Brent Pope: 'The PRO14 has become slightly farcical and Leinster will receive their first test in a while against Bath'
Read Brent Pope every week in The Herald
Traditionally about this time every Christmas, almost half the teams in European competition realistically drop out of contention.
The golden rule for qualification in this competition has always been the same – at the very least, win all your home matches and then look for bonus points and wins away, especially when teams out of it start to lose interest.
Leo Cullen knows how crucial these back-to-back games against Bath are as he attempts to lead his Leinster team back to the top of the group.
Of course, Bath made a monumental mess of their first home game against four-time European champions Toulouse when their international out-half Freddie Burns had the ball knocked from his hands as he nonchalantly trotted underneath the posts for what should have been the match-winning try, instead they lost by two points.
A draw against Wasps in their second outing now puts the home side in a very precarious position. They know that if they lose again this weekend, especially at home, in such a tight group, then they are more or less goosed.
Bath’s domestic performances of late would not have the travelling Leinster supporters overly nervous. At present, Bath lie a lowly sixth in the English Premiership with just three wins to their name. Some would argue that this is not a true reflection of their ability and they have shown in recent Premiership matches, and against Toulouse, that they do have some quality players, especially from positions five through 10, with internationals like Burns, Kahn Fotuali’i, Zach Mercer, Sam Underhill, Francois Louw and their captain and second row, the abrasive Charlie Ewels.
But even having such quality personnel still won’t be enough to take on a rampant Leinster team which seems to do little wrong at the moment. Bath know that they will have to find another gear just to compete, trying to cope against a tight five that made even the All Blacks artillery division shudder.
Without their fill of primary possession, Bath will not have enough go-forward ball to unleash their potential play-makers out wide.
Leinster should out-muscle Bath up front and, in Joe Schmidt talk, ‘starve’ Bath of territory and possession.
Simply living off Leinster’s scraps is not good enough against a team without any discernible weaknesses, so Bath will need to unearth a different game plan for Leinster’s visit.
But sometimes when teams try too hard, or try and change things around too much in chasing a win, then they run the risk of completely coming unstuck.
Bath are desperate and in front of a passionate home crowd, with Freddie Burns looking to make amends for his unreal error, so the English side will not lack in motivation. I just think that they lack the quality across the squad.
Unfortunately for the English game, at the moment, the talent is spread too thinly over too many clubs and that is also restricting the national side. The key players are also asked to play a lot more games per season than their Leinster counterparts, as they are at the financial mercy of ‘sugar daddy’ club owners.
Leinster, on the other hand, have a conveyor belt of players who are constantly keeping the incumbents honest when they are absent. This raises competitiveness.
Leinster’s demolition of the Ospreys and the Dragons, whilst missing many key figures, demonstrated this.
Leinster’s only real vulnerability is a loss of focus at vital times in matches and a failure to be completely clinical.
It has not worried them for the past few weeks against poor opposition, so Leinster have not been tested for a while, but Bath will test them.
It will be good to see a real test for Leinster. The PRO14 has become slightly farcical, for me, as some teams have gotten to a stage where they know they don’t have a realistic chance of beating teams like Leinster away, so they often field weaker sides, saving their big plays for teams they think they can beat.
While I understand the reasoning, it just means a competition similar to soccer’s Scottish Premiership, where it is a procession between two or three teams every season, and no one wants to see that. What did Leinster really learn from last week’s thrashing of the Dragons?
They learned that not only can they compete, but they can win comfortably without their marquee players, which is remarkable.
The work being done at schools, underage and academy level is bearing considerable fruit. Last weekend, the Leinster side not only won the match by 49 points, but they played brilliantly in doing so, with a new cache of potential Leinster and Irish stars coming to the fore.
Tomorrow, you would assume that the opposition will be much tougher than the Dragons, given its Bath and the Champions Cup, and for 30 to 40 minutes it will be tight, but again the old cliché of ‘forwards win matches, the backs determine by how much’ will come into play. Leinster by 10 or more.