Sport Rugby

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Leinster have firepower and craft to nullify North threat

Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor
Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor
David Kelly

David Kelly

The tie of the weekend. So many clashes to savour.

Chiefly England versus Ireland, a final fling as the English suits prepare for secession.

Two wingers of contrasting size and experience, George North and Dave Kearney, both double try-scorers for their country in November, will stare down the tramlines at each other.

Tom Wood, a back-row behemoth of the present for his country, against Rhys Ruddock, surely a Test star of the future.

Courtney Lawes' and Devin Toner's aerial jousting as the battle for supremacy on the ground takes to the skies.

Stephen Myler, the steady hand on the tiller at out-half, seeking to outwit Ian Madigan, the impish impresario granted the task of pivoting Leinster.

Oh, and don't forget to throw Brian O'Driscoll into the mix.

The home side have lost just twice this term; one of those losses was in the Heineken Cup. Hence, this is win or bust territory – lose in their midlands fortress and they might as well do a Mark McCafferty and cash their European chips.

In Leinster, they face another team backed by impressive form, even if not all their supporters are being wowed by the style.

STRAPS

As Joe Schmidt discovered before him, Matt O'Connor was never going to hit his straps as a new coach in a new environment with an all-singing, all-dancing approach to the game.

His reality check has allowed him room to breathe; doing so while favourably positioned in both competitions and with all his key men available, fit and hungry for action, is a quietly formidable feat.

One senses that this Leinster side, with a couple of months of clear ground ahead of them for the first time this season, can really ramp up their progress, starting by undermining the bookies' odds on a home win this evening.

As is usual with English sides, no more than their irascible negotiators helping to decide the fate of European rugby, there may be a tad too much hype attached to the reputation.

Saints have become a much more rounded side than the one which wheezed to that remarkable second-half implosion in the 2011 decider between these sides. Their try-scoring prowess has improved significantly and they are sweeter on the eye.

James Wilson's inclusion at full-back will be a notable boost to a side who, even without Ben Foden and George Pisi, not to mention notable bench absentee Kahn Fotuali'i, have clearly benefited from the fruitful brains of ex-Wasps and Clermont backs guru Alex King.

Their basis is still brute physicality, though.

"They play to their strengths," says O'Connor appreciatively. "They certainly try to get dominance up front and off the back of the space that creates, they're probably a bit more dangerous out wide than they have been. They're winning games and scoring tries, they're playing good rugby.

"You have to limit the opportunities they get. If you don't give them that initial go-forward ball, you can probably deal with them in the wider channels. But once they get momentum, they're a very, very good side."

However, as one casts an eye through the visitors' team sheet, one adorned by 15 Irish internationals – 14 of whom competed in the November series – Leinster appear an even better side.

And, with a home tie to come in Lansdowne Road, Leinster could be in a position to plot their way to a home quarter-final at the turn of the year. This time last season, remember, the then title-holders were contemplating an exit.

"We've been eyeing up these back-to-back games for a while now," notes full-back Rob Kearney.

"It's the one area where we suffered last year and it cost us progressing in the Heineken Cup.

"It's something we've spoken about – that these Christmas back-to-backs are crucial if you want to progress in the tournament.

"I wouldn't expect anything less from Northampton, that they've been eyeing up these two weeks as a massive part of their season – but so have we."

That O'Connor has opted for Madigan is not as significant a call as it seems; the whole point of the coach's tenure is to arrive at a position where he can readily call upon both of his pivot options.

He couldn't do that at the start of the season so it was natural that he deployed Jimmy Gopperth as he attempted to implement his coaching philosophy.

Still, his predecessor would have often opted to pitch Isaac Boss into the fray as his 'away' selection at scrum-half; clearly, as O'Connor sees it, if his pack can't dominate and protect his halves, the half-back selection will be irrelevant.

Leinster's pack will relish such a challenge and you'd fancy them to step up, particularly given the recent experience of almost felling the All Blacks and the surge of confidence that Devin Toner, to choose one example, must have gained.

North looms like some sort of bogeyman but in reality, albeit with a poorer team, he did little for the Scarlets against Leinster last term; he can only thrive if his side are playing a marauding front-foot game. Leinster must deny them this opportunity.

MARKING

"He's a world-class player and he's developing every week it seems," says Kearney of his Lions colleague. "But we had him in the Heineken Cup last year with Scarlets and we managed him pretty well.

"He is manageable; it's going to be a job for whoever is marking him but you get into the space early, you try to shut him down as quickly as you can, you try to limit the times that he does get the ball."

If little brother is left exposed to North's power, Leinster will know they are playing the wrong type of game. They have enough nous to play the right one.

Verdict: Leinster

Northampton Saints – J Wilson; K Pisi, D Waldouck, L Burrell, G North; S Myler, L Dickson; A Waller, D Hartley (c), S Ma'afu, S Manoa, C Lawes, T Wood, P Dowson, S Dickinson.

Reps: M Haywood, E Waller, T Mercey, C Day, C Clark, R Glynn, G Dickson, J Elliott.

Leinster – R Kearney; D Kearney, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross, D Toner, M McCarthy, R Ruddock, S O'Brien, J Heaslip (c). Reps: A Dundon, J McGrath, M Moore, L Cullen, S Jennings, I Boss, J Gopperth, Z Kirchner.

REF – N Owens (WRU)

Northampton Saints v Leinster,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 6.0

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