Friday 15 December 2017

McLaughlin carving his own groove

David Kelly

David Kelly

London Irish need something approaching a miracle to have any chance of overhauling Leinster in Twickenham tonight.

For a squad who don't seem to believe in themselves, it's difficult to see how they can believe in miracles.

For their part, Leinster, having selected a side seemingly intent on picking and popping -- Bernard Jackman surprisingly edging John Fogarty at hooker, for example -- are intent on reversing their surprise 12-9 opening-day defeat to the English side.

Since then, Leinster have almost effortlessly assumed control in the group, aided by the over-hyped Premiership side's twin implosions against the Scarlets, where their mental fragility undid them on both occasions.

Almost as impressive as Leinster's recovery after that defeat has been the imperceptible absorption of Kevin McLaughlin from bit-part player into irreplaceable enforcer.


McLaughlin will tonight be one of the chief planks of a Leinster approach which will seek to engage Irish in lengthy physical exchanges, dominating possession and playing the game in the right areas, before hopefully opening up later on.

McLaughlin's tale is miraculous in itself, whether it be his escape from Anglo Irish Bank or, lately, his ability to dismiss from every single Leinster supporter's minds the once nagging question: 'Who will replace Rocky Elsom?' Now it's more likely to be, 'Rocky Who?'

"I actually never really thought about it like that," admits a guy who seems incredibly laid-back. "I am a different player to Elsom. He is the kind of guy that would do two or three things in a game that would alter the whole pattern of the game whereas I see myself as more of a grafter.

"I work hard and try to take opportunities when they come, get the little details right and then let things flow from there. Secondly, I don't like to compare myself to anybody.

"I try to have my own game and I think it is a dangerous thing to start saying, 'S***e, Elsom's gone and if I don't start doing this or that in a game I am not going to be seen to be replacing him'. I have just concentrated on my own game."

Yet there must have been some satisfaction at being part of a combination -- along with Sean O'Brien -- that filled such a significant gap when one also recalls Shane Jennings' 12-week suspension.

"It definitely felt good," he confesses. "I have played with Sean O'Brien for years and I obviously like playing with him. The two of us work well together and we have an inspirational player like Jamie Heaslip in between. That makes life easier as well.

"Myself and Sean would be relatively raw compared to him. The three of us worked very well as a unit. Jamie's experience and then mine and Sean's raw effort, just getting stuck in and feeling the excitement of playing with these guys at that level, it worked quite well."

Leinster's concern for a breakdown area in which they were completely outplayed by Steffon Armitage and, more pertinently, outfoxed last October, is reflected by the retention of Jennings at openside ahead of O'Brien this week, despite his less than raucous reintroduction to competitive rugby.

O'Brien will be a solid impact replacement, but hopefully that will not become a caricature. Whatever about O'Brien's disappointment, McLaughlin feels that he has added balance to his game regardless of who he plays alongside.

"I suppose Sean carries a fair bit of ball for a No 7 so I actually think I play differently with Sean than I would with someone like Jenno," he explains. "With Sean I carry less ball and hit more rucks. When Jenno's playing, I know he is one of the best cleaners-out in the team, so maybe I carry more ball.

"You adapt your game based on who you are playing with. I know Jamie is going to carry a lot of ball all the time anyway so that takes the pressure off. I think we have good combinations there based on who we are playing with.

"We've spoken a lot about the first match this week. I remember speaking in the press conference after the game about how we were too slow at the breakdown. We're going to be very focused on making sure they don't slow up our ball as much this time, getting our clean-out right, getting our body-height right, those sorts of things.

"We expect them to definitely attack our rucks. With the success Steffon had against us in the RDS, that will be a tactic they will use. But we do expect to find him out on the wing. He is a very effective ball-carrier, especially in the wider channels. We'll have a couple of defensive strategies to deal with that."

Aside from the personal battles, McLaughlin is also intent on ensuring his side provide a home occasion for their supporters come quarter-final weekend when the competition resumes after the Six Nations.

Getting revenge will seal that deal.

"They definitely still p**s us off. We are very proud of our home record and losing really, really hurts. There is that: if we lose at home, we want to get our own back and win on their home patch.

"But there is also the fact that we haven't qualified yet and we don't want to be thinking, 'If this happens and that happens on Friday we might be through'. We're very much focused about being in control of our own destiny, winning on Friday and taking it from there.

"A home quarter-final is crucial in this competition. We have to win, end of story."

Leinster's other change sees CJ van der Linde replace Stan Wright. The home side's quest for tries is boosted by comebacks for Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau on right and left-wing, while the functional Chris Malone is selected to steer the game early on, before Ryan Lamb's late flourish. Well, that's the theory.

"Performing on the big stage that is Twickenham is something our players are used to," boasted Irish coach Toby Booth. "In the last two years we've played there in two London Double Headers, a semi-final of the Heineken Cup and a Guinness Premiership final.

"That cumulative experience matters when it comes to important matches like tomorrow evening's." Leinster's experience is greater, however.

Verdict: Leinster

London Irish -- D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; C Malone, P Hodgson; C Dermody, D Paice, F Rautenbach, N Kennedy, B Casey (capt), R Thorpe, S Armitage, C Hala'Ufia. Reps: J Buckland, D Murphy, P Ion, G Johnson, K Roche, P Hewat, P Richards, R Lamb.

Leinster -- R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, B Jackman, C van der Linde, L Cullen (capt), N Hines, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip.

Reps: J Fogarty, M Ross, S Wright, M O'Kelly, S O'Brien, P O'Donohoe, S Berne, G Dempsey.

Ref -- N Owens (Eng).

London Irish v Leinster,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 6.0

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