Monday 15 October 2018

Comment: Fatigue is Leinster's greatest enemy in PRO14 push

Jamison Gibson-Park is likely to come into the Leinster starting XV as Leo Cullen makes the most of his squad depth for the PRO14 semi-final against Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Jamison Gibson-Park is likely to come into the Leinster starting XV as Leo Cullen makes the most of his squad depth for the PRO14 semi-final against Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

You would be surprised at the gap that will extend between Leinster's Champions Cup triumph and the RDS meeting with Munster on Saturday in the Guinness PRO14 semi-final.

The hangover in the capital will blow over fairly quickly, and by tomorrow morning when Leinster will begin to take note of Munster coming over the hill. That would be a Munster who are rested and re-energised, and driven by the opportunity to get back to a final.

Back in 2011 Leinster made the trip to Thomond Park a week after their remarkable comeback over Saints. Looking lost at half-time in Cardiff they had summoned up a unique turnaround in the second half, and cantered home to their first Heineken Cup. The double died a week later on the back of the team who created a heap of chances but lacked the energy and focus to finish them off.

Joe Schmidt had backed mostly the same starting crew. Fergus McFadden came in for the injured Gordon D'Arcy in midfield and up front the coach rested Cian Healy and Kevin McLaughlin, starting with Heinke van der Merwe and Shane Jennings. He should have gone further.

Fast forward to this week and fatigue is Leo Cullen's greatest threat. His 'A' team were beaten out the gate by Ealing Trailfinders on Saturday - a grizzled, old pack playing wet-weather rugby to a tee - and on the back of that showing none of that crew will be breaking the door down to start in Limerick.

But before a ball was kicked in Bilbao you looked at the Leinster bench and reckoned it had a whole lot more fire-power than Racing's. To that end it felt like about five minutes too long before Jack Conan got a run for Jordi Murphy, who was struggling to make an impact.

Given the nature of the contest Rhys Ruddock would have been an ideal man to throw into the trenches. And with Tadhg Furlong having a modest impact with ball in hand, Leo Cullen knew he could turn to Andrew Porter without losing grunt.

Behind the scrum too it was only a matter of time before Jamison Gibson-Park came on for Luke McGrath. The fear in Leinster had been that McGrath's season was over when he wrenched his knee against Scarlets back in February.

Mental

The scrum-half's biggest asset is his mental strength, and despite his lack of experience he is a team leader, and holds his own when Johnny Sexton is barking orders and making demands.

Gibson-Park is a different sort of player. He had been outstanding against Scarlets in the Champions Cup semi-final, and when the Leinster forwards have parity, or better, he is perfect for giving the side tempo.

Technically, he is a better passer than McGrath, but given the battle at the breakdown in Bilbao - where Wayne Barnes didn't endear himself to the Leinster camp - tempo wasn't something they could readily create.

The man who Leinster fans will least like to be rested is James Ryan. He is an extraordinary rugby player, a nailed-on Lion in waiting. Clearly he is not physically challenged but when you look at Ryan you don't see an Eben Etzebeth or a Brodie Retallick, yet Ryan is already more valuable than the former and will soon be in the same class as the latter.

To be able to cope with intense physical pressure and still perform the basics is what sets the best players apart. Ryan does that, but the bonus is his appetite. He carried 12 times and made 16 tackles in Bilbao - good stats but not remarkable by his standards - but what is not measured is the time gap between a lung-bursting carry and then emptying an opponent in a tackle. Most players take a breather, hoping they won't be called into action again until their heart-rate has calmed down a bit. Ryan skips the tea break and chases the next project.

Given his record of 20 pro games played and 20 games won the supporters will want him in the starting line-up for Saturday. And Dan Leavy behind him on the side of the scrum. Leavy has been one of the players of the season, for Leinster and for Ireland. Again he was immersed in the contest against Racing but his concession of three penalties - the one in midfield where he pulled the ball back into a ruck was not his finest moment on a rugby field - had he potential to undo Leinster's effort.

He is a top-quality player, another who would be measured up for Lions gear if there was a tour this summer, but Josh van der Flier would have been a handy man to have in the Champions Cup final.

That option is not on the table against Munster but Cullen needs to be careful with Leavy. We have lost count of the number of times his head has been opened and in record time he has a few yards of bandage applied, and is carrying on regardless.

He has a lot in common with Robbie Henshaw. It's a combination of medical technique and his own attitude that he has a Champions Cup medal in his pocket in the same season as having dislocated a shoulder.

Create

Munster rely on using that 10/12 channel as their main route forward off set-piece - they badly need to create some better plays to complement the platform their forwards give them - but no one does that better than Henshaw. And he has a fine passing game to match. So he will be leading the charge in Limerick on Saturday.

It remains to be seen who is directing the show from 10. With Johnny Sexton having tweaked his groin in the second half in Bilbao, Joe Schmidt will be hoping that Cullen opens the door to Joey Carbery for what would be invaluable experience.

It's worth bearing in mind that while Ulster are front and centre in the shop window to attract Carbery, Munster too have needs in that department. And if you were Carbery you'd fancy a trip south rather than north if keeping the national coach happy was top of your priorities.

It would be interesting then if Carbery gets to play a leading role on Saturday. As Leo Cullen tries to get the balance right between getting the best side out and getting a fresh side out he has to figure out what to do at out-half.

It's not the first time this season that has been on his mind. It is the first time, however, he has enjoyed this level of comfort, with one trophy already in the cabinet.

Irish Independent

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