How Leinster can rediscover their sparkle
Misfiring champions must go back to basics as squad disruptions sabotage trademark flair
1. SETTLING THE SIDE
A LUNCHTIME kick-off in a stadium located in a shopping centre carpark outside unfashionable Llanelli may not be the kind of European fixture that sets the pulses racing, but Leinster must summon their mojo at Parc y Scarlets on Saturday or risk doing serious damage to their three-in-a-row prospects.
They know they got away with it against Exeter and now are focusing on a Scarlets team whose captain Rob McCusker described the clash as "make or break" for the Welsh team.
Scarlets were drawing with Clermont in France as half-time approached, only for Morgan Stoddart to receive his second yellow card. The hammering that followed means Simon Easterby's team are in desperation straits already.
Heineken Cup champions Leinster are facing into their eighth game of the season and have yet to find their rhythm.
There have been times when they have looked the part, but those have been fleeting glimpses ruined by a handling error or a misplaced pass.
It is one thing to have their season not igniting during the opening Pro12 games, but struggling for form in the middle of the Heineken Cup pool stages is not where Joe Schmidt wants to be. Not when Clermont await in December. Twice.
Exeter coach Rob Baxter put it well when he appraised Saturday's narrow defeat to the champions in Dublin.
"We are probably battle-hardened after our recent run of games and Leinster are probably a bit undercooked, what with not having their Irish internationals for a bit and their injuries and a chop-and-changed side. We benefited from that," he said.
Leinster manager Guy Easterby spoke about the need for the side to be "a little bit better, more accurate and patient".
The former Ireland scrum-half reckons that "continuity and rhythm" will be the key to recovering the lost verve from last season.
Leinster must improve if they are to leave Wales with the points they need ahead of their daunting back-to-back clashes with old rivals Clermont.
So what do they need to work on?
1. SETTLING THE SIDE
Between the player management scheme and the unprecedented injury crisis, Schmidt's resources have been tested to the limits already this season.
In just seven games, the New Zealander has used a whopping 41 players. Shane Jennings is the only man to start all of their matches, and it is hardly surprising that the experienced openside is the one Leinster player who truly looks in form.
The back three of Isa Nacewa, Ian Madigan and Andrew Conway have all featured prominently this season, but in almost every other department there has been chopping and changing.
If Rob Kearney and Gordon D'Arcy are fit this week, the management will be tempted to change things to bring them into the fold, but at what cost?
How can they find their rhythm and cohesion if the players are having to adapt to new team-mates so frequently?
An unchanged side for Saturday's game would go a long way to providing some stability.
Against Connacht, Leinster defended awfully and lacked the intensity needed to get themselves into any attacking positions, while a week later they attacked well against Munster but leaked two tries that could have been avoided.
On Saturday, the Blues were watertight in defence but never once looked like scoring a try, despite visiting the Exeter '22' on a number of occasions.
They need to put all of the packages together this weekend, and it won't be easy against a team full of explosive Welsh international backs.
3. HANDLE WITH CARE
When the Leinster machine is working fluidly it is a joy to watch, as Schmidt's focus on being the best passing team in Europe comes to fruition.
Unfortunately, with so many players not being able to train and being drip-fed back into the set-up, the European champions have yet to hit the levels of sharpness and instinct needed and, as a result, the passes simply are not going to hand.
A forced pass from the kick-off gave Exeter the platform to have a go in the opening stages at the weekend, while even Brian O'Driscoll was guilty of attempting off-loads when they weren't on against the English side.
It is not surprising to see them try it, given it came so naturally last season, but even the best players need to gain match practice, and it might be an idea to keep it simple this week and build from there.
Exeter were able to disrupt Leinster at source last weekend. The hosts lost three line-outs on their own throw, while two scrums were also lost against a team who would be rated as well organised, but not one of Europe's renowned outfits.
It meant that Exeter were able to control the ball, and the visitors had 57pc possession and 56pc territory in their narrow defeat.
In picking Damian Browne alongside Leo Cullen, Schmidt and Jono Gibbes were going for brawn, but Devin Toner is a natural line-out operator who calls the shots and is incomparable in the air.
He also carried well when he came into the fray and must be a live contender this week if Schmidt looks to change things.
The scrum should benefit from the work-out against the physical English, and the Scarlets will not pose the same problems.
But given the Welsh region's backline firepower, Leinster will need to prevent their hosts getting any go-forward ball if they are to thrive themselves. Nobody wants to see George North given a head-start as he races towards them.
5. TAKE YOUR CHANCES
Leinster's empire has been built on execution, and their fans grew increasingly uneasy on Saturday as they never looked like taking the chances that presented themselves.
Away from home, against opponents who put 45 points on them on the opening day of the season, Leinster are unlikely to get as many chances, and Schmidt will emphasise the need to take their opportunities when they arise.
Clermont punished the Scarlets when Stoddart saw red, and Leinster need to follow their lead.