Monday 27 January 2020

Local rivals have what it takes to find weaknesses in Leinster's armoury

James Lowe has been a joy to watch
James Lowe has been a joy to watch

Victor Costello

There's no better feeling than a comprehensive win on home soil at Christmas time prior to the new year.

This has always been a productive time for Leinster but it has been rare for European qualification to happen so quickly and easily. Northampton knew this was not a game they would win but an attempt at a losing bonus point was on the cards if they put up a valiant effort.

For the Leinster fans, it was like being at an NFL game as there was quality entertainment every couple of minutes and with the result in the bag early, they could enjoy the festive spirit in the stadium.

With the possibility of an Anglo Irish league on the horizon, Irish club rugby could not be better placed but it may not look too appealing from an English point of view.

Leinster will be clear favourites for European glory but we have learned the hard way that the favourites' tag so early in the competition will not sit well, and the Leinster management were obvious in their demeanour that expectations once again have been elevated.

It is clear that the Leinster player production line is in full flow but as this is celebrated, the return of Jack Conan, Seán Cronin and Dan Leavy should also be a concern for the latter part of the season.

Knocking There are players not just knocking on the door but more likely to be bangin' the door down for Irish selection. Quite frankly, if I was the Leinster management I would be concerned about losing my players to the Irish set-up even for just 24 hours.

This is because Leinster are so far ahead of the Irish squad system which, under normal circumstances, would be the flagship of the country's hopes. Also at this stage of the season, the extended Six Nations squad the Irish management announced could end up being an embarrassment should it not represent form as opposed to reputation.

Ross Byrne's influence on the game last weekend would have been another complete out-half performance should he not have been pulled aside due to injury. His ability to use the width of the Aviva and release his backline was a thorn in Northampton's side from the off.

Caelen Doris's trajectory could not have been better timed. It is worth noting also that Doris is becoming an effective option at two in the lineout, allowing more options at the back.

Jordan Larmour's role reversal with Rob Kearney will be a benefit for Leinster in the non-international season with Rob Kearney possibly available. This may be a temporary situation for Kearney and more likely a permanent one for Larmour; either way, it's a statement from Andy Farrell that there are players who will have to take the blame for the Irish collapse even if the rest of the Irish management and performance director have avoided it.

Players like Garry Ringrose and James Lowe are proving how comfortable they are in this Leinster set-up and the loose-play licence they are both playing with is infectious.

Felipe Contepomi has maintained that this freedom has been coached and encouraged rather than restricted and controlled from an Irish set-up and there is no doubt that this group of players are happy operating outside their comfort zone.

With all this positivity and adulation there is an underlying need for a more valid test of this Leinster side. With the interprovincial games in the horizon and with a short turnaround for the Ulster game, Leinster just might get this sooner rather than later.

Ulster have been Leinster's whipping boys over recent years and any Ulster victory in this mix has made little difference to a season round-up. Even when Ulster pushed Leinster close last season in the Champions Cup, the result was never in doubt as it was more about Leinster's performance on the day and not the scoreboard.

Tonight Ulster will have their tails up and with a lot of their players in form. John Cooney, their talisman, will relish a square-up to either Luke McGrath or Jamison Gibson-Park and vice versa. So too with Jordi Murphy, Iain Henderson and Rob Herring as performances now will count for Six Nations selection.

There has always been a common theme that these provincial derby games can lift teams' performances before the next rounds of European rugby but in Leinster's case a dose of Irish provincial reality is exactly what's required.

Cheap If there are any clubs in Europe that can exploit Leinster's weaknesses, it is Ulster and Munster, starting this weekend in the RDS.

Ulster will be aware that throughout the last few games this season Leinster have allowed some cheap tries and their discipline has not been faultless either. These are games that Leinster can afford to lose but even with resting players and mixing up their squad, there's still too much at stake.

Once again, Leinster have made themselves a target early in the season. What we have learned from the RWC is that even if you're the best team, you still have to be savvy when playing cup rugby.

Leinster will have to avoid the emotion over the coming weeks and leave the bragging rights and baggage to the supporters.

There are individual sub-plots to whet the appetite for fans but also increased pressure on the Irish management.

These sub-plots and individual rivalry have to be kept at bay for the continual improvement of team Leinster and it may just happen that the Leinster management select a 23 to take the pressure off rather than keeping it on.

Irish Independent

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