Tuesday 20 February 2018

Neil Francis: Leinster must play like Ireland - not like Leinster - if they want to beat Wasps

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

At the end of the season the Leinster management will sit down and review the year.

In the middle of the audit, the match against Cardiff on March 25 at the RDS will most definitely stand out. A speed bump? Well, no – Leinster have about two or three of these ‘cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof’ type performances a season. I am certain that there is a crate of lemons, a large tub of salt and an industrial vat of Casa Dragones Tequila in the Leinster dressing room beforehand. When the team take the field they don’t know the rules of rugby and have no idea what they are doing.

Cardiff, sometimes you wonder why they bother getting on the plane – better to send an ensign over and toss a coin for the bonus point.  Cardiff should have won last Saturday but just couldn’t muster the collective responsibility required to finish off the chances that Leinster continued to give them and so a sobering home side got by on sat-nav until time ran out and the scoreboard showed 22-21 to Leinster.

Those performances don’t just happen – they have their origin on the Monday or Tuesday prior to kick-off.  They are like earthquakes – you never know when they are going to strike.  Ospreys, I suppose, had their own speed wobble in losing to Treviso the next day. Let’s hope it is not contagious or long-lasting.

Depending on injuries, there will be at least eight players who performed last Saturday involved in the match-day 23 for the big one at the Aviva on Saturday. Embarrassment, as far as I am aware, is not a ‘prime motivational tool’. This steadily-improving Leinster side is not the ‘push button’ doppelganger of the 2009-2013 vintage. They are just not good enough to be able to switch it on or turn it off.  You can certainly tighten things up.  Leinster missed 26 tackles against Cardiff – that is a pretty hard thing to achieve against a team of Cardiff’s calibre. 

Tackling is a mental discipline and if Leinster repeat that performance against Wasps, they will be beaten out the gate. Before we get to the meat of the issue, I might just point to Will Greenwood’s pre-Christmas Lions side.  Adam Byrne’s name popped up in his team.  The boy has great natural ability and is a great finisher. He starred during the pool games and he stood out and has the makings of a potential superstar but defensively he is clueless.  To have played at such a level without a grounding on the fundamentals of defence defies logic.  Tackling is only 25pc of being a good defensive back-three player – all good wingers are always in the right place to make a tackle. While the Lions series is being played young Byrne should be poring over the videos to find out what his alignment, his positioning and who his man is. Leinster may be tempted to play him on Saturday but this game could yield a hundred points and the team that is going to advance is the one that plays smarter without the ball. It is why people like Fergus McFadden get picked all of the time.

I have been keeping an eye on this Wasps side and the first thing I thought when Leinster would be playing them on a dry pitch in springtime was: “Do not get drawn into a loose game with this lot.” 

The teams won’t be announced until tomorrow but I suspect the Wasps back-line, subject to injury, will be along the lines of Joe Simpson, Danny Cipriani, Willie Le Roux, Jimmy Gopperth, Elliot Daly, Christian Wade and Kurtley Beale. That is the fastest back-line in Europe. I was told after the England game that Daly was the quickest back in the England squad. Cipriani has dazzling pace – even former Leinster player Gopperth has real pace; nobody needs reminding how quick Wade (pictured left) is.

They are impressive off tight play, they are dangerous on the counter-attack and they have enough talent to keep their shape in multi-phase and not run out of ideas or support players. One thing I am sure of – this big Aviva crowd will be silenced three or four times during the match – maybe more – and they will get across the Leinster line. Their forwards get in on the act too because they play a sexy brand of the continuous game.  They all have bought into the idea in open play of stepping out on the outside foot and offloading on the inside and if one of those support runners is one of their speedsters, it’s goodnight Irene. 

Wasps haven’t won a trophy in a long time and just because they top the Aviva Premiership doesn’t mean anything. They are though having a good season and when they win – they score a lot of points.  They also leak a lot. They defend in narrow channels and like a certain team in green are susceptible to wide men on the extremes of the pitch so the cross-kick exposes them or even a kick-pass.

Wade is leading the try-scoring charts again in the Premiership but you have to ask why England have not picked him in the last four or five years. We all know the answer – he is crap in the air and positionally is all over the place but a lot of the time his pace saves him. David Young played a bad poker hand during the week trying not to focus on the Sexton-Cipriani match-up. This only served to bring it into sharp focus – maybe that was his intention all along.

Only Cipriani thinks he has a chance of going on the Lions in three weeks’ time. The match-up will be intriguing but for some reason in the same press release he pointed to Wade’s undoubted try-scoring ability but said that even though he was small and Leinster would target him in the air he wouldn’t swap him for anyone!  That sounds like an invitation to me. 

Winning this game is the only important thing for the men in blue.  There are no points for artistic merit.  Leinster should seek to play with Ireland’s blueprint – hold onto the ball, play territory and press Wasps deep.  Home field advantage only works when you squeeze your opponents.  I have no problem if Leinster play a strictly limited form of the game and go to try and exploit Wade or Beale because if the kick is accurate and the chase is resolute then Leinster will profit from this – particularly if it is Isa Nacewa doing the chasing. 

This must be Leinster’s best defensive performance of the season.  That Wasps back-line has a habit of breaking half tackles and squirming out of tight situations. Robbie Henshaw has the responsibility to lead the charge here.

If Sexton stays on the pitch and plays the way he has been playing, Leinster have a good chance. I found the whole late tackle tactics from England in the Test match reprehensible and cynical to the point of contempt. England’s forwards took it in turns to late-tackle Sexton at the Aviva – first it was Haskell, then Lawes, then Itoje and at the end it was Woods – all knowing that if they took it in turns Garces wouldn’t bin them.  All the tackles just late enough to hurt him but not late enough for a card. When Woods took Sexton out in the last quarter there should have been a dust-up.

Wasps come over today with James Haskell, Nathan Hughes, Joe Launchbury and Co and there is no question that they will target Sexton again. If there is one unpunished late charge on Sexton – and when I mean unpunished I don’t mean by the referee, I mean by the Leinster pack – Wasps will know they are right in the game.

Haskell will look for Sexton all day and the first ‘accidental’ collision attempted will have to be responded to. Who is playing at home?

This will be a devilishly difficult game to play. Cullen and Lancaster know that they can pinpoint where to beat Wasps – trick is to ensure that Leinster restrain themselves from playing volleyball, play for 80 and squeeze the life out of Wasps and, oh yeah, park the Cardiff performance as far away from the Aviva as possible. Tequila!

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