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Brent Pope: Why Conor O'Shea has a perfect blend

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Conor O'Shea has a lot of respect for what Leinster have achieved

Conor O'Shea has a lot of respect for what Leinster have achieved

Conor O'Shea has a lot of respect for what Leinster have achieved

At about this time every year, when most of us are licking our lips at the thought of Christmas turkey, teams involved in European Cup rugby know that in reality the next two weeks will make or break their season?

It is what Irish and Leinster prop Jack McGrath aptly describes as "cup final time".

In reality, Leinster and Harlequins could not be closer, with both teams tied on eight points at the top of Pool Two.

Leinster will, perhaps, have a slight psychological advantage in that they are at least away at The Stoop this weekend, in a game that always places more pressure on the home team to win.

In the highly published run-up to Joe Schmidt's appointment as Ireland boss last year, another coach was also touted by the bookies as a viable and deserved candidate for the job - Conor O'Shea.

The former Irish fullback is extremely well respected in the UK for his roles with London Irish, the Olympic Council and for his inspirational management skill-set currently in use at Premiership outfit Harlequins.

In the end it was O'Shea who ruled himself out of the position - citing it "as too early for him" - but he is certainly a man that the IRFU will keep tabs on for the future.

O'Shea is very much in the mould of Schmidt as far as coaching style is concerned.

Extremely articulate with players and the media, a great communicator and an excellent reader of the game.

Bloodgate

In the space of just a few seasons, my RTÉ colleague has taken an ailing Bloodgate-tarnished Harlequins to the top of the English Premiership.

O Shea's handling of his players both on and off the field, his unerring loyalty and his ability, like Schmidt, to plan the downfall of opposition teams, is well documented on both sides of the English Channel.

This week, Leinster coach Matt O'Connor will know that O'Shea will have his Harlequins team primed for the visit of the Blues as well as insider knowledge of some of his Irish players' strengths and weaknesses.

Earlier this week, O'Shea indicated that returning English internationals Chris Robshaw, club captain Joe Marler and Mike Brown "would kill him" if he dared rest them for Leinster.

O'Shea will see this game as a chance to turn around his ailing season, and Matt O'Connor will also know that his opposite number will have poured over recent videos and will be planning Leinster's defeat with meticulous precision.

In his own camp, O'Shea will welcome back England captain Robshaw. Add in the speed of halfback Danny Care, the power and experience of Nick Easter, a better scrum with Joe Maher and the counter attacking prowess of fullback Brown and come Sunday afternoon this Harlequin's side will not be the same side that is struggling to find some form in the Premiership.

In fact in the key decision-making positions of 7, 8, 9 and 10 they have a perfect blend of international experience and flair.

O'Shea will have learnt from Harlequins' shock loss to Munster at home a couple of years ago, and will have briefed his side about the passion that Leinster will bring, that Leinster are always a big-game side and like themselves will be significantly buoyed by the return of some of its key players.

They too will be a different animal. Leinster has always been about tearing up the form book for these so-called knock-out games, and over the years they has proved that they can up their performance levels.

Both teams are in desperate need of a timely positive injection, and whilst Leinster has maintained an excellent home record in the RDS they have often been well under par on the road this season.

Last week they beat off a brave but inexperienced Ospreys side, but they never looked completely convincing either, especially in aspects of their game management and support play.

Leinster struggled to impose their own standards of play and found the Ospreys' deep-kicking game difficult to counter. O'Shea will have taken note.

Thankfully, Matt O'Connor looks as if he will be able to call on the services of key international players like Rob Kearney, Ian Madigan, Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden, Gordon D'Arcy and Mike McCarthy; add in versatile Springbok Zane Kirchner and Leinster's backline still has an international feel to it.

In South African Kirchner he has a player who has an excellent kicking and defensive game, and compliments Rob Kearney perfectly in the Leinster back three.

Risk

Ian Madigan may not have done enough last week for O'Connor to risk him at out-half, but in many ways this is when he should be played. Madigan has the ability to change games in a heartbeat and that is the type of game plan that Leinster will need, especially away from home.

Both teams actually play a similar style of expansive game-plan, and both prefer to move the ball wide rather than play the tram-lines.

But to win this match Leinster must improve their territorial game and kick a lot better to retain possession. Too often the kicking from the Leinster backline has been a yard too long for the chaser or too ineffectual, and in Quins fullback Brown they have a counter-attacker who inevitably beats the first line of defence.

Up front the battle in the forwards will be fairly evenly matched, with both packs having a certain amount of experience and youth. It promises to be a Christmas cracker, with Leinster's greater experience in Europe giving them every reason to think that they can escape with a win. But they will have to outsmart O'Shea first?


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