Tuesday 18 December 2018

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Leinster's Barca-style keep-ball a potent force'

Like Ireland, the European champions can patiently go through a long series of play

James Ryan on the charge against Wasps in their Champions Cup game which Leinster dominated with 71pc possession and 75pc territory. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
James Ryan on the charge against Wasps in their Champions Cup game which Leinster dominated with 71pc possession and 75pc territory. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The FC Barcelona of rugby? Leinster aren't quite comfortable with the comparison, but the European champions are mirroring Ireland's ability to keep the ball through long phases, draining phases of play that have become a feature of their games regardless of the personnel involved.

During November, the All Blacks spoke of Ireland's desire to "suffocate us through possession", while US Eagles coach Gary Gold was almost awestruck by Joe Schmidt's much-changed team's ability to hold the ball for three- to four-minute periods of play before striking.

At provincial level, Stuart Lancaster's training sessions feature long ball-in-play periods in which players are tasked with retaining their focus through series after series, battling fatigue as they go.

The most famous manifestation came at international level in Paris when Johnny Sexton dropped his goal after 41 phases in injury time, while Leinster's most impressive work came a year ago when they battered Exeter Chiefs into submission at Sandy Park.

Even with their big guns out in recent weeks it has been noticeable to see how comfortable the Leinster young guns have been with the strategy, thriving during long stretches of ball in play.

In the first six games of the season, the province were behind on the possession and territory stats in four of their games - with Munster limiting them to just 35pc of the ball at the Aviva Stadium. Since then, they have broken even or better in all six of their matches; managing to hold the ball for 71pc of the impressive win over Wasps, while playing 75pc in opposition territory, and hitting a season-high 73pc possession and 77pc territory away to Treviso.

Defence coach Felipe Contepomi quipped that Leinster have the rugby version of Messi in Johnny Sexton. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Defence coach Felipe Contepomi quipped that Leinster have the rugby version of Messi in Johnny Sexton. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

It is a trend that is mirrored in other codes, whether it's the Dublin footballers or the teams coached by Pep Guardiola in soccer.

Not that they're ready to be labelled 'rugby's Barcelona' just yet.

"Well we have Messi, no? We have the best player in the world!" Felipe Contepomi smiled as he batted away the comparison.

The Argentinian is keen to stress that Leinster are not holding possession for possession sake, but he admits the province's training prepares them for their ability to thrive through long possessions.

"All training is about that," he said. "Everyone needs to know their job and do their job.

"That's why we try and create opportunities by everybody putting themselves in position early and quickly to run a line, to hit a ruck, carry the ball, to pass.

"We try and train in that unstructured way, to be able to have that decision-making in training so then we can replicate them in games.

"I don't know if it's the way (the game) is moving, maybe it's the way it suits some teams. But also from our perspective it's not just about holding the ball until an opportunity unfolds. We try to create and detect opportunities. It's the way it is and when you have a team that attacks and attacks, you will have a lot of bodies in the front line and maybe the opportunities in the back line.

"It's about moving and putting yourself in good shape, the shape we want to play and when the opportunities appear, take it. That's the mentality, rather than just holding onto the ball as opportunities won't come. You have to create them."

From a player's point of view, it can be lung-busting work.

"A huge amount of work has gone on, on the (training) pitch. That's where it all comes from," Devin Toner explained. "It has obviously built over the last couple of years.

"A huge thing for us is the breakdown and trying to retain as much ball as we possibly can, trying to get the two ruckers in as quick as we can, chase in as quick as we can.

"It's physically and mentally draining because you're thinking of where you need to be next and you are scanning everything.

"You've a good idea of what's going to be called and you have, you're scanning where you need to go - whether you're going to be a support player, to be on the ball or if you are maybe out the back... if certain permutations happen you might need to chase in; so it is all about getting in the right position early, working hard to get on the ball to be where you need to be.

"You're physically drained by trying to get there, you're mentally drained thinking about where to go. So it's a combination of both really.

"At the end of a phase of play like that that runs to four or five minutes you are fairly blowing."

Away from home on a heavy pitch in Bath on Saturday, Leinster will back their fitness and ball control as they hold on to the ball through long phases knowing that few can live with them when they get it right.

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