Brent Pope: 'Leinster just need to up their game a tiny increment to win again'
Looking at last weekend’s Champions Cup match against Bath, I see it like this: Bath actually played very well, performing far better than their recent results in the Premiership would have indicated. However, I kind of expected that they would.
Todd Blackadder’s men gave their play plenty of width and, significantly for this weekend’s re-match, they caused Leinster all kinds of problems at the breakdown with 22-year-old English flanker Sam Underhill and South African Francois Louw stopping Leinster’s flow of ball and, therefore, momentum at source.
Ireland’s Joe Schmidt will have looked on with interest, it is a long time since English rugby had a fetcher in the mould of, say, a Neil Back. Combine Underhill with some of England’s big carriers that may be back in harness for the Six Nations, players like the massive Billy Vunipola, and suddenly the first week in February looks interesting.
However, despite the fact that Bath played well, mixing their game-plan up well at home in front of a bumper crowd, they still lost.
That is the danger of this Leinster side, even when the Blues do not perform at their best.
The experiment of playing Dan Leavy at number eight, with Jack Conan on the bench coming on to replace Leavy in the second half, did not work and at times Leinster were second to the loose ball. But here’s the kicker – they still won.
The point is this: Leinster have that ability to play below form and still be good enough to see off the challenge of teams that throw everything at them. The fact that they are at home this weekend should make for a very different story.
Leo Cullen will be extremely frustrated at how the likes of Underhill and Louw manipulated the way Leinster could play; between the two of them they were responsible for most of the turnovers Leinster conceded, plus a string of penalties.
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In fact, one such turnover, involving a back-pedalling Leavy, led to Bath’s try minutes later. Without their usual source of free-flowing ball Leinster, like any team shut down, struggled.
Leinster’s set-piece game is extremely strong, so Cullen knows that is not the area of concern.
This week, he would have concentrated on the jackal, developing a more effective clear out of defenders at ruck time and better ball presentation in attack, all workable and all areas that Leinster can put right.
I suspect Cullen will make a change to his backrow for Bath’s visit, with the return of Jack Conan to his usual No 8 position.
This gives the Leinster back row a better-looking balance.
Leavy is a quality player, world class, in my opinion, at number six or seven but not at eight. Number eight constitutes a more roving role, whist Cullen needs Leavy locked over the ball at the breakdown, which is where his best attributes lie.
Johnny Sexton knows the extra space at the Aviva better than any player on the planet and he will assume the role of putting Leinster into good scoring positions early on.
When you are playing at home, you always aim to get early points on the board as it makes it difficult for opposition teams to think they can come back, especially when Leinster have such an incredible home record.
Sexton will want his players to give him a better second-phase platform to work with, so he can use his educated kicking game, Cullen will want the penalty count down to single figures and turnovers at the breakdown greatly reduced.
There should be a better performance from Leinster this time and while Bath’s attitude to last week’s game, in the manner they played, should be applauded, for me, Leinster just need to up their game a tiny increment to win again.
Bath are desperate, but really need an away five-pointer to have a slight mathematical chance of qualification.
Leinster simply will not allow that. They want to devour a Christmas turkey knowing they are in a good position come the New Year. Leinster by 15.