Sport Champions Cup

Sunday 19 November 2017

Leinster count cost of walking wounded

Gordon D'Arcy received nine stitches after colliding with his team-mates knee during Saturday's Pro12 play-off semi-final against Glasgow Warriors
Gordon D'Arcy received nine stitches after colliding with his team-mates knee during Saturday's Pro12 play-off semi-final against Glasgow Warriors

Joe Schmidt wasn't joking. "I hope Ulster weren't watching," he sighs. Refreshed from a few days with the sun on their backs in Portugal, the Heineken Cup final outsiders would have watched this bruising fare in their easy chairs, puffing on a metaphorical cigar.

Leinster, meanwhile, are approaching Twickenham with several of their number requiring the assistance of Zimmer frames.

Little wonder there was thinly-disguised ire directed towards the competition organisers for their scheduling.

Away from yesterday morning's medical bulletins, much of the on-field stuff had Leinster supporters scratching their heads afterwards.

Schmidt spoke highly of his team's endeavour.

Normally, when a coach in any code is at pains to exhort effort, one can assume that the quality quotient has dipped alarmingly.

Aside from the basics of line-out and scrum, much of Leinster's work was shoddy in the extreme, from their forwards' mostly fruitless efforts to secure possession on the ground to the careless despatching of it from the hands of several of their backs.

That Leinster are still unbeatable on their poorest days reflects their undimmed competitive desire as they chase a unique Irish league and cup double.

But Schmidt's men have won nothing yet.

RULING THE AIR

Leinster's line-out, so creaky of late, achieved a supreme level of efficiency; Richardt Strauss has confirmed his final starting place with a 10/10 return before his substitution.

"We had a good comeback in that area," agreed Schmidt. "Our try effectively came from our line-out."

But, just as it is never always the hooker's fault when things go awry, it wasn't merely the fact that the imminently Irish-qualified hooker's darts repeatedly hit the bullseye. Leinster inspected every element of their set-piece and found it in perfect working order.

Of the 10 Strauss throws, four went to Jamie Heaslip, five to Devin Toner and one to Brad Thorn; one Toner take at the tail was virtually balletic as Leinster feigned to throw to front and then middle.

Sean Cronin maintained the fluidity when he arrived, and the pressure told on Glasgow, who screwed three of their throws wide.

Barring further injury calamities, Toner will not start next week's final so Leinster will hope that Saturday's well-oiled operation was not disproportionately reliant on the security offered by skyscraping height.

MEDICAL CENTRES

Within the space of seven days, Leinster have seen the world's most durable international midfield partnership carted off to the casualty ward.

Brian O'Driscoll's twisted knee has rendered him unable to train until this Thursday.

Last season, he seemed unlikely to play in the final after limping from the fray in another league semi-final bloodbath at the RDS.

Ultimately, he proved his fitness at the Captain's Run, along with Strauss, who had also limped out of that semi-final against Ulster. Schmidt is dearly hoping that O'Driscoll -- yet again -- proves himself as "one of the most resilient men I know."

Gordon D'Arcy will remain a concern after another serious injury to the eye area, which caused him to slump like a new-born baby in the medics' arms before emerging with a golf-ball-sized swelling below his left eye.

Losing peripheral perspective is the last things a midfielder needs.

Eoin O'Malley's unfortunate submission to his knee injury further lightens the options; that Fergus McFadden wasn't shifted inside was highly suggestive and encouraging for Ian Madigan.

For all that, few who know them would rule either O'Driscoll or D'Arcy out of the final at this stage.

BREAKDOWN OF

THE BREAKDOWN

When Sean Lineen was informed of Leinster's utter disdain for their recidivist tactics at the breakdown, the outgoing Glasgow coach issued a snort of satisfaction.

"Brilliant!" he trumpeted. "An absolute joke," harrumphed Jonny Sexton. After being supposedly livid at the appointment of an all-Irish team of officials earlier in the week, Lineen could not have complained as his side were allowed to repeatedly infringe, only once encountering the yellow-carded wrath of George Clancy.

He is not the first coach to discover that once you slow Leinster's ball down to the merest trickle, the champions can often look like chumps.

Ulster only needed to maximise their disruption of Munster ball for an opening half-hour to build the platform for their imposing early quarter-final lead in Thomond Park; by the time of Chris Henry's binning, the game was up.

Leinster acknowledge that the ball carrier is key, as evidenced by their sole score when powerful punches through the middle, and effective clearing out well beyond the ball, displayed the champions at their sweeping best.

Bossing the collision will be immensely difficult against Stephen Ferris and Co; coupled with the line-out's smooth efficiency, Kevin McLaughlin, prominent in the build up to the try, did his starting chances no harm at all.

SCRUM OF COMFORT

Leinster may have been relieved at the fact that Cian Healy's ankle twist did not place him amongst the severest of the side's injury casualties; however, Heinke van der Merwe's impact would have diluted the negative impact.

Not for the first time this season, Van der Merwe trotted on for his front-row colleague and delivered a tremendous impact in his opening scrum, a magnificent defensive push that allowed Leinster to escape from their '22'.

The pack hasn't always delivered consistently this season and, more often that not, it has required a technical liaison between Greg Feek and Mike Ross at half-time to offer occasional emergency remedies.

Ulster will present one of their greatest tests this season. Buttressed by Brad Thorn's heft and Jamie Heaslip's discipline in keeping his shoulders to the wheel, Leinster seem well-equipped to give as good as they can take in this crucial sector.

WINGING IT

The recurrence of a serious injury to Luke Fitzgerald was a crushing blow, particularly as he had begun to recapture some of his better form.

With Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa established in the back three, Leinster must find a candidate for the final to replace the stricken Fitzgerald.

Few are pulling up trees to do so. Dave Kearney is arguably a short-head in front of McFadden in the race, albeit Rob's brother undid his nice scoring finish with a poor attempt to prevent Glasgow's late opener. He was another who limped off late on, albeit his withdrawal was probably precautionary.

"Dave did well, came inside at times and he chased enthusiastically and it's a good headache to have," said Schmidt.

"Fergus was on the other wing and we also decided to give Andrew Conway a run there too to cover all options."

Irish Independent

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