Monday 11 December 2017

It will take an exceptional team to halt the march of the European champions

Jim Glennon just can't see this Leinster team losing any time soon

I NEVER saw Leinster's enforced lay-off from action during the recent big freeze as being a problem but certainly the early stages of this contest at the RDS last night were worryingly error-strewn.

I had been of the view before the game that Leinster's relative inactivity of late could work to their advantage, this week and next, as the consequent freshness would stand to them.

Add in the fact that Brive had nothing to play for and would have one eye, at least, on their winnable French Top 14 game with Montauban on Wednesday, something evident in their selection. Out-half Andy Goode, Riki Flutey, and young French international Alexis Pallisson were all left at home in France.

Despite this, there was a a clear territorial supremacy in favour of the visitors early on; the only noteworthy scoring opportunity a missed penalty by the French. Leinster's first real foothold deep in Brive territory was marked with a penalty-try, a direct result of an emerging superiority in the scrum. That breakthrough had a significant settling influence on Leinster, and they set up camp in the Brive 22 until half-time, but without tangible return.

Whether or not it was down to the relatively small proportion of native French in their ranks, it was a far-from-anaemic Brive performance in the opening period. On the contrary, it had been quite full-blooded, notably in a determined defensive effort, typified by Leinster's old adversary, the redoubtable Welshman Alex Popham, which served to frustrate the champions and test their mettle to the maximum.

A possibly history-making first-ever decision on a penalty by a Television Match Official was a precursor to a very well-worked try by Nacewa, all in the opening five minutes of the second half, and the introduction of Sean O'Brien for Shane Jennings set the scene for a 35-minute pursuit of the two tries needed for their bonus point.

As so often happens though, the game went flat, and when Brive's second-row Retief Uys pulled five points back with a try it served as a real wake-up call for Leinster.

First to rise to the challenge was O'Brien, with a tremendous 30-yard burst which put them on the front foot and provided the field position for D'Arcy to work a simple try at the posts. The search for their fourth was interrupted by a breakaway French try, but only briefly; a half-break by Rob Kearney, followed by wonderful hands from Shane Horgan, put Brian O'Driscoll in at the right corner with the last play of the game.

For Leinster, the purpose of last night's exercise was to extract the maximum haul of five points ahead of the trip to Twickenham for the pool decider against London Irish next Saturday. Chances are that the bonus-point victory will suffice to ensure their safe passage into the knock-out stages as one of the better runners-up, but this team will not be taking chances.

The main talking point was the inclusion of Jennings ahead of O'Brien, who had been very impressive in Jennings' absence. This will certainly be a tough call for Cheika, particularly given the game-defining way in which Steffon Armitage and his Exiles back-row colleagues took their Leinster counterparts to the cleaners in October. My guess at this stage is that he'll start O'Brien and leave Jennings on the bench.

While we're on the subject of the back-row, mention must go to Jamie Heaslip, who once again put in an outstanding performance yesterday. In the wake of Rocky Elsom's departure last summer it was expected that Leinster's forward play, and their capacity to provide a sufficient supply of quality go-forward ball to their vaunted backline, would be greatly diminished. While many have stepped up to the plate, none have done so more conspicuously than man-of-the-match Heaslip, who has been in contention for that gong every time he has lined out, and has generally performed in a manner befitting a Lions Test player.

Leinster now prepare for the Exiles with a real awareness of just exactly where they are and a justified, controlled, confidence. Since their opening-round loss to the Exiles, Leo Cullen's team have garnered the maximum 20 points and, remarkably, with the squad back to full strength (Fitzgerald excepted) it should be a cracker.

I don't see this team being beaten in the immediate future. It will be a tough and highly attritional 80 minutes, but they appear to have developed that mental steel which comes only from winning at the highest level, and it will take an exceptional team, or an exceptional set of circumstances, to topple the European champions.

London Irish are a very good side, but they have yet to show that they can be described as exceptional.

Sunday Independent

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