Thursday 17 August 2017

Victor Costello: Gutsy Connacht showed Leinster how Clermont will look to play against them

Rhys Ruddock attemps an off-load against Connacht. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Rhys Ruddock attemps an off-load against Connacht. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Victor Costello

Connacht have reinvented themselves in recent times and are playing a consistent brand of rugby which led them to success last season.

Unfortunately this success resulted in the departure of some of their finest players but the DNA and core values still live on, and some of the handling skills they showed last Saturday have only been seen before by Europe's finest.

Generally in rugby, after a team reaches new heights like Connacht did last year in the Guinness Pro12, there is a lag the following season - unless you are a club like Toulouse, Leicester or these days Leinster, where the squad numbers are vast.

The Westerners they have managed their following season well and next year should bear fruit again.

For Leinster it was an ideal venue, game and opposition to play in preparation for the Champions Cup semi-final. The word 'preparation' sounds like a lack of respect for the Connacht side but it is quite the contrary.

Clermont try to play the way Connacht do except they are not as good at it. French rugby has been trying to get back to the laissez faire attitude for years but it hasn't worked. What's more is that most French sides are packed with individuals paid to play with no loyalty to club or province.

Leinster came up against a Connacht side that had the skills to move the ball around but also the loyalty and belief in the jersey they are wearing - and when a team has both ability, heart and soul, they are normally very hard to stop.

Leinster had to continuously look for ways around a very proud Connacht side and while Pat Lam's men exposed them in defence, it was more down to their quality.

Leo Cullen's troops have tidied up their act in defence, particularly in broken play. This is an area where Clermont will try and attack Leinster, so identifying it before the Connacht game and then testing it out proved a worthy cause.

It is never easy beating Connacht but this victory served a lot of purposes for Leinster's season ambitions, including a home semi-final in the Pro12.

Clermont will have all the razzmatazz home support that is associated with French teams and there's no doubt they are a good side, but when you scratch beneath the surface of modern French teams, they don't have the substance of old.

When you look back at the great Toulouse sides in their day, they were unstoppable. Nowadays, there seems to be a disconnection or lack of understanding between coach and players.

When playing away in France, the initial desire of a team is to silence the home crowd. It is very rewarding to succeed in this manner and devastating for the home side; invariably they disintegrate.

This weekend, Leinster's in-your-face defence off first phase will be critical to starting and continuing on the right foot.

Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose's initial line of defence has been impenetrable throughout the competition and when activated against the likes of Clermont, it will have maximum effect, as all French teams need space and time to get their game going.

Most great teams have built their success from their defence, and this will be the priority for Leinster.

European rugby training weeks always have an edge to them and for both coaches and players, the level of tension and anxiety is noticeable in the lead-up to the game.

Nightmare

With the recent success in both competitions, selection is going to be a nightmare for management but likely to have been made some time ago with slight adjustments.

There are a lot of back-rows with their hands up, and last weekend apart from man of the match Josh van der Flier, Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock stood out.

Jono Gibbes, Clermont's forwards coach, will have some insight into the Leinster he left behind, but as sport quickly moves on, it really bears no resemblance to today's squad.

Ultimately some games come down to who wants it more, and this Leinster team have proved their desire to date.

Irish Independent

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