Friday 30 September 2016

Leinster primed to finish with a flourish and hit European heights next season

Published 15/01/2016 | 02:30

Johnny Sexton completely outplayed opposite number Dan Biggar last week
Johnny Sexton completely outplayed opposite number Dan Biggar last week

A sigh of relief should be heard around the offices and training pitches of Leinster Rugby.

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Crossing the midpoint of the season, it would seem that Leo Cullen and his men have weathered the storm from the treacherous first half.

A few victories on the trot have given the squad and supporters the confidence they were missing. Last Friday's trip to the Ospreys was always going to be a watershed for the expectations of this season and the victory told us a lot about the status of this team.

A team that was clearly unsettled has now found momentum and consistency. Johnny Sexton implied when interviewed afterwards that he knew that he and Leinster were not far off where they needed to be performance-wise and they believed in themselves and ignored outside influences.

The next two games will unfortunately remind them of their inefficiencies but managing the next few weeks will be paramount to Leinster's success at the end of this season.

The next two games, as hard as they will be to play, will need performances to match Leinster's ambitions for this season. After marching their way towards the top of the Pro12, they need to dominate this league and prove their intent for next year.

In the glory days of rampant Heineken Cup victories, the odd slip-up in the league didn't matter but this season it does. With the majority of the squad expected to be involved in the Six Nations squads, it puts pressure on those left behind to maintain the standard.

Given the performances over the last few weeks, Leinster should definitely not be facing the same predicament as they did during the World Cup.

From the off last weekend against the Ospreys, Leinster played in-your-face rugby. The home side were left to rue their selection process, or their lack of respect for this current Leinster side.

Sexton completely outplayed his opposite number Dan Biggar.

The service Sexton received from Luke McGrath was outstanding. Apart from a few unforced spills, McGrath's ability to be able to move the ball away from the contact area at pace makes the Leinster backline more alert and puts defences on the back foot.

The competition is bringing the best out in McGrath and Eoin Reddan and both will wear the green jersey over the coming months.

The Leinster squad are clearly seeing the benefit of focusing on playing for the full 80 minutes.

Sexton masterminded the victory and created two opportunities for Dave Kearney on the wing. Kearney took as much stick as most from the World Cup but his work ethic last weekend will see him back in the international fold again.

For both of his tries, he showed power and pace to finish what Sexton started. This determination is infectious in the squad and led to an outstanding show of skills in the conditions for a well-taken try.

This positivity, coupled with a functioning defence under Kurt McQuilkin's choke tackle expertise (that is so evident and yet surprises the opposition every week) should see Leinster finish this season well.

Hunger

The key now for the Leinster squad is maintaining this hunger over the coming weeks.

Leinster versus Bath from an outsider's point of view is dead rubber and provides an unwelcome reminder of the Blues' deficiencies this season.

Inside, Leinster need to grab this game and the away game against Wasps the following week, to see how far they have evolved since the earlier European defeats.

After these games, they face more disruption with the Six Nations but if this period is managed well, Leinster can finish this season strongly with a squad ready to reach European heights again next season.

Irish Independent

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