Thursday 14 November 2019

If Leinster make same errors they made against Munster then Tigers will put them to sword

George Hook

Last weekend revealed a worrying fragility in Joe Schmidt's Leinster. In defeat to Munster at Thomond Park, Leinster's defence kept a clean sheet for 80 minutes, yet despite not conceding a try to their Irish rivals, they left Limerick after their first defeat to Munster in six games.

An 11-point half-time lead was squandered through the concession of soft penalties and poor game management. Ultimately, it was indiscipline that cost Leinster some much needed league points.

This weekend, at the quarter-final stages of the Heineken Cup, Leinster meet Leicester and similar mistakes would almost certainly spell the end for the Irish province in the competition.

Michael Cheika's undisputed legacy to his former side was the development of an inner mental strength coupled with an absolute belief that they could win. Leinster, under the Australian coach, grew mentally tough during his five-year tenure and banished all doubts about their resolve to grind out matches when the going got tough.

This season, after a slow start, Leinster began playing some magnificent rugby -- primarily in the Heineken Cup -- and Schmidt has since developed an attacking brand and style that is now the envy of most other sides in Europe.

Leinster's passing out of contact and their ability to create tries on the counter-attack has exposed giants of the club game in a clinical and breathtaking fashion but if they are to beat the most successful English club of the post-war era the lessons of the past cannot be forgotten.

One suspects that last Saturday Leinster would not have allowed Munster back into the game under the hard-nosed Aussie.

While their defence remained strong, the concession of kickable penalties proved Leinster's undoing at Thomond Park and this has to be a worry ahead of this afternoon's game.

It is not altogether surprising that penalties were Leinster's undoing; after all, 12 Leinster players featured in the Six Nations, with Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Jonny Sexton, Eoin Reddan, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip all seeing action in the 24-8 victory over England.

Leicester Tigers are three points clear at the top of the Aviva Premiership table.

Confidence in the squad is high and coach Richard Cockerill has plenty of talent at his disposal. Ben Youngs and Toby Flood, who both endured a tough afternoon in England's Six Nations defeat to Ireland at Lansdowne Road last month, produced a masterclass in attacking rugby against Bath on their club return, banishing their international disappointment in the process.

Flood, in particular, was uncharacteristically out of sorts against Ireland and Leinster cannot afford to give the 25-year-old opportunities to strike with the boot.

The Tigers fly-half has excelled in the number 10 jersey for club and country, scoring over 500 points for Leicester in just over two seasons at Welford Road. His partnership with Youngs has been a key ingredient of the Tigers' success this season.

For all of their flare and skill, however, last month in Dublin suggested that both players are vulnerable on the big stage.

That may be a mistaken assessment. This is a different team, in a different competition with seriously experienced performers to steer the callow youngsters through the test. Leicester are away-win specialists and they remain the only side to lower Munster's colours in the competition at Thomond Park.

Up front, the Tigers are a formidable unit. Thomas Waldrom at No 8 will succeed Nick Easter in the England starting team in a matter of months and his ball carrying is both destructive and punishing against opposition sides. Tom Croft, recently returned from injury, remains one of the fastest blindside flankers in the game and, while Sean O'Brien has the edge in physicality, he may struggle to contain the Tigers number six if Leicester move the ball wide.

Croft has developed into the ultimate support runner and his try against Bath two weeks ago displayed just how much pace he has with ball in hand. The scrum will undoubtedly play a key role in deciding this contest and Mike Ross remains crucial to Leinster's success at the set piece.

This year's Six Nations Championship showed once again why Italian tight-head Martin Castrogiovanni is one of the most feared scrummagers in the business and if Leinster can hold their own in the front row, Healy and Ross will have come of age.

Home advantage at a sold-out Aviva stadium has to count in Leinster's favour but Leicester have proven try scorers and plenty of experience in their ranks.

Each side contains strong, ball carrying forwards and backlines capable of doing damage in space.

The outcome of this game could hinge on the relationship with referee Nigel Owens on the day and if Schmidt doesn't impress the need for patience and discipline, Leinster could find themselves punished by the boot of Flood.

Schmidt's first season in charge at Leinster has so far been very impressive but it would be remiss of the New Zealander to disregard the legacy of his predecessor.

Leinster will need every inch of steel to get past the English champions today. The two-time Heineken Cup winners and five-time finalists won't have forgotten their defeat by Leinster in the final at Murrayfield two seasons ago.

Irish Independent

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