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Brent Pope: Leinster primed to bounce back

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Leinster's Gordon D'Arcy during squad training ahead of their European Rugby Champions Cup 2014/15, Pool 2, Round 4, match against Harlequins on Saturday

Leinster's Gordon D'Arcy during squad training ahead of their European Rugby Champions Cup 2014/15, Pool 2, Round 4, match against Harlequins on Saturday

Leinster's Gordon D'Arcy during squad training ahead of their European Rugby Champions Cup 2014/15, Pool 2, Round 4, match against Harlequins on Saturday

DESPITE a below par showing in the Twickenham Stoop last weekend I fully expect Leinster to bounce back this weekend with a home victory against Harlequins.

While Matt O’Connor welcomes Irish Internationals such as Dave Kearney, Dominic Ryan and Richardt Strauss back into the selection pool, his rival Conor O’Shea is not as fortunate having to face Leinster without two of his key players, Chris Robshaw and ex-All Black Nick Evans.

While O’Shea can possibly plug the hole at No 7, the position of who is best placed to fill in at outhalf remains a crucial area for him.

Evans so long a Harlequins game-breaker, and with his back-up fellow New Zealander Ben Botica also injured, O’Shea will be digging to the depths of his squad to have a quality replacement ready for this match.

Young Springbok Tim Swiel is without doubt a talented player and learning his trade, but last week on his European debut he looked decidedly nervous, and if selected again it will take all of O Shea’s management skills to get him up to international speed in just one week.

Make no mistake despite all the soul-searching and spin this week Leinster are still not really firing.

Individuals are playing well enough in patches, but the team as a cohesive, collective unit is just not gelling as they would have hoped.

But a week is a long time, and with another game under their belts one feels that Leinster’s greater experience and dynamism in the backline should still see them victorious.

For the past few seasons Leinster have had the luxury of one of the best ball-carrying loose forwards in the world in Seán O’Brien, but with O’Brien out injured that mantle has been picked up by blindside flanker Rhys Ruddock.

Ruddock so long in the shadows of his more illustrious team-mates has, in my opinion, really emerged this season and is playing some quality rugby.

Ruddock’s performances for Ireland, especially against South Africa, has continued into Europe and last week he was very much to the fore in getting Leinster over the gainline and  at least onto the front foot.

Son of ex-Welsh coach Mike Ruddock, himself a proud servant of both Leinster and Irish rugby, Ruddock has the perfect physique for a blindside flanker. Powerful enough to be a lifter in the lineout as well as a jumper and with great body position around the rucks and mauls O’Connor, as well as Irish coach Joe Schmidt, must be delighted with Ruddock’s consistent progress. 

Over the years Leinster have always looked most dangerous when they have players like Rocky Elsom, O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Seán Cronin and now Ruddock attacking the opposition from depth, it allows Leinster the all-important gain-line plays, and means that players like Eoin Reddan, Jimmy Gopperth, Ian Madigan and others can take the ball moving forward rather than static.

We saw glimpses of Leinster’s ability in this area especially in the first ten minutes of last week’s game, when aggressive breakdown clean-outs and fast unobstructed ruck ball allowed the likes of Gopperth to make significant line breaks, it just did not continue for the rest of the game, or if it did it was negated by poor passing and isolated ball-carriers failing to link with support players.

There was also some suggestion this week by Leinster’s articulate spokesman Ian Madigan that some of the Leinster forwards appeared tired. One area that will tire players out quicker than most is the work at scrum time, it can be wasted energy especially if the loose forwards cannot detach quickly enough.

Leinster will surely have worked on their scrum this week, and while English loose head Joe Marler is not yet listed as one of O’Shea’s walking wounded, he looked in enough trouble last week when he left the field to suggest that while he may start tomorrow night’s game, he may not have the same sort of destructive effect that he had last week.

Take away Harlequins’ scrum and you take away a lot of their power game up front, players like big No 8 Nick Easter and scrumhalf Danny Care could not believe how much space they had last week, often getting into Leinster’s backline before they had a finger laid on them.

I suspect that will not happen tomorrow in the Aviva, Leinster’s scrum will compete and their defensive system in this area greatly improved. Other areas that Leinster will target is the breakdown, where if they communicate more effectively then there are plenty of chances to counter-ruck and in this particular area O’Connor may be tempted to select the inform Dominic Ryan.

Last weekend Harlequins did not overly commit extra numbers to the rucks, often fanning out across the field and allowing the much underrated Robshaw to slow up Leinster’s ball and quicken up their own.

It meant that at times Leinster’s backs had difficulty finding holes in what was a congested Harlequins defence. On the wing Marland Wade is seriously quick if he gets space, but defensively he can be exploited, especially in the kick and chase area of the game.

Leinster’s line speed in defence must also ensure that the likes of Harlequin’s fullback Mike Brown does not break the first line of defence as he did so frequently last weekend.

A lot of the media talk this week has centred on the fact that Jimmy Gopperth is leaving the club. Rugby players only have a short window in their careers nowadays, and New Zealand Gopperth will feel that with Johnny Sexton moving back and Madigan always in the wings, then there is no option for him, and he is right.

Gopperth will be snapped up by an English or French club, and the talk on the street is that it will be Wasps, but despite the mind games Gopperth is a seasoned professional and he performed particularly well last week despite his team’s loss.

If Leinster can just ‘talk the talk and walk the walk” I not only expect them to win, but I also think they will deny Harlequins a bonus point. One thing has always remained constant in European rugby; win your home matches and then take bonus points on the road, and that’s exactly what they have done.

Leinster are still very much in a good position in this pool provided of course they can just deliver on their tremendous potential. Enough positivity from me, but it is Christmas time! Leinster to win by at least 10.


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