Brent Pope: Ospreys strong on paper but Leinster need away win to boost momentum
Leinster started the new year in a positive fashion with another derby win this time against the men from the west and in doing so leap-frogged Connacht into second place in this season’s Guinness Pro 12 competition.
But it was not without some major disruptions, given Cian Healy’s latest injury setback and then Fergus McFadden’s untimely suspension.
Obviously Leinster will have to do without both these players for at least three weeks, and one now wonders how long Healy can continue to cope with injuries?
Mentally it must be difficult for a player once considered the best ball-carrying front-rower in the world and just when he gets back he is gone again.
Leinster’s Josh van der Flier’s 60th minute try against Connacht, now means that with a game in hand, Leinster are loitering with real intent just a point behind leaders, the Scarlets.
Tonight in the Liberty Stadium (7.45) Leinster face a somewhat resurgent Ospreys side.
The Ospreys appear to have turned a corner in recent weeks after a lacklustre enough start to the season. In winning their last five Pro 12 matches on the trot they have nosed themselves back into a better position for automatic European qualification with an ugly, error strewn win against the Dragons over the New Year that leaves them just seven points adrift of Leinster, despite lying seventh overall.
But despite that morale-boosting win, they still received a harsh reality check on the way they have been playing, especially from their own coaches who effectively told them that they are “not good enough just to expect to turn up and win” and “that they need to change both their game and their attitude”.
As expected Connacht were lively but fairly limited in the RDS, and continuity of the game for both sides was not helped by the terrible weather conditions that meant that any real attempt to move the ball usually resulted in mistakes.
In the end Leinster got home comfortably enough, but have to continue to build on these small winning streaks. The battle now comes in winning on the road against a side that is starting to gain in confidence.
Leo Cullen will have mixed views about his first year in top level coaching, but in my opinion he has conducted himself well in many areas.
His media speak is always honest and refreshing, and while he must have been seriously disappointed at the recent news re the departures of Ben Te’o and Ian Madigan (players that Leinster invested heavily in) Cullen was diplomatic in wishing both players “the very best”.
Other coaches may have been tempted to be a little bitter, but that it is Cullen’s style, nor is it his style to get overly excited or to panic during games, and his quiet demeanour will stand to him.
Bowing out of Europe is a hard pill to take, especially before Christmas, but qualification from Leinster’s pool was always going to be difficult, especially because their group contained so many former winners as well as Toulon.
The damage was done with the manner of the defeat against Wasps, first up.
The returning Irish players
struggled with the mental and physical world cup hangover, and it was a home loss for Leinster without even securing a losing bonus point, and that was always going to be too hard to come back from in a tight pool.
Cullen has now set about trying to get Leinster some silverware by going after the Pro 12.
Positives have emerged in the talents of some of the younger Leinster players such as Garry Ringrose, Josh van der Flier and Peter Dooley and the defensive coaching work of Kurt McQuilkan.
Key to Leinster’s longer-term survival lies in the signing of another influential overseas player.
In recent years all the Irish provinces have been guilty of just looking at agents CVs and not at the type of player that will fit into the ethos of the respective provincial team.
The list is long in terms of expensive overseas journeyman that have offered nothing for Irish rugby other than collect their hefty cheques.
Cullen and his management team need to spend wisely this year and research younger players that are under the radar, rather than those on the downward spiral.
Over the years I have seen plenty of players in New Zealand alone yet to play at the top level that would be worth the investment.
With regard to tonight’s match the Ospreys are strong ‘on paper’, with players like exciting counter-attacking full-back Dan Evans and blindside flanker Dan Lydiate but the Ospreys are in some ways a bit like Leinster this season in that they are struggling for confidence but as their coach, Steve Tandy, says they are like Leinster heading up the leaderboard rather than down it.
They will be determined to register a home win and over the years the Ospreys have proven to be something of a giant-killing team at home, and just when they are written off they seem to come up with a significant scalp, so this becomes a huge match with a lot of pressure on the home side to deliver.
If Leinster are serious about winning this competition then that means securing an away win is a real test that they must come through and that means that despite the disruptions during the week that they start well tonight.