Saturday 21 April 2018

Neil Francis: Scarlets and Wayne Pivac know how to trouble Leinster

Head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On the final day of Champions Cup pool matches this year, everyone connected to their team would have been doing a little bit of mental and logistical arithmetic. Who would your team get? Where would they go? Toulon away? Phew! Clermont away? Jeez no! Saracens at the Allianz - wow. Even La Rochelle away - that is not somewhere where you get out of alive in a rugby sense, kind of like a Helmand province with a picturesque harbour and some nice restaurants outside the ground.

Leinster, after winning all of their pool games and getting the number 1 seed, get the booby prize of a very dangerous Saracens side. Sweet Lamb of God, what a draw. Then all within the Pale consoled themselves with the notion that you would have to meet them anyway if you wanted to win the cup. The sentiment still prevailed - anyone but them. Anyone? Scarlets perhaps? In a flash, Scarlets - well now they have Scarlets and the Sky commentator Pepsi Challenge comes back to bite you in the ass.

"Leo, if you were told you would have Scarlets at home in the Champions Cup semi-finals you would have bitten their hands off for that draw, wouldn't you?"

HMS Wazza sets sail at the end of next season. I'm sure I will miss him, I just can't think of a compelling reason right now. The Welsh are interviewing as we speak. I suppose they have to go through the process formally - they already know who they want.

Wayne Pivac will be a big loss to Scarlets. The hit rate for a good Kiwi coach in this part of the world is about one in four - one in 10 for a really good coach. Not sure what the rate is for Joe. The Welsh have got themselves a really good new coach. Wazza picked 14 Scarlets players in his squad. He should have picked the coach as well.

Wales were good in the Championship this year and gave England and Ireland a thorough examination before falling just short on both occasions. Wales were always dangerous and had at one stage 10 Llanelli starters in their team.

Pivac's ethos and his coaching DNA do not differ greatly from those of the headmaster from Palmerston North. Pivac is a little less conservative and a little less hung up on hanging on compulsively to the ball.

I'd say Leo would even have plumped for Munster - at least they know how to beat them. The thing about beating Saracens is that Mark McCall knew where he was with his team and he felt like the Grand Old Duke of York.

'Oh the Grand Old Duke of York

'He had ten thousand men

'He marched them up to the top of the hill

'And he marched them down again

'And when they were up they were up

'And when they were down they were down'

McCall realised from early this season that his team were in decline and the graph on the chart was only pointing one way - down. They were sadly lacking that relentless energy and vitality which brought them two Champions Cups. The wolf-pack defence - consigned to legend. It is much easier for Leinster to consign a team to the departure lounge when they are on the wane - no matter what sort of quality they have in their roster.

Different kettle entirely to dispatch one on the rise. On the rise inexorably!

Pivac himself was a cop based in Auckland for 16 years; despite that, his outlook is refreshingly loose. "There is no painting by numbers at the Scarlets. We do not want stereotype players or robots here where it is very much about backing the skills of the players. We have a game-plan but within that there is a lot of freedom to play. We want players who make good decisions under pressure."

The key line there is "very much about backing the skills of the players".

I have always admired the way Llanelli played. I played against them more often than any other British team when I played for Leinster. They were always a really skilful team. They could all pass really well and had a command of the basics such as appreciation of space and how to create it was always at the top of their skills spectrum.

We probably do need reminding that the Scarlets came over here in May of last year and cut Leinster and Munster to ribbons. Leinster that day had a weakened front five out but were up against 14 men for 45 minutes of the game. It was a big defensive effort from the Welshmen but they are one of the few teams in this part of the world whose fluency and pace in their passing cause real trouble. They know how and when to attack the blindside and they knew how to do damage down in the five-metre line to the touchline. They seem to be able to make their passes stick here in the tight corridor.

If there was a feeling that Leinster got hijacked, well yes you could attach credence to that. Munster though knew what was coming and couldn't come remotely close to halting a game-plan of simplicity and cadence.

The Scarlets simply cut them to pieces 22-46 and two late consolation tries couldn't camouflage the difference in quality. What a devastating display of attacking rugby it was. I have never seen a good Munster side so badly beaten.

Llanelli had timed their run perfectly and maybe Leinster and Munster were caught cold - but that is the secret at the business end, is it not? Saracens traditionally were an April/May side - the same can be said of Toulon and the Scarlets have this and last season stayed in and around the top of the Conference and kick into gear round about now.

Leinster in the last three seasons have done the exact opposite - bad losses over the last couple of seasons at the business end to Llanelli, Clermont and Connacht. Semi-finals and finals where Leinster did not perform anywhere close to the pitch that you would have expected them to. Will this year be any better? Underperformances in big matches are only acceptable if you learn from them - if the pattern continues . . .

Resolve

The Scarlets had a less-than-exemplary start to their European campaign, losing narrowly to Toulon and Bath but came back really strong and showed the conviction and resolve of champions and they scored 124 points in their last four games to top Pool 5 ahead of Toulon.

They thrashed La Rochelle 29-17 in Parc y Scarlets in the quarters - the French looking like the cheeky Charlies that they are away from home. 29-17 doesn't look like a thrashing but the French couldn't live with the Scarlets' pace and that my friends is where the semi-final in the Aviva will be won.

The side that is able to take momentum into the Aviva and make full use of it and the side who can play at 100mph while still being in control. Last week Scarlets played a strong Glasgow side who have won their conference already yet they came to play but got scorched 26-8 by a very confident Welsh side.

Pivac will rest a lot of his stars for the away trip to Edinburgh and have his main men fresh for the big one at the Aviva.

Leinster have rested their men as well. Although having pictures of them relaxing with their Wags in Dubai in the social pages of the newspapers is probably not the way to do it.

Leinster have a far more difficult challenge than the Saracens game to come. They face a very smart coach who knows how to trouble Leinster as he demonstrated last year. Leinster have 10 days to reflect on what happened last year and gird themselves up for a really difficult examination on Saturday week.

Irish Independent

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