Neil Francis: Leinster pay high price for failing to apply themselves
Losing injured O'Brien no excuse as O'Connor's charges get easily turned over, writes Neil Francis
This match was won well before Jerome Garces whistled for the kick off. Yes the loss of Seán O'Brien was huge but mentally Leinster were nowhere yesterday and fully deserved to get turned over. Ability is what you are capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.
Northampton after their evisceration last week had all the motivation they needed and their attitude was encapsulated in how they defended. They do have pride after all and they were gleefully bellicose on the gain line. When you have been emptied, the first building block of resistance is how you put your tackles in. Leinster -- as Jim Mallander found out -- look awesome off front-foot ball, they are a little bit more ordinary when they haven't got across the gain line and they try to run the ball against a defence that is still standing.
Northampton played a fairly fundamental version of the game in their guacamole and canary yellow jerseys and they fixed many things for the return game, but their mental attitude was the key and they came to Dublin with this thought in mind: there is simply no way we can beat Leinster, but Leinster could lose to us.
Northampton got their scrum right and they got the pinch on when it mattered. They were also acutely aware of how good Leinster's defence was and they reverted to using their maul as often as they could, particularly when they chose line-outs instead of three-pointers. They never managed to get over the line from this gambit but what it did do was eat up an awful lot of the clock, It kept Leinster in their own half and it coerced them into a type of game that they did not want to engage in.
They also do something that I am a firm advocate of: they got men into the air at every opportunity and they picked off some of Leinster's throws and, more importantly, they got Leinster into a position where they had to clean up ball that was won. In essence, this ball was of no value to the men in blue.
Northampton's big hitters: Manoa, Lawes, Wood and Clarke laid the foundation and set their tone of resistance, they also looked far more dangerous with ball in hand this time and they retained their ball more efficiently. Last week they turned it over 27 times. North's move into the centre also confused Leinster. The big man is not a great passer, but you really do sometimes need two men to take him down and Leinster could not get any change out of him defensively, even though he was playing out of position. It was a key change and North's beautiful line off Burrell, who held the ball up just a second longer, gave you a sense that Northampton were dangerous.
You would have figured that the Lions' wing would have finished off when he intercepted Fitzgerald's loose pass, but the transfer to Wood wasn't clever enough and Leinster managed to diffuse the situation despite conceding a penalty. The lineout maul was well stocked by Ross.
The Northampton half backs, Lee Dixon and Stephen Myler, were weighing like an anchor on whatever Northampton were trying to do. Dixon's accuracy was poor and Myler's generalship was uncertain and he criminally missed an easy penalty with a really bad kick.
As both teams went in you figured that this was when Matt O'Connor would earn his corn. I reckoned the introduction of Gopperth very early in the second half would have paid dividends. Madigan didn't play badly, but I figured Goperth's all round game, particularly in kicking terms, might have sniffed out a win.
Even the most clueless contrarian might have guessed how difficult this game would be for Leinster, and after godding them up over the last week it would be very hard for them to readjust and apply themselves.
It is very hard to reconcile the fact that they scored six tries last week and left three behind and then could not get over the whitewash once in front of 45,000 plus supporters. O'Brien was a huge loss but there was a lack of quality off the bench, particularly the introduction of Michael Bent who, in the space of 10 minutes, gave the game away at scrum time by the concession of stupid penalties and by being caught in possession.
With 15 to go the game was there for Leinster. Lawes, Hartley and Manoa were all off the park and Northampton were making silly errors.
Even when Myler missed an easy enough penalty with a truly dreadful kick, O'Driscoll of all people returned the shank with an equally bad slice. Northampton did their homework on Leinster and figured them out pretty efficiently. That said, if Leinster's mental attitude had even been 20 per cent better they would have won this game. They were denied a bonus point by Jamie Elliott's intercept, but they are lucky that Castres were beaten by the Ospreys. This loss will have cost them a home quarter-final and they will have all of Christmas to think through how they got themselves into this ungodly mess and they still have to play Castres who are not out of it yet. Neither are Northampton for that matter.