Saturday 16 December 2017

Forward momentum gets Blues over finishing line

Dominance of Leinster pack key in attritional and wearying contest, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It says something about the extraordinary state of Leinster's -- and indeed Ireland's -- sporting psyche, that it gives us the authority to declare that we are sure of ourselves, when we are not.

Leinster struggled badly for the last 40 minutes against Munster last week so we could never be sure about what sort of knock-on effect that would have. Would they be empty spiritually after pretty much running the tank down to nothing or would the engine be purring a week later for a match they were expected to win?

I'm a big fan of the Antiques Roadshow and I relish the moment those greedy grannies arrive on air with their junk boxes, trinkets and curios. Next the valuer takes them in hand and leads them up the garden path of extravagant expectation. It's wonderful to see them emptied in a thrice as the valuer extols a price to the value of £100.

Expectation, not Leicester, was Leinster's biggest obstacle. Leicester though, came to the Aviva to play and they came with a plan.

There are certain things you can be assured of when you play Leicester in a Heineken Cup. Firstly, they are not afraid of anybody, they play with graceless cynicism, they have the pedigree of real contenders. Also, they play with absolute surety on the gainline and their street wisdom ensures they stay in the game longer than they really deserve to.

They came to Dublin with intent, and their professionalism and cynicism at the breakdown was manifest from the start. It's bred into them; it's in their DNA.

Paradoxically they play with an incorruptible honesty of effort, and this showed on the tackle line and the way they rucked and counter rucked.

Leinster had three try-scoring chances and in every single one of them the delay of the ball or the killing of the ball was imperceptible.

The fact that they weren't much ahead unsettled Leinster. So much so, that as the intensity of the game rose they started making mistakes and turning ball over.

We know that skills often break down under pressure and we also know that Leinster are a very skilful side.

However, they couldn't show the sort of composure needed to make passes stick and they struggled to display the accuracy needed to break Leicester down. Unfortunately, once again, Luke Fitzgerald was the chief culprit in this regard, making four handling errors in the space of 20 minutes. And once again, his facility to overrun the ball-carrier cost Leinster a clear seven points.

There was a great break to start off the movement, by Mike Ross, the breakdown as usual was slowed by a number of Leicester players. Eoin Reddan hit the ball to Jonathan Sexton, who worked it back inside to Richardt Strauss. Fitzgerald knew the support angle, he just overran it as he has done so often. He needs to stand back a yard;13-3 at that stage to Leinster would have given Leicester pause for thought and maybe questioned themselves. However, at 9-3 they were still very much in the game and had the bench to make it count. Leinster simply had to combust and apply themselves with more certainty.

They played a very dangerous game in the second half and you would wonder how tired they were all the way through the second 40. Did that match in Thomond take too much out of them? But they have an indomitable will this Leinster side, despite the fatigue that was pulling at them, because this match was as raw as uncoated wire.

Leinster have the ability to think clearly at vital times. They did things that kept them in the match, when once again they were conceding position and possession to Leicester.

They were marvellously competitive at lineout time, even if some of the intelligence shown here was bordering on illegal. Kevin McLaughlin was worth his place alone for the four or five turnovers at lineout time.

He didn't compete for the ball, instead he knocked the inside hand quite surreptitiously on the Leicester jumper and as the ball stayed in the air Leinster, to a man, took a step across the line and the ball fell down on their side of the line.

The Leinster forwards really gave them the platform, with a stunning performance from their entire front-row who had to contend with a wearying and attritional 80 minutes.

Leicester are used to bullying other Aviva Premiership sides, they got no change out of the Leinster eight and the flat-track bullies were unable to live off front football at scrum time.

Leinster could have eaten their dinner off their scrum. You could see Richard CockerIll shite a sea urchin in the bowels of the Aviva as he watched his pack come off second best, in an area where they needed to dominate if they were to have any chance of winning the game.

Strauss looked like a kitten on the frisk. I'll confirm it next week but I am pretty sure his tackle count was upwards of the 20s. But the beautiful thing was when he made his tackle because he has such a low centre of gravity he was back up like a buzzbomb. He was back up competing on the next contact. I watched seven or eight times the intelligence of this little wonder where he was competing at the tackle zone for the ball. He had the intelligence every time when it was easier to give away a penalty to back off, release and put his hands in the air. Wonderful intelligence, wonderful discipline.

Leinster almost undid themselves at the end. For all their prowess and nous Leicester were very lateral and Leinster were able to deal with them by shepherding them across the field into a vacuum of space. The two Tuilagi's were just meat and drink to Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll, but it takes effort and bravery to continue to stop these mammoths at the gainline and, as the game wore on, Leinster just did not have enough in the tank and when Rob Hawkins dropped for a very soft try the catacombs of oblivion seemed to be Leinster's lot.

As fatigue clotted the antenna of the senses, Leinster were a line-break away from serious trouble as they leaked yardage and fell off tackles alarmingly. It is unpleasant to have to endure these traumatic last five-minute stands but Leinster resolved themselves, fronted up and tackled from memory. They just about got out alive.

Leinster will have to forget about the Magners League, play their academy and get their starters ready for three weeks' time.

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