Wednesday 13 December 2017

Leinster's comedy of errors could be their downfall

Another European exit looms if Leinster repeat Glasgow bloopers reel

Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy will be hoping to produce big performances for Leinster against Bath
Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy will be hoping to produce big performances for Leinster against Bath
David Kelly

David Kelly

Difficult to know what to make of Leinster at the moment.

At times, it is almost like watching those old Harold Lloyd silent comedies that used to fill the sleepy daytime TV schedules.

No sooner has our hero re-attached the steering wheel to the rampant rattletrap that is careering down the side of a mountain, the back axle slowly begins to unscrew itself.

As with the leaking ceiling, no sooner is one metal saucepan laid down to collect the maddening drops to the smug satisfaction of the hero, seepage suddenly begins somewhere else.

This, it seems, is Leinster Rugby at the moment.

Like Lloyd's most famous cinematic image, when he dangles from the hands of a clock atop a skyscraper, Leinster are seemingly always perched precariously between the precipice of catastrophe and the pregnant pause before prosperity.

A show reel of gripping uncertainty.

Last Friday's surreal encounter against Glasgow Warriors neatly encapsulated the plot that has revolved around Leinster for most of this season - and arguably a chunk of the last one, too - even if it did not necessarily involve many of its leading characters.

Watch highlights below:

Utterly inept from the opening restart and line-out, Leinster were sloppy in possession, soft in defence and a distant second best to a technically proficient breakdown operation.

Seasoned internationals - from the most experienced of them all, Shane Jennings, to the newest stars, like Ian Madigan - were guilty of horrendous individual errors.

Certain combinations appeared as if they hadn't played together for weeks - albeit in some cases, this was true, as Glasgow's audaciously powerful attacking depth discovered to their joy. In all, Leinster missed 30 tackles and every player bar one of the starting line-up was guilty. That the innocent party was Richardt Strauss, who did little else in the game before crashing accidentally into Eoin Reddan, is hardly that noteworthy.

Zane Kirchner, one of the province's foreign stars, missed three tackles that a schoolboy would be chided for, let alone a vastly rewarded Springbok international.

Negative

The front five managed the quite remarkable feat of accumulating a negative amount of yardage from their carries as Glasgow grew prosperous from every Leinster catastrophe to storm 27-7 clear at the break.

Had Richie Vernon not butchered a try-scoring pass to Tommy Seymour - notably from another Leinster turnover - the game might have been up for Matt O'Connor's season.

What transpired after the break was quite remarkable, even if some may carp that it is easy to be gift-wrapped a comeback when a club player is charged down after 19 seconds and a volcanic Fijian loses his head, thus ending up in the bin to watch his side ship 14 points without him.

It is difficult to know what transpired in the dressing room at half-time - Marty Moore mentioned "harsh words" yesterday yet O'Connor affirmed it was a composed gathering.

What happened on the field mattered more - it was quite simply that Leinster played simple rugby but, even more importantly, they played error-free rugby.

The squad will have watched the video yesterday and will pedantically run through the numbers better than anyone else out there, but the pictures seemed clear enough to the naked eye of the casual spectator.

Continual errors resulted in calamity in the opening act; accuracy promoted prosperity in the second - that they had far too much of the former ensured they only drew the game. With Bath to come this weekend, a similar slapstick performance will not suffice but, then again, there will be a different cast involved from the start - Kearney, Fitzgerald, Heaslip, O'Brien, Toner, Ross/Moore, McGrath, Healy and Cronin.

All of which suggests that the team Leinster put out last Friday, against a side whose European form draws an accurate line with Bath, were less than 50pc capable of putting up the required performance, and even then, they only got halfway there.

Many - from those in the ground and in the city's public houses - feel the coach's responsibility is being shielded by over-loyal players. There remains a not insignificant groundswell of opinion that the province should politely evict the Australian by season's end.

That O'Connor is still engaged in a battle to win two titles slightly contradicts an argument that begins to fall down precisely because O'Connor is still engaged in a battle to win two titles. As Ireland have shown, it's not about how you win trophies but about winning them.

Leinster's status in the game has naturally maintained exalted expectations, even if their team falls some way short of the 2012 version, who were arguably one of the best European title winners ever.

"The way we were playing in previous years was, you know, the same way as Ireland's been playing now," explains one of the returning players from Six Nations glory, Sean O'Brien.

"It's something of an attractive brand of rugby and you get scores out of it. But sometimes this year between injury and missing key lads, or being a little bit quiet on the field at times, you look back on videos and if just one voice had said something else, you're gone through a hole.

"We're creating a load of chances, we've just not finished them off with Leinster this year. We want to play that exciting brand of rugby, and we want to be winning games the way we know we're capable of winning games, but basically it's down to the players to do that."

Shellacking

As for Bath, O'Connor feels at least that yesterday's video review will have been beneficial, given the similarities in style and the Pro12 league leader's European experience; the one advantage of Friday's first-half shellacking was that it mirrored Glasgow's rout of Bath in round one.

"The second half gives us a good picture of what we can achieve against good sides," says O'Connor who would agree with Isaac Boss that "it shouldn't take us being 20 points down" to launch their game.

"They had Bath in their group so they had two physical encounters with them," said O'Connor. "So that gives us a good gauge of what we're going to face. But we're going to have to be significantly better than that to progress.

"Bath are a good side and if we can bring a little bit of the intensity that we had in the second half, cut out the inaccuracies from the first half, then we give ourselves every chance."

Both the coach and players must deliver.

"Matt can't do it for us sitting in the box," says O'Brien. He can give us the tools to do that during the week. It's up to us then."

The lament has consistently been amongst supporters and critics of an occasionally erratic game plan that the tools haven't always matched, so when our hero needs a hammer to bang in a nail, he is handed a screwdriver.

Leinster need a consistent performance and consistent performers. If the wheels fall off again, O'Connor's men could find themselves in freefall.

 

Leinster a knockout in Aviva knockouts

1995 - Semi-final 

Leinster 14 Cardiff 23

Different times; only 7,000 punters turned up in the first season of professionalism and European competition as Leinster bowed out to Cardiff.

2003 - Quarter-final

Leinster 18 Biarritz 13

Semi-final

Leinster 14 Perpignan 21

It should have been an all-Ireland final in Lansdowne Road but Munster lost in Toulouse while, after an impressive quarter-final win, Matt Williams' men fluffed their lines also.

2005 - Quarter-final

Leinster 13 Leicester Tigers 29

Declan Kidney's final game after an unbeaten pool campaign was noted for some strange selection calls and the limp nature of the exit.

2006 - Semi-final

Leinster 6 Munster 30

A red-letter day for Leinster's fierce rivals and for themselves too after their cousins hogged three times as many tickets and dominated on the field too.

2011 - Quarter-final

Leinster 17 Leicester Tigers 10

Semi-final

Leinster 32 Toulouse 23

After edging Leicester, then one of the most remarkable semi-finals ever seen as Joe Schmidt's side bounced back from a freak early try in a thriller before an even more astonishing comeback against Northampton in the final.

2012 - Quarter-final

Leinster 34 Cardiff Blues 3

Leinster at their peak as they romped this quarter-final, clung on in a Clermont epic before routing Ulster in the final.

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