Tuesday 6 December 2016

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Leinster come to boil in time for Euro test

Leinster 25 Munster 14

Published 10/10/2016 | 02:30

Garry Ringrose of Leinster is tackled by Ian Keatley of Munster. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose of Leinster is tackled by Ian Keatley of Munster. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Six weeks into the rugby season, last weekend's interpros represented a barometer for each province to gauge where they are at going in to the first round of European pool games.

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Connacht got a fillip on Friday night, Ulster a wake-up call. On Saturday at the Aviva Stadium, Leinster checked their systems and hardened their bodies as they ran out comfortable winners over Munster. The Reds were simply reminded of the distance they still have to travel.

Luke McGrath of Leinster is held up short of the try line by CJ Stander, left, and Conor Murray of Munster. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Luke McGrath of Leinster is held up short of the try line by CJ Stander, left, and Conor Murray of Munster. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Over the summer, Rassie Erasmus has been bedding in his ideas with a group who are largely unchanged from those who finished sixth in the Guinness Pro12 last season.

Leo Cullen, meanwhile, was trying to add an attacking edge to a side that had failed to fire while still managing to top the table.

On big days, it was Leinster's attack that let them down. Against Munster, they were defensively comfortable throughout. They made less mistakes than their rivals and opted to fan out across the field, wait for the errors to come and take advantage.

Robbie Henshaw made a brilliant debut alongside Garry Ringrose, who would have had a try on any other day. That duo could become deadly once they have time to gel.

Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton is bowled over by the collision with Munster’s Rory Scannell and Niall Scannell during Saturday’s Pro12 clash. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton is bowled over by the collision with Munster’s Rory Scannell and Niall Scannell during Saturday’s Pro12 clash. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Last season's European endeavours were a disaster for Cullen, with the pool beginning and ending with record defeats to Wasps.

Less than a year on, the three-time champions are in a better place. They've had no World Cup disruption and are the better for a full pre-season together ahead of Castres' visit next weekend.

"We've a few more games under our belt, yeah. It's amazing to have players who understand and know the calls - some of them anyway," Cullen said with a wry smile.

"We had a very heavy injury toll from the World Cup, we were just bashed and bruised, but we're in a healthier place. We came through relatively unscathed today.

Robbie Henshaw of Leinster. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw of Leinster. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"I was pleased with the way we managed the game. I thought we looked strong defensively, bar that penalty we conceded on the halfway line.

"But in the period before that I thought we were putting a lot of good pressure on with our defence. That was pleasing and good to see."

Although Jaco Taute's late try lent more respectability to the result, this was a deserved win for the home side, who might have picked up a bonus point had they been a little more clinical.

Their policy of committing very little to the rucks gave Munster little room to manoeuvre, while their clever lines of attack and array of options caused the visitors to miss 16pc of their tackles.

They made far less mistakes and kept their discipline better, edging into a 6-0 lead before Peter O'Mahony touched down after a strong maul drive from the visitors.

Undeterred, Isa Nacewa crossed for tries either side of half-time to ease his side into a comfortable lead, before a calamitous error from Ronan O'Mahony gifted Jamison Gibson-Park the insurance score.

Intensity

Munster could complain about the marginal call to deny James Cronin a try for a double-movement when it was a one-score game, while Rob Kearney's pass for Nacewa's second try was blatantly forward, but the better team won.

Erasmus cut a relaxed figure in the aftermath, believing the step up in intensity will help his team as they travel to face French champions Racing 92 next weekend.

He was less satisfied with his team's execution and defensive play. It appears the Munster players are in for a rough time in Jacques Nienaber's video review after some sloppy concessions - with inexperienced wingers Darren Sweetnam and Ronan O'Mahony in the firing line.

In particular, he pointed to Cronin's try attempt as a pivotal moment in the game. Munster dominated possession and territory, but when the chances came they didn't have the accuracy or composure to take them.

Learning from those big moments will be a key theme now for the South African.

Cullen and Stuart Lancaster can instead focus on fine-tuning and will be more confident as they approach fixtures against Castres and Montpellier in the coming weeks.

The pack is functioning well and may even welcome Sean O'Brien back soon, while Johnny Sexton is in strong form to boot.

Henshaw showed a clever mix of brute force and subtle moments, while Ringrose was able to find gaps where others couldn't.

Add in the return of the in-form Zane Kirchner and Josh van der Flier and the prospects for Europe are good.

"There is a really good buzz around the place," tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong said.

"Training has been really good, a lot of lads pushing for places. The competition is pushing training standards. It is enjoyable going to training every day.

"You're really learning stuff and you're working together to get better.

"Europe went poorly last year for a club with the history we have. It was tough to take at the time.

"This year, through this run of games, coming out with five out of six and being level with Ulster at the top of the table, is really good for us. It shows our progression.

"A game against a really good, tough pack that are running hard at you is really good preparation.

"We're really excited to get stuck in next week and the week after and have a crack at these teams."

Cullen will no doubt be reviewing the footage of Saturday's meeting of his French pool rivals, which Jake White's Montpellier won 28-19 at home. At the RDS next weekend, he will be looking for more from his troops. The same again won't do it.

"We're just a little bit narrow in our attack," he said.

"Running into big French teams we're going to get gobbled up, so we need to put a bit more shape on our attack, which we have spent a lot of time working on, but recognising some of the opportunities there to get to that space.

"The set-piece battle is going to be huge and you can't give up those metres at maul, in particular.

"If you watch the Top 14 you watch a lot of drives. Those teams are playing against each other today so we'll see how they go and put in a plan for the next couple of weeks."

Leinster: R Kearney (N Reid 76); R O'Loughlin, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton (J Carbery 69), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 64); C Healy (J McGrath 49), S Cronin (J Tracy 53), T Furlong (M Ross 64); D Toner, I Nagle (R Molony 53); R Ruddock, J Murphy 61), J Heaslip.

Munster: S Zebo; D Sweetnam, K Earls (J Taute 57), R Scannell (I Keatley 71), R O'Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 46), N Scannell (D Casey 76), J Ryan (S Archer 64); D Ryan (R Copeland 69) B Holland; P O'Mahony (capt) (J O'Donoghue h-t), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander.

Ref: D Wilkinson (IRFU)

 

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