Monday 18 December 2017

Defensively sound Leinster need to pack more punch

Reasons to be cheerful but Schmidt's men have room to improve, writes Neil Francis

Let's delve into our treasure trove of clichés to describe this one. 'In the heel of the hunt', I suppose Leinster had a broader range of vision and were in a position to up their performance levels to see off a limited Llanelli side that didn't produce anything close to a performance that might have upset the European champions.

Individually, the two people who had most at stake were both outhalves, Rhys Priestland and Jonny Sexton. And had it not been for more surgery on Warren Gatland's injured heel, meaning he wasn't watching, neither would be heading to Australia.

Sexton was by far the better performer but his game was pockmarked with uncertainties and uncharacteristic mistakes at critical times which meant that Leinster, particularly in the second half, had to sweat when the pattern of the game dictated they should have got to the 80th minute in second gear.

Kicks and drop-offs directly to touch in the middle of the second half hampered his team's continuity, but Sexton did enough to show Gatland that he is the man and he was, more than anyone in Leinster's ranks, the person responsible for probably the best 40 minutes that Leinster have played all season.

He ensured that Leinster got into the game and dismissed the fact that they were playing away from home through the amount of ball that they managed to monopolise. His cross-field kick for Leinster's first try was executed with such geometric precision that even those council engineers with the high-visibility jackets couldn't have placed it better. Isa Nacewa, who had glided up silently on the left wing, still had a huge amount to do. There was a 6'4'' Welsh mountain in front of him -- he chose to climb the North face. The timing of the jump and the concentration of the catch were world class. George North tried to stand him up and push him into touch but Nacewa's strength is such that he was able to wriggle and dot down -- it was a hammer blow to Llanelli.

In the minutes just after half-time, Sexton produced a moment of magic from one of a number of Llanelli mistakes. Liam Williams' kick out of defence went too far away from the touch-line and it was in-field enough for Sexton to consider a drop-goal. Not many outhalves are as certain as the Leinster man from that distance and he thumped a sumptuous drop-goal over from 45 metres to keep the scoreboard ticking over -- this on a day when Dan Carter missed a simple enough effort to keep the All Blacks' winning record alive.

Priestland too was plagued with doubt and his confidence at this moment is at a low ebb. It is noteworthy to compare and contrast his mental wellbeing now playing for his club and how he feels playing for Wales in the first round of the Six Nations in February. Yesterday he was 50 per cent on his place kicks and went through a range of mistakes which killed his side, the most unforgivable in the last minute when they had a chance to draw the game and he kicked his ball dead. Let's see how he performs throughout the rest of the year.

This was a game of set pieces and set plays. Leinster were very good in certain areas -- at the breakdown they were bristling with intent and forceful for the first two or three hits into the ruck. They picked up 11 turnovers on the ground against Llanelli and in a game of this proximity that is the winning and losing of it.

Leinster's scrum was excellent and it got better as the game went on. On their second last scrum they took Llanelli 15 metres down the field with great skill from Jamie Heaslip to control the ball at the base. For Heaslip to control it at that speed showed great dexterity. With Leinster's scrum in such ascendancy it was like playing tennis with the net down. I do think it is unfair that every time a team goes forward, even five metres, referees seem to give a penalty against the retreating side. If life was fair Elvis would be alive and all his impersonators would be dead -- that is the way they are refereeing it at the moment. It's a truism -- you need a scrum to win this competition.

Leinster defensively were very good. They knew that Llanelli could score tries -- they are the highest try scorers in the Rabo at the moment. Llanelli knew that they were out of the competition if they lost and so we were told they would be desperate for the win.

Desperation either enhances or impairs your ability to compete but you felt that really what Llanelli needed was sewn into their shirt by one of their sponsors. Dyfed Steel was emblazoned on the Scarlets' white jerseys -- it was exactly what they were lacking -- and as they played over the course of the game you sensed that they almost gave up as Leinster pummelled them and closed them off at source giving them very little option but to kick slow ball away, which Priestland did very badly to waiting and inconvenienced Leinster recipients in the back field.

One of the other set plays looked pretty innocuous as the game seemed to be meandering to a pre-destined conclusion. Sexton made one of his mistakes in the 52nd minute giving Llanelli a lineout just off the 10-yard line. This would be meat and drink to Leinster's midfield defence and Priestland's cut-out pass looked pretty aimless as the ball found its way into Gareth Maule's hands. He looked unsure as he caught it and he put his foot down to stop in the act of catching.

As he did so he accelerated, almost immediately catching Brian O'Driscoll square. The Dragons import touched down in the right-hand corner and questions have to be asked about where Ian Madigan was at that time.

Priestland got the touchline conversion to make it 14-10 and the close-out had suddenly become considerably harder. Llanelli, though, have the back bone of a chocolate éclair and they never had the conviction or the belief in themselves to follow up on their unexpected try.

Credit must be due to Eoin Reddan, who fearlessly scuttled along his in-goal area to bravely deny North a certain try in the 17th minute which would assuredly have given the game a different complexion.

Leinster have done as much as was required from the first two pool games -- they will be stronger and more cohesive for the experience and are well on the way to garnering the minimum 20 points that they need to qualify for the knock-out stages. That is of course if they think the Clermont games are worthy of upping their performances again.

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