Thursday 23 February 2017

Victor Costello: Rejuvenated Leinster are ideally placed for crucial period of season

Victor Costello

Johnny Sexton's return should give confidence to the rest of his Leinster team-mates
Johnny Sexton's return should give confidence to the rest of his Leinster team-mates

Leinster's first win away this season under normal circumstances would have been taken for granted against Treviso but in recent years, due to the improvement of the Italian side, it was a victory of substance.

Last year's results against Treviso were a double reminder of the inconsistent performances of the squad against a team that used to be the league's whipping boys.

With one game to go before the Champions Cup, Leinster are ideally placed in the top four of the Pro12.

With a squad the envy of other teams in the tournament, they can make a mark on a campaign that most of the supporters over the last six months wouldn't have anticipated due to a few sloppy seasons, World Cup disruptions and the level of competition in their European pool.

Johnny Sexton's return gave great confidence to the team and fans alike. It was very noticeable how Sexton was managed by the Leinster coach, afforded enough time to get confidence back in the injury and not lumbered by the kicking duties where the ever-consistent Fergus McFadden was available.

Sexton will notice that his player welfare will be a priority from all at Leinster more than it has been in the last two years in France. Jack McGrath took up where he left off in the World Cup and was supported by great performances from Isa Nacewa, Ben Te'o and Jack Conan.

Cathal Marsh's introduction proves that he can mix it with the big boys and he will push Ian Madigan to be Sexton's immediate back-up.

And seeing Sean Cronin running with ball in hand again would energise even the most sedate supporter and have them wondering where has he been for the last six weeks.

The next few weeks hold great challenges for the Leinster team. Normally one of the biggest worries would be the hope that you can field your best team after a hard World Cup of injuries and the loss of senior players.

Coaches generally therefore would be forgiven for taking a one-game-at-a-time attitude and living or dying by weekly results.

This season, this period gives them an opportunity to pit themselves at home against the league leaders Scarlets this evening from which they will always expect a win with home advantage. Then the following week the start of European rugby.

Following on from that, Leinster take on Ulster and Munster.

When it comes to these provincial games there are many sub-plots.

Before, most provincial games ended up in stalemate because both sets of players knew each other so well; then you can factor in the fact that these games can be looked as trial matches for individuals that have ambitions for the Irish jersey.

This is never more relevant than in World Cup year when player transition normally happens - out with the old and in with the new.

Finally, this season Leo Cullen goes up against his old team-mate Anthony Foley and coach Les Kiss from Ulster, personal yardsticks that will test the coaching rookie. A tough but interesting time ahead for Leinster.

Progress

Scarlets will not only be a stern test but they will also rate Leinster's progress since their last meeting.

They have showed a ruthless confidence that will be hard to shift. A short turnaround shouldn't affect Leinster's ambition of keeping their home record intact and the reintroduction of more senior players will ensure a home victory.

History in Leinster tell us that when European rugby was at its best, the daily routine of Pro12 rugby had a ruthlessness and consistency that provided the platform for the success at the final stages in Europe.

These next two months of rugby will put Leinster into those stages as players are still fresh and hungry. If they end up in a battle for qualification near the end of the season, they might have to rely on the players that got them this far already.

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