Leinster learning the art of loving the one they're with
It's not the Heineken Cup, but Leinster are in the Amlin to win it
When it was put to Wasps coach Dai Young last week that a Leinster side minus Eoin Reddan, Jonny Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll was a reasonably attractive proposition, he responded by saying that it would be a whole lot better to look at if Mike Ross was also out of the picture.
This was part poor mouth and part acknowledgement that Wasps are more comfortable about the stunning finishing power of wings Tom Varnell and Christian Wade – 20 tries between them this season – than the ability of their scrum to withstand an assault.
Expect more of the same from Young this week as the jockeying for position continues between himself and Joe Schmidt. Leinster's coach will make much of Wasps' home record where the fact that they had lost just once coming to this weekend puts manners on the stat of three defeats in a row en route to entertaining Saracens yesterday, as against Leinster's haul of 19 from the last 20 points on offer.
The thing that strikes you about Wasps is their stickability. Of 12 defeats this season only three have been by more than a score. Clearly we are beyond the bonus points stage of the campaign, but it has implications for Adams Park where Leinster will be relieved to arrive to the last quarter with their noses in front. This would have some resonance with their Heineken Cup campaign where not only did they struggle to score tries, but in a preview of what would happen men in green, the final straight was a real battle for them:
"I suppose the disappointing thing about the last two (pool) games is probably that we did a lot of work in the first 50 minutes and almost ran out of steam in both," says Leo Cullen. "I think we scored one try in the last 60 minutes (combined) of both games. Looking back that's probably the biggest regret."
There won't be much talk this week of what might have been. Cullen is not so long in the tooth that he could remember Stephen Stills making a few bob out of a tune called Love the One You're With – it was in the '70s, in fairness – but that's the theme in the Leinster camp heading for High Wycombe. So long Heino, hello Amlin?
"That's they way you have to look at it realistically," Cullen says. "There's no point dwelling on it. If you look at the quality of teams left in the Amlin, it's pretty staggering – when they put out the stats of the number of winners of the main competition left (four of the eight quarter-finalists: Leinster, Wasps, Toulouse and Bath have 10 titles between them) it's kind of bizarre in a way."
It's six years since Wasps over-ran a fatigued Leicester, for whom Shane Jennings started and Cullen came off the bench in the second half. Since then they have struggled on and off the pitch, looking at one point like they might go out of business. They have stabilised this season and their target in the Premiership is a top-six finish, which is more than a lot of pundits expected of them last September.
Success in the Amlin would be a huge bonus, but it's at this stage of the competition that weaknesses are exposed, and even with Tom Palmer, Joe Launchbury and James Haskell back in the starting line-up this weekend, the Wasps eight are not in the business of bullying teams. Predictably enough, Cullen is reluctant to class them as easy beats up front.
"I've seen them quite a bit and their scrum went very well at the weekend I thought and they pushed Northampton around a bit at times. English teams will
always be very organised and well-drilled at the set-piece. I saw their (Wasps) game against Northampton last weekend and they did concede a couple of tries from driven mauls but that's Northampton's game.
"It was one of those games where after Northampton got a pretty good start Wasps were dominant I thought for that middle part. Obviously the try they got from (Dylan) Hartley late on they ground it out well.
"I just think they're a well-balanced team. I know Dai Young, even from his Cardiff days he likes having those strong ball carriers and they have strong ball carriers across the park – Ashley Johnson and (Billy) Vunipola, and someone like (Andrea) Masi in the centre when he plays as well, and the speed they have on the wings. I know Tom Varndell obviously from Leicester and he's a freakish talent, probably a little bit inconsistent I suppose but when he fires on his day it's ridiculous how fast he is."
Leinster fans might consider it equally ridiculous if they end up pursuing Pro12 success, having lost the last three finals in that competition, as the only date left on their dance card. With the prospect of a home semi-final and final, it would be careless not to be entertaining in the RDS on May 17.