Tuesday 14 August 2018

Leinster won't catch cold in attempt to quell the Scarlet fever

Leo Cullen's men to banish last season's disappointment by dictating the terms of engagement today

Robbie Henshaw during the Leinster Captain’s Run at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw during the Leinster Captain’s Run at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Twelve months ago Leinster put themselves in a great position to win silverware but were simply not good enough to finish the job.

A year on, the Irish province have negotiated their way to the business end of both play-offs yet again but this time they possess the stuff of champions.

Domestic concerns abate for now as Europe sharpens their focus today at a sun-splashed Aviva when Leo Cullen's men aim to demonstrate that they have absorbed the lesson's of last season's failure.

Leinster are a better team than they were this time 12 months ago; Scarlets, who may have kicked on in Europe off the back of their domestic triumph last May, are not.

They deserved to win their PRO12 semi-final against Leinster but, down to 14 men for much of the piece, it was an unforgivable stroke of larceny from the Irish side's point of view.

They won't be fooled again.

Leinster have strengthened, from without and within, since that time; Scarlets, notwithstanding a fine European run and the consistency of their domestic form, are a slightly inferior side to that which stunned the RDS faithful last May.

Scott Fardy has been the headline addition to an even more gnarled pack which, compared to last year's league semi-final, bears no comparison, with only Tadhg Furlong surviving.

And, instead of Rob Kearney at full-back, Joey Carbery played there in the last line of a befuddled defence, while Johnny Sexton chose such a huge occasion to deliver one of his least impressive performances in Leinster blue.

Sexton and the senior players have admirably responded this term to the twin title set-backs last season but one must delve deeper for signs of further encouragement.

The emergence of key pack leaders such as James Ryan and Dan Leavy, buoyed by their pivotal roles in Ireland's Grand Slam success, has vastly strengthened Leinster's challenge, buttressed by an improved set-piece, resilient defence and the continual development of an occasionally wondrous attacking game.

And so a squad who blinked fatefully at the penultimate stages of both competitions last season have a starkly myopic sense of destiny this.

The Welsh side remain lightning fast behind the scrum but are lacking the zest of Johnny McNicholl and Liam Williams, not to mention the power and panache of Jonathan Davies from the side that tore Leinster to shreds last season.

They have compensated by re-aligning their focus on demanding more from their pack, with Munster-bound Tadhg Beirne honing his role as not merely a superb play-maker but also a turnover fiend.

Their set-piece is arguably just as well-drilled as the one that will confront them today so, naturally, one senses that the terms of engagement will begin here.

Throes

In a semi-final, it would be highly unusual, even with the sun kissing the players, for this to develop into a quasi-Sevens effort in its opening throes.

Winners seek to dictate the tempo and direction of a contest and that, logically enough, begins at the beginning.

Despite an illusory comeback, Leinster effectively ceded last year's Champions Cup semi-final to Clermont in the opening quarter.

A repeat must be avoided. Then, Leinster arguably tightened when they should have flourished, a tension exacerbated by a mis-firing set-piece that has been radically remedied this term.

Leinster, thanks in no small part to Stuart Lancaster's influence, have developed the capacity to play quite different styles which offers certainty to them and unpredictability for the opposition.

They have won in all manner of ways, expansive against Montpellier and bruising against Glasgow away from home, while pummelling Exeter in their back yard.

The quarter-final against Saracens gathered together all impressive facets of their play in one 80-minute package.

Incisive attack, decisive defence and authority in the set-piece.

"The set-piece battle is key to these big games," says Leo Cullen. "And the teams that do the basics well.

"It's about making sure we provide a good platform and we control possession as well, in the right areas of the field and in the right manner.

"The pack is going to play a huge role in the game."

Dictating tempo today will be on their terms and, one presumes, it would not be their advantage to engage in a style from the off that might give the opposition encouragement.

Physical domination would be a more secure platform upon which to build a victorious gambit, with captain Sexton steering the ship and, as he does with Ireland, knowing the appropriate times to gamble on attack with ball in hand or else the more prudential territorial option by foot.

Like Ireland, they will want to dominate possession and territory, restricting Scarlets' opportunity to play the game they want and also to restrict their own mistakes, cognisant of Leigh Halfpenny's metronomic boot.

"Patience," avers Isa Nacewa, who shrugs off sickness and the captaincy to start.

"Being smart in the right part of the field.

"It sounds pretty simple but they go at your rucks so hard they try and force mistakes upon you and we need to be smart enough to handle that and put pressure on them."

Leinster have the ammunition; they need to know when to pull the trigger.

Their build-up hasn't been perfect, however.

Luke McGrath's absence must represent a huge loss, so much so that Leinster have spent much of the week attempting to calm their supporters that Jamison Gibson-Park will pass muster.

He is a much better player than that, if not better than McGrath; if he falls down, Nick McCarthy's inexperience may be of some concern but hardly substantial.

Scarlets are more than merely an enigmatic, enterprising outfit; their consistency since last year has demonstrated as much.

However, the simple logic presents that Leinster's accelerated development since their last meaningful contest has been vastly more transformative in attitude, intent and delivery.

If they perform as they can, and nothing suggests that they will not, victory will be theirs.

Irish Independent

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