Wednesday 16 January 2019

Leinster's only problem is that they know they are going to win

Even at their very best, it is unlikely that Bath can trouble the champions, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Deep down I think Leinster know they are going to win this game and win it easily. This fact, rather than the best XV Bath can muster, will be the greatest impediment to victory.

Leinster's uncompromising excellence thus far in Pool 3 has come from mental application more than what they choose to do around the park. Their demeanour is almost psychopathic -- chillingly efficient as they go about their victims -- but it is the patience shown that heightens the sense of how cold-blooded they are. Two of their recent opponents, Glasgow and Cardiff, were given an opportunity to play ball in the first half and then, like a cat that had long grown tired of playing with a mouse, dispatched without a glimmer of remorse.

Leinster have played with unruffled perfection and inner calm for two months now, the reason being that no team has come remotely close to putting sustained pressure on them or played with the sort of certainty that would force Leinster to ask questions of themselves. Realistically, can Bath sustain a challenge which would require them to play at a level they haven't found since their glory days in the 1990s? Ian McGeechan has done wonders with sows' ears over the years but he is depending on the undependable for the jump in quality. It might be stretching even his boundless reservoir of faith.

Stephen Donald has just about played two games for Bath since he came over from New Zealand. He is, despite a malign indifference to him in his native land, quite a decent player. I watched him play a number of times in the Super 14 and Tri Nations. You don't get 23 caps for the All Blacks if you are an average player. The beef that the All Blacks had was that on the very odd occasion where they were playing in a tight match, Donald choked, unable to close out or hold his nerve when the heat came on. I always got the distinct impression that if he had to take the World Cup-winning kick in the 79th instead of the 45th minute that it might have been a different result. The ball just scraped the inside of the post.

Donald, though, has all the skills and his game management will pass at Heineken Cup level. His distribution is excellent and he has a canny knack for the inside break. My fear, however unjustified it may be, is that there is a force majeure about wild cards or jokers who just breeze in and can come out with the unexpected. Not even Bath are sure of what to expect.

Bath try to play an expansive game. I think Leinster should give them every encouragement to do so in the first 15 and then close them down ruthlessly, as only they can. Donald will try as he has done to take things on himself, his corporeal self should then be shown very little compassion and this should magnify any self-doubt.

Michael Claassens, too, is a decent player, a cheeky chappy who tests the ruck-side pillar six or seven times a game, normally with some success and he is clever enough to look for his pretty one-paced back row when he gets in behind. I'm pretty sure the Leinster video team will have his number and dissuade him from trying to spark Bath into life.

Bath have several decent players in their squad apart from their halves, the troubled Dan Hipkiss is a formidable straight-line runner and Nick Abendanon is a tricky openfield runner -- in the Aviva Premiership.

The England constant Matt Banahan is a real weakness. I never trust tattooed players, especially not 6' 6" ones who play on the wing. It's a bit like the film Cape Fear where Robert Mitchum makes a comment about the multi-tattooed Robert De Niro. "I'm not sure whether to look at him or read him." Banahan is easy to read, he is poor on the turn, he is poor defensively and he is witless when the ball is put in behind him and Leinster know that.

Bath are poor defensively and if they try to play with an expansive form of the game, they will just get beaten. Space just gets sucked up when Leinster are on the paddock. I can't see Bath's pack doing anything to trouble the Leinster tight or loose and so if Leinster run direct, aggressive lines and play at a sustained pace even for a quarter they will burn Bath off.

The problem is that they know they are going to win; if they can suppress this giddy notion, just play and concentrate on the execution, they will indeed succeed.

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