Thursday 23 November 2017

Alan Quinlan: Derby clash can set tone for entire season

There is so much at stake you have to develop some sort of hatred to give you the vital edge

'The back-row battle is going to be where this game is won and lost and I can see Van der Flier having a big impact.' Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
'The back-row battle is going to be where this game is won and lost and I can see Van der Flier having a big impact.' Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

It is occasions like this that make you really miss your playing days. Going up against your bitter rivals in front of more than 45,000 passionate fans, on the turf you dreamed of playing on as a kid.

It's a chance to nail down a spot in the provincial side for the first two European games of the campaign, and to put your hand up for selection with Ireland in November. There is so much at stake from an individual perspective, but the biggest motivator is the fear of losing with that beloved crest on your chest.

The week leading into this fixture was never enjoyable, the build-up was nerve-wrangling. It doesn't matter how many years of rugby you have in the legs and the mind, it's impossible to gauge where you are at so early in the season until you feel those first few collisions in an interprovincial derby.

Rustiness is inevitable and Leo Cullen's side looked a touch lackadaisical against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and far from their best against Edinburgh at the RDS last week as they reintegrated some of their A-listers in a stuttering victory.

1. Strengths

While this Leinster side are true to tradition in that they can dazzle with the ball in hand, they have developed their game to such an extent that they can punish you from anywhere - you can never switch off.

The variety of their attacking play has become their biggest strength in recent times, whether through strike plays, mauls, or Johnny Sexton's commanding tactical kicking game.

Leinster's ball retention is superb and their ability to patiently build multiple-phase attacks and set up mismatches with opposition defenders shows great maturity and confidence in their game-plan.

Their efficiency at the breakdown, which goes back to Joe Schmidt's time in charge, is another notable string to their bow, and leaves enough players in the wider channels to keep the defence guessing.

Their pack is very mobile too and Stuart Lancaster seems to have developed the mentality of the forwards - they catch passes now and look for space rather than just put the ball under their arm and run at people.

2. Weaknesses

Clermont proved in the first 20 minutes of the Champions Cup semi-final last year that you have to match Leinster physically if you really want to rattle them, and I'm sure that will be a key focus for Munster today.

A gladiator is most dangerous with a weapon in his hands and Leinster are no different - if you disarm them you've got a much better chance of success. Denying Leinster good, primary possession will prevent them from getting their dangerous attack firing, and that is half the battle.

Munster have to disrupt Leinster, slow down their ball and push them back beyond the gain-line, they must decide the terms of engagement, just like the Scarlets did in last year's PRO12 semi-final.

The eventual champions got in Leinster's faces, retained the ball well and attacked Cullen's side at every opportunity.

I'm also not convinced that this current Leinster side are as ruthless as they could be and sometimes their accuracy lets them down. They have fallen short in a number of season-defining games over the past two years and they have no silverware to show for the scintillating rugby they have produced at times.

3. Team preparation/leaders

The fact that the absence of captain Isa Nacewa and experienced players such as Rob Kearney, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip doesn't raise any major concerns about a lack of leadership at Leinster says it all.

Leinster currently have leaders in abundance, and all over the field. While they have been a victim of their own success to some extent in recent years, struggling for fluency with so many players on international duty, it is times like this when having such a seasoned group pays dividends.

Looking at the pack, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, Tadhg Furlong and Scott Fardy - these guys are big players. Having players like that around, who have achieved so much in the game and have so much quality, brings vast confidence to the group.

Rhys Ruddock has also proven himself to be a natural leader at provincial and international level, while scrum-half Luke McGrath has also been entrusted with leading the side out at the RDS in the past.

The return of Robbie Henshaw is a huge boost. He's only 24 but he has already experienced a lot in his career. There is a big onus on him to step things up this year from a leadership perspective and he looks well able to take on that role.

Then, of course, you have stand-in captain Sexton who has that ability to take hold of a dressing-room. If there's a big situation on the field you back him to make the right call every time. He commands respect and always demands more from those around him.

4. Mind games

I was surprised to hear Josh van der Flier (pictured) saying, 'we don't like them, they don't like us' this week, because players don't normally say that for fear of giving the opposition ammunition, even though it is true.

You have to develop some sort of a hatred for these derbies. You need to find an edge because these are the games that you desperately don't want to lose - they can set the tone for your season.

We haven't seen too much unsavoury stuff or the same level of aggression from years past between these sides in recent times, but it's something that you have to be aware of, to go toe to toe and put your body on the line if needs be. It only takes one incident for things to bubble over.

5. The X- Factor

The back-row battle is going to be where this game is won and lost and I can see Van der Flier having a big impact. I expect to see that red scrum-cap popping up all over the park and his combination with Ruddock and Jack Conan is certainly not lacking in X-factor.

Today's victorious team will more than likely have the dominant back-row. Leinster's talented trio will be on a mission to outshine their counterparts, while stopping CJ Stander from putting Munster on the front foot will be a primary objective.

Behind the pack will be the general supreme in Sexton, who can manage games as well as anyone. He always seems to play well in this fixture - he still has that fire in his eyes when he goes up against Munster and that's what these derbies are all about.

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