Sunday 24 September 2017

Missed tackles, creaking scrum and lack of possession -- plenty to work on for O'Connor

Here we highlight five areas which the Leinster coach must address to keep Blues on path to European glory

Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor
Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

WITH three Heineken Cup titles in five years, Leinster are a team with big ambitions, and they are not in the competition to make up the numbers.

Their focus this week is on overcoming the Ospreys and securing a quarter-final berth, but their long-term ambitions extend far beyond achieving a place in the last eight.

With Joe Schmidt, Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa gone, Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen retiring at the end of this campaign and question marks over the futures of Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien, there is a sense of urgency about this year's campaign as Matt O'Connor faces some rebuilding next season.

Sunday's win in Castres put the Australian's side on the cusp of a quarter-final, but it also highlighted a number of areas he will need to address, beginning this weekend.

Leinster missed a huge number of tackles, creaked at scrum and line-out time and spent large periods of the game without the ball.

With a clean bill of health from last weekend and the return of Rhys Ruddock, there is confidence that Leinster can negotiate their way past their old friends from Wales.

Then, the coach will have two months to plan for a probable quarter-final in France, and the holes Top 14 champions Castres punched in the province's rearguard will serve as a lesson for that date in April.

1 TIGHTEN UP THE DEFENCE

Given the size of Castres' ball carriers, it was no surprise that Leinster's defence focused on the low-down 'chop' tackles on Sunday's game, and it resulted in a number of turnovers.

However, it also backfired at times when the home side's big back-rows were able to keep on their feet and free their hands -- as Ibrahim Diarra did when he held off Jordi Murphy to release Remi Lamerat for Richie Gray's opening try.

The French side must still be wondering how they didn't finish off the multitude of chances they created as they made 503 metres with ball in hand -- it took last-gasp scramble defending from the likes of Dave Kearney and Jack McGrath, coupled with O'Driscoll's prowess on the ground, to keep the hosts at bay.

With Clermont, Toulon or Toulouse looking the most likely last-eight opponents, Leinster will know that first-up lapses will be punished by better teams.

2 CONTROL THE SHOOTERS

Something that hasn't helped Leinster's defensive effort has been ill-timed shoot-ups in the midfield, with Connacht and Castres taking advantage of defenders coming out of the line at inopportune times to cut off the move.

Skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy argued that Leinster don't deliberately send shooters into the line, but the players are going for it and it has almost cost the team dearly.

Again, the better teams will exploit the timing issues in a more ruthless way than Castres were able to. It wasn't the only factor, but 27 missed tackles will need addressing.

3 GET THEIR SCRUM RIGHT

Leinster lost three scrums against the head and were under pressure on their opponents' ball on Sunday, and while they got away with it at Castres, they will know that the other French teams will have taken note.

The policy of allowing the ball to roll across the front-row and pushing over might work in the Pro12, but Greg Feek and Jono Gibbes may need to develop another strategy that would involve Sean Cronin getting the ball back to Jamie Heaslip's feet and out of the scrum as quickly as possible.

4 PROTECT THEIR BALL

Leinster played Nigel Owens brilliantly and forced a number of big turnovers, but they were often loose when the ball was on their own side and allowed good possession slip away after contact.

Castres played well on Sunday, but that kind of turnover ball is lethal when given to Sitiveni Sivivatu, Delon Armitage and other lethal counter-attackers in the big guns' ranks, so Leinster need to do a better job of protecting their ball.

5 KEEP TAKING THEIR CHANCES

Experience and nous kicked in for the three-time champions at the weekend as they managed to take almost every opportunity that presented itself.

From Rob Kearney landing a drop-goal from nothing, to Jimmy Gopperth punishing Castres' inability to close out the first half, O'Connor's men knew chances would be at a premium and made sure they took them when they presented themselves.

Things will be tighter again come April if a quarter-final berth is secured and similar economy will be required.

Irish Independent

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