Leinster can ill afford to lose prop for Champions Cup final
There weren’t too many times the air went out of the occasion last Saturday, but as Tadhg Furlong was helped off the pitch, you could sense the anxiety levels rising around the Aviva Stadium.
By that early stage, Leinster were already 13-7 to the good and looking well on track for victory, yet Furlong’s absence was sorely felt, as Toulouse turned up the heat at scrum time and had the Leinster front-row in all sorts of trouble.
Having conceded five scrum penalties at Welford Road a week earlier, Leinster gave away a further four scrum penalties. On another day, they would have paid a heavy price.
After delivering one of the great European performances, it may seem churlish to criticise Leinster, but such are the standards they demand of themselves in their pursuit of a fifth title, the fact that their scrum has struggled in both the quarter-final and semi-final means major work is needed over the next two weeks.
As soon as Furlong departed, Toulouse went after the Leinster scrum and the manner in which they exploited it won’t have gone unnoticed by La Rochelle, who also possess a powerful scrum, even if Will Skelton is a quite literally a massive loss.
Michael Ala’alatoa had the unenviable task of replacing Furlong, but like his fellow props Andrew Porter and Cian Healy, the Samoan tighthead coughed up a penalty, albeit his was in open play.
The Leinster scrum hasn’t suddenly become poor, yet all it takes is a slight doubt in the referee’s head to earn them an unwanted reputation.
Robin McBryde will have his hands full, as Leinster’s scrum coach looks to come up with the answers ahead of the Heineken Champions Cup final in Marseille.
We have seen how dangerous Leinster are in attack when they have a clean platform to play off, and as the excellent work they have done around the breakdown has paid off, they need something similar at the scrum.
Two weeks isn’t exactly a lot of time to turn it around and while Furlong’s fitness is key to his side’s chances of adding a fifth star to their jersey, Leo Cullen and McBryde will feel that small tweaks can make a big difference.
Leinster’s ruck speed was off the charts once again, and with Johnny Sexton in scintillating form, they looked every bit the champions-elect.
Despite their scrum struggles, Leinster went toe-to-toe with an ultra-aggressive Toulouse side, yet crucially avoided being dragged into a scrap.
Having come up short in the physicality stakes against Saracens and La Rochelle in recent years, this felt like a major test passed.
The game-plan worked to perfection as the impressive level of growth within this team was highlighted in devastating style.
The coaches deserve just as much credit as the players, who are playing with huge confidence at the moment.
No one sums up the improvements more than Ross Molony – an unsung hero, whose all-round game has come on leaps and bounds.
The uncapped lock mixed a lineout steal with thumping tackles and some delightful pull-back passes on the gain-line, which helped to unlock the Toulouse defence.
Molony linked well with Sexton (36), and it was a joy to watch the veteran out-half rolling back the years as he tormented Toulouse with his all-court game.
The talismanic skipper’s sights are now very much set on winning his and Leinster’s fifth Champions Cup.
One of the most exciting aspects of this squad, however, is that while the likes of Sexton have the European medals to show for their efforts, there is a plethora of younger guys like Hugo Keenan, Caelan Doris and Rónan Kelleher, who haven’t yet played their part in a Champions Cup win. In other words, motivation is not in short supply, across the board.
“Not everyone was there but a good few, the core, a good spine of the team I think was there” Sexton said, reflecting on Leinster’s previous win in Bilbao four years ago.
“In Europe we’ve got a good record but the days when you don’t turn up in the finals they hurt you and live with you probably more than the victories so you try and get that experience into the group and explain that you need to take the occasion out of it and just really go out and try and play your best.
“We’ve been desperate to get back here to try and right that wrong, not wrong, but right that occasion. We just feel we didn’t get our best performance out there on the day (in 2019 final), and obviously Saracens were an incredible team.
“But I think the guys have more experiences over the last few years. The calibre of player that we have now, you look at our pack and how good and dynamic they are.
“I think our squad is different now. I think we can rely on our second/third-choice players better than we could in 2019.”
Sexton admitted he doubted if he would ever make it back to a Champions Cup final and now that he has, Ronan O’Gara stands in his way.
“I missed out in the semi-final last year against him. He has done really well with La Rochelle, he has built a team there now and they will be hurting (after last year),” Sexton added.
“It’s going to be an incredibly tough game. We’re going to have to be at our very best to get the win.
“When you let one go when you are in your 30s, you might not get another one. I’m very pleased to be part of this group and to help get us there. It’s a special moment for everyone and it will be incredibly special if we can match Toulouse and put five stars on the jersey.”
This outstanding Leinster team are well capable of doing so – but solving their scrum issues is vital for the ‘drive for five.’