Saturday 21 October 2017

No breathing space as Leinster take plunge

Key injuries make task facing O'Connor's men all the more tricky against their bogey team, writes David Kelly

David Kelly

David Kelly

It's deja vu all over again for Leinster.

For the second successive season, the three-time Heineken Cup champions begin a European campaign with the spotlight reflecting upon players who are not in their starting line-up, rather than those that are.

Last season, pre-Christmas huffing and puffing, dogged by an inability to convert scoring chances, left the then title holders chasing their tail in the qualifications stakes.

They would never recover from their sluggish start.

Twelve months on, there's a fair argument for saying that this year's version of Leinster is a much more weakened ensemble.

And there's an equally valid argument to be made for pinpointing this qualification pool as even trickier than last season's; as if that wasn't a thorny enough proposition, the luck of Leinster's draw hampers a side seeking early breathing space.

There is none.

When Leinster kicked off against Exeter last term, Rob Kearney, Gordon D'Arcy, Sean O'Brien, Eoin O'Malley, Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock all sat in the bleachers.

It took a Jonathan Sexton penalty to squeeze past a gutsy but limited English side that could, on another day, have escaped with two points – or even more – had they nailed their kicks against overly complacent hosts.

AERIAL

Now there is no Sexton. No Isa Nacewa. Brian O'Driscoll is injured. Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings, the inestimable leaders in aerial and ground combat, are marked absent.

Richardt Strauss, the king of turnover ball and the ace thrower, has been cruelly struck down; O'Malley is sadly retired. Short-term signing Lote Tuqiri is hamstrung.

In stark contrast, the Ospreys have the luxury of deigning to leave out Ian Evans, their marauding Lions second-row forward, from the entire match-day 23.

It is a formidable statement of intent. Even from a side who have luxuriated in delusions of grandeur for nigh on a decade now. Ospreys have perennially emitted grandiose statements of intent in previous years, before falling comically on their faces once the white-hot combat begins.

Perhaps it is not a bad thing for Leinster to be confronted so early with a game loaded with so much portentous intent; Exeter at home and Scarlets away just didn't offer the same sense of desperation last season.

It is a baptism of fire for new Leinster coach Matt O'Connor. Unsurprisingly, he adopts a gambit that his predecessor deployed most frequently as the province blazed their European trail.

There is a definitive look of the 'away' selection about this Leinster side; a beefed up Isaac Boss at No 9 ahead of Eoin Reddan, the relatively conservative option of Jimmy Gopperth, rather than the enigmatic Ian Madigan at 10, a much heftier pack than what could have been selected.

With Brendan Macken starting a first Heineken Cup game in O'Driscoll's stead, O'Connor has little room for expressionism this evening; emerging from the Principality with some points is the prime purpose.

Should matters run ever more smoothly than most expect, the opportunity to wheel Madigan, Reddan, Luke Fitzgerald et al from the bench to launch a late charge to the finishing line is certainly a tantalising prospect.

Clearly, the reverse is true; the same trio may be needed to launch a last-gasp heroic rescue.

Next weekend, the team selection is likely to reflect a different set of priorities. Such are the exigencies of this wonderful competition. Whether Leinster are in decent enough shape to recalibrate their challenge next week remains to be seen.

Reddan and Madigan could argue against their omission: the shambolic attack and defence of ruck ball that unfolded before their eyes in Thomond Park last Saturday was utterly inimical to either making a positive contribution.

No matter, they failed their audition and they have paid the initial price.

And, while both Irish sides tried to play up their scrum efforts in Limerick, one sensed that Munster did so much more convincingly; Ospreys' strength this season has been their scrum.

Few come here and prosper in Europe; only Saracens have done so in eight years, albeit Leicester nicked a draw here last season.

But the Welsh do bear an Indian sign over Leinster as seemingly recidivist thefts in Celtic League finales demonstrate.

There are no teams in European rugby that Leinster fear; there are teams that vex them, though. The Welshmen head the short queue.

Whether it is their smothering rush defence, awkwardness at the breakdown or just general nuisance value, Ospreys have developed a comfortably familiar habit of sneering in the face of Leinster's established reputation as a European heavyweight.

Only two wins in nine for the men in blue against Ospreys outweigh any other notable stats – 11 wins in succession against Welsh sides or two defeats in the last 10 European away ties.

Leinster have talked a lot about allowing their remaining leaders to step up; a much improved effort from D'Arcy would be a start. Leinster need others to thrive too, though.

The forward battle will be key; crucially, Jamie Heaslip and O'Brien are primed to explode if their second-half display in Limerick offers accurate evidence.

Ospreys will be boosted further by the return to fitness of Ryan Jones, while James King starts, taking Evans' lock berth alongside inspirational captain Alun-Wyn Jones.

MISTAKE

Veteran prop Duncan Jones has been preferred to Ryan Bevington at loose-head and packs down in the front-row alongside Lions stars Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones.

Ben John is preferred to Jeff Hassler on the right wing.

"They're a team you have to put away, you can't give them opportunities," stresses Heaslip.

"We talk about them being a very efficient team and if you make a mistake, any basic error, they're very good at punishing you.

"And that's why if you give them a sniff they can get back into games. Where we've beaten them is when we've put them away, not really given them a lot of opportunities and executed really well."

Easier said than done on this season's limited evidence.

Verdict: Draw

Ospreys v Leinster

Live, Sky Sports 2, 6.0

Irish Independent

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