to turn Bath’s potent backline with intelligent tactical kicking. Players like Banahan and Watson love moving onto the ball from the counter-attack, but have often been suspect when having to retreat.
Sexton must make that happen with balls in behind rather than in front. Leinster need to dominate at scrum time and out of touch, that way it allows Sexton the confidence to probe more.
The return of flanker Seán O’Brien has played a huge part in Leinster’s mini revival, and the Tullow man shows just how vital he is to Leinster’s cause. O’Brien’s ability to get over the gainline is well known, but O’Brien best asset is that he frees up other players around him, especially Jamie Heaslip, to concentrate on what they do best as well.
O’Brien’s return has helped the overall balance in Leinster’s back row, meaning that they are now confident in playing the game close to the tackle where O’Brien is strong over the ball, and also now out wider where the likes of Heaslip can attack.
Two months ago, this game may have looked a bridge too far for a struggling Leinster side, but despite the home side having nothing but pride to play for in Europe, pride may just be enough for a team that suddenly believes it still deserves to be competing at the top table in Europe.