Saturday 15 December 2018

Tony Ward: It's only October but Leinster are already facing a must-win game

Rory O'Loughlin of Leinster celebrates with team-mates Luke McGrath, left, Scott Fardy, centre, and Robbie Henshaw after scoring his side's first try against Munster last week
Rory O'Loughlin of Leinster celebrates with team-mates Luke McGrath, left, Scott Fardy, centre, and Robbie Henshaw after scoring his side's first try against Munster last week
Rory O’Loughlin holds off the tackle of Robin Copeland to squeeze in for Leinster’s first try at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

There are lots of things about modern rugby I hate, but press me to name the biggest plus from the game going open and I will have great difficulty looking beyond European competition, specifically the former Heineken Cup, now the Champions Cup.

This is international rugby in all but name and, with respect to Super Rugby in the southern hemisphere, the game in the north, and specifically this competition, has a tribal element that SANZAR can only dream of replicating.

On Thursday in Pau and last night in Belfast, professional rugby with a difference kicked into gear. Yes, we have the same sleep-inducing defensive systems in place but when the cream of French and English join with the best of Celtic (for want of a better description) nations in full-blooded competition, plans go out the window as heart and guts take the game back to where it used to be.

There is an element of fatigue overtaking robotic planning but, still, in the unique environment that is Champions Cup anything goes. Test rugby is at the top of the pile but Champions Cup rugby isn't too far below it.

You have the best of international talent playing alongside each other but with a commitment to the cause of winning for the club that only training and playing together on a daily basis can engender.

Not even Test rugby can imitate that. The overall standard of skill may be marginally better but the desire to dig deep in the trenches for your mates (like Peter O'Mahony did in verbal mode last weekend) takes cross-border club rugby to Test level and in some cases beyond.

Of course you get the occasional bore, particularly in the latter stages of the Pools in January when the French in particular may have lost interest.

It is a mindset that stinks but in general the Gallic recognition that being at the top table in Europe really matters is now much more ingrained. The Top 14 is the still the bread and butter but the Champions Cup registers with a nation which has regressed (despite half-decent World Cup showings) since the game went open.

Look no further than Montpellier for living proof of a club wanting to emulate Toulouse and Toulon in terms of European success. Clermont too are in that category and they are a club I would love to see lift the Holy Grail that is the Champions Cup. For Munster once upon a time read Clermont now. It is a tough road but their day will come.

Of course, money talks and in that key respect director general (and president) Mohed Altrad hasn't been slow in loosening the purse strings.

The core of the team alone with Louis Picamoles in at 8, Ruan Pienaar at 9 and Aaron Cruden (though injured today) on board at 10 represents serious but shrewd investment at the hub of the side. To that trio you can add players of the quality of Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn, Nemani Nadolo (Picamoles with scary pace), Timoci Nagusa.

For Leinster in a dog of a group this is as tough as it gets even allowing for home comforts. Leo Cullen's side beat Munster more convincingly than the six-point difference suggested at the Aviva last weekend. They are not by any means the finished article but they are still the best we have on this island in terms of challenging for outright success.

Every Pool is difficult (and that is as it should be) but it is conceivable that Ulster and Munster could come through Pools 1 and 4 respectively whereas Pool 3 looks like the Pool of Death. Of course it is true that no league or cup is won in the second month of the season but equally winning aspirations can bite the dust in the same period.

The obvious goal for Cullen, Stuart Lancaster, Girvan Dempsey, John Fogarty and co is to win all three games at home and if I can be so bold but honest in suggesting the target then is to do 'a Munster on the road', ie pick up one away win plus a bonus point at least in each of the remaining games.

That should put any team with genuine winning aspiration in the frame for qualification come January. To that end, and while it might seem like stretching it, today's game for Leinster at the RDS is, I believe, must-win. Round one and we're talking must-win. Lose your opening game and straight away you're playing catch-up.

A very different Montpellier came to the RDS last January underpinned by that puke lack-of-interest mindset and got thumped 57-3 with Jack Conan registering a hat-trick. Yet this time last year in Montpellier Leinster had to make do with that critical bonus in a 22-16 defeat.

We all know what Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt did as a combination when coaching Clermont. In Cotter, along with Nathan Hines and Alex King, Altrad has invested prudently.

With respect to Glasgow (next up) and Exeter (in Sandy Park), Montpellier in the opening game is as tough a challenge as it gets. And if that doesn't whet your appetite for as close as doesn't matter to Test rugby with no holds barred then I don't know what will.

My wishes for Leinster ahead of kick-off are that they play with confidence because despite the cocky tag from times past and the strength and depth now in the ranks, they sometimes look like a side low on belief. Hence the tendency to drift in and out of games. Enough to win in general but not quite with the conviction they should. That said, a win depriving the French aristocrats of a bonus would be the dream start.

And to that end I'm looking for the Leinster 8/9 combo to really step up to the mark and outplay their much-vaunted opposites. It is early yet but the Leinster player to have impressed me most thus far is Luke McGrath.

I love his industry and infectious attitude which comes naturally. This is a big challenge against the tactically brilliant Pienaar but in the absence of Cruden on Johnny Sexton, the battle at the base of the scrum takes on a different dimension.

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