Thursday 24 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Leinster must find a better back-row balance - Dan Leavy is not a No 8'

Dan Leavy of Leinster during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 3 match between Bath and Leinster at the Recreation Ground in Bath, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dan Leavy of Leinster during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 3 match between Bath and Leinster at the Recreation Ground in Bath, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Rob Kearney is tackled by Bath's Tom Ellis and Jamie Roberts during their Heineken European Champions Cup match. Photo: David Davies/PA
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Lucky, lucky Leinster. They have become adept in these battles of the wills, and they played the conditions better than Bath, but if the West Country team had a full roster and a more definitive game plan they could have easily won this game.

Bath did not make Leinster think hard enough, and defensively it became easy for the away side. Bath may have lacked a clear and concise game plan, but they did not lack belief and rather than contain Leinster they went out to unsettle them in a physical confrontation at the breakdown.

Girvan Dempsey proved to be no Trojan horse but his fingerprints were all over some of the plays that unnerved and rattled Leinster throughout the game.

It is rare that you see a back-row of Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier look as disorganised as they did. Maybe these long periods of rest are a bad thing, and Bath certainly looked a more fluent and organised side, particularly in the first half.

Playing Leavy at No 8 was a mild surprise - he did not seem to be as effective. He was tripped three times at the base of the scrum, and if you ever needed to know why the No 8 position is such a specialised one, well then we got an object lesson in the complexities of dealing with scrappy ball at the base of the scrum. The experienced, quality No 8s know when and how to pick when a scrum is going backwards or wheeling. Bath had obviously done their homework and Will Chudley managed to get in and disrupt in the first quarter, and from one of those interventions, Bath capitalised for their only try.

Leinster's pack were also in charitable form at kick-off time, where they ceded easy possession and territory from poor organisation and lack of concentration. They did, however, do enough at scrum time and on the line to convince Bath that they would always be picking up the silver medal in this encounter.

I thought that when the Leinster bench came on, it would be akin to sending them into battle to bayonet the wounded. Bath surprisingly stayed the course and they did so because Leinster, mainly due to the conditions, were unable to hold onto the ball and move them around the park on a concerted basis.

The other element in the equation was down to James Wilson, who was entrusted to control the game for Bath. Freddie Burns cried off during the week and Rhys Priestland, who is out with a long-term injury, would have made a significant difference in terms of Bath playing smarter rugby.

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Leinster played their wings up and left Rob Kearney on his own in the back field. A smart out-half would have kicked with a far greater degree of certainty. Bath should have played more territory but they couldn't because they had a 35-year-old journeyman, who usually plays in a winger-cum-centre role, pulling the strings. His lack of guile and inability to play the conditions better really did hamstring the Bath effort.

On days like these having a pair of Fijian wingers (sorry, Englishmen), sometimes can be a lottery. The two Fijians were given as much ball as Bath could supply them with, but Leinster had their number and pretty much shut them out when they looked like they may get some traction in the open field.

It was a penalty against Joe Cokanasiga in the 72nd minute which eventually sealed the game for Leinster. An inability to do the right thing at the right time, in a pressure game, will always cost you.

Bath were knocking on the door and about 10 metres from the Leinster line, with 10 minutes go, when Cooper Vuna took a good line off Wilson. The tackles were sure and you waited for Bath to make a mistake. Jack Walker came in to try and sandbag Vuna on the ground and only succeeded in knocking the ball on, and sending it on to Leinster's side of the ruck.

Bath lack the sang-froid that Leinster possess in spades and a crucial moment of misunderstanding, or one misjudged cleanout at ruck time, when the pressure is on, is really the difference between the two sides.

Devin Toner got the ball away to Ross Byrne and the newly-introduced out-half's quality pass to James Lowe turned the Bath pressure on its head.

Lowe's kick off his left boot was phenomenal. It was launched 10 metres from his own line and landed 10 metres from Bath's 22. Rory McConnochie was first back to field the ball. The Bath full-back is a sevens player and he is not used to the quality of Leinster's chase, which put him under enormous pressure. He offloaded responsibility by giving a pass to Cokanasiga. The Fijian had no idea what to do, and he was enveloped by three Leinster players, while he was trying to decide what course of action to take. The course to run was the wrong thing to do. Jamison Gibson-Park picked up the penalty for the poach and Byrne slotted it.

Bath are now out of the competition and may decide to bring a weakened squad over to the Aviva. Leinster will need a bonus-point win next week.

They need, also, to play with a little bit more togetherness to ensure that they do so. They will also need to assess whether Johnny Sexton is fit to play or not.

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