Saturday 16 December 2017

'This is what European rugby is about, it's winner takes all'

Leinster skipper Jamie Heaslip
Leinster skipper Jamie Heaslip
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

The way things fell on the penultimate weekend of the pool stages of the Champions Cup, brought a smile to Leinster coach Matt O'Connor's face.

Wasps' victory over Harlequins had made the picture quite clear. There was no need for an abacus and a myriad of what-ifs.

A win in Coventry will cut through all of that and Leinster will be through to the last eight and be afforded the luxury of a home quarter-final.

"That was probably the preferred result," O'Connor admitted. "It means we can control what happens to us, which is important. If we win, we are in a quarter-final and that has been the focus this week. Wasps having been playing very, very well, especially at their new home in Coventry.

"We are going to have to be very good, we are going to have to be accurate and we will have to manage the opportunities that their very dangerous, world-class finishers get."

Things have changed quickly for Leinster. They sit now in charge of their own destiny, having flirted with disaster and an early exit from Europe.

That's not to say the pressure has eased, with skipper Jamie Heaslip relishing the knock-out element the competition takes on from here.

Anwd O'Connor heaped praise on the players who helped keep their Champions Cup aspirations alive despite the squad being crippled by injuries early in the season. The province could now top their pool for the second season running after playing their way back into contention.

"The ripple effect of 20 blokes injured, most of them long-term, in relation to the bodies you have in your environment and the ability to train at a high level and put out a team with a game-plan capable of playing good teams, it all changes" O'Connor said of their early season struggles.

"That was the reality of it. Those are the facts. The guys who played in Europe against Wasps and Castres put us in this position. We need to repay that and deliver on our end.

"It's about the environment and we have worked incredibly hard to put ourselves in this position. It's not about personal objectives or anything else. It is about the team delivering a performance. If we can do that, and we have fought very hard to do it, we give ourselves the ability to control what happens to us, which is important."

Last week they looked devastating against Castres, though what interest the opposition had in a trip to Dublin is questionable.

For their part, Wasps will be coming into this game more battle hardened.

They came through a derby away to Quins in impressive style, holding Conor O'Shea's side to just a single penalty in their own backyard over the 80 minutes.

"It's all about winning and making sure we're in front after 80 minutes," O'Connor said. "That's the only thing that we focus on, to do whatever it takes to make sure we're in front of the scoreboard at the end of it.

"The intensity of what we delivered last week was important. We certainly went out to put as much pressure on them, to make it as high-tempo as possible and to keep the ball in play as often as we could.

"There's a bit of merit in that moving forward for us because that's probably one of our strengths. If there are opportunities to do that with momentum, we will try to exert that pressure as well."

Heaslip insists Leinster would have taken this position when the pools were drawn.

"This is what European rugby is about - it's winner takes all," said the No 8. "If you had said to us would we like this position when the groups were named I would have said 'yeah'.

"Coming down to the last game, we are away from home against a quality side. . . this is what European rugby is all about. We have paid them the respect that they are due and owed and then we have focused on us and hopefully we'll get the outcome we deserve."

Irish Independent

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