Sunday 15 September 2019

Neil Francis: 'Leinster's three amigos need to get back into groove fast'

Blues must pick Lowe on the wing and hope that quality of their 10-12-13 axis can see them through against dangerous Toulouse side

Centre of attention: Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will be the foundation on which any Leinster success is built. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Centre of attention: Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will be the foundation on which any Leinster success is built. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I was out on my bike last week and I had this strange feeling. I couldn't think of it straight away but eventually it came to me.

The road was different and as I looked further down the asphalt, I noticed that all of the potholes had been filled in and the road was looked almost new.

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And then I thought, 'silly me, the local elections are on May 24 and this bulls**t happens every four years'.

What intrigues me is how the council actually manage to fix the roads because it begs the question: what have they been doing for the last four years?

How is it after such a passage of time that they remember how to actually fix a road?

We can all get our revenge on May 24, the day before the PRO14 final.

The Champions Cup semis come up this weekend and like the council's timely repairs, I often wonder how Leinster manage to put in strong performances months - and sometimes years - after their previous best display.

This season their campaign has been perforated by some pretty average performances and then the odd punctuation mark of something resembling the quality that we all know they have.

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We suspect that they will be able to produce a performance from memory or on demand.

This season Leinster have been pretty shoddy against their provincial rivals.

Yes, they have won but they have been far from convincing and their two best performances this season, appropriately enough, have been against their opponents this Sunday.

Discount

You must discount that first Pool 1 game against Wasps at the RDS - the side now plying their trade out of Coventry were an embarrassment that day and you would have to adjust your thinking on just how good Leinster were in putting 50-odd points up against them.

You do get the impression that Leinster have regressed a little bit but the stats suggest otherwise.

Leinster scored more tries in their pool games and conceded less than they did last year and although the PRO14 wouldn't be the most accurate barometer of how they are functioning, they have already well surpassed all their indices from last season with a game against Ulster to go.

The conventional wisdom is that Leinster were on fire last year and so if they are better on the scoreboard, in attack and defence, they should be primed for another successful season.

I think, though, that all of their opposition have caught up with them and the three sides left in the Champions Cup are in a far better condition to expose them than any of their opponents last year - tight and all as the final in Bilbao eventually proved.

I do think that Leinster will win on Sunday but it presupposes that mentally they are right from the very start and that their game-plan is the correct one on the day.

This Toulouse side may still be a season away from maturing (that is what we all said about Racing 92 and look at them now).

What concerns me is how little game-time Leinster's important players have played.

I do not quite understand how Leinster, or any Irish side for that matter, manage to bring their long-term-injury players right back up to the pitch and intensity of a serious game when they may have been out for a month or two.

Anyone who watched the Toulouse v Clermont game at Stade Ernest-Wallon last Sunday would have been enthralled by the quality of the rugby.

Toulouse ran out 47-44 winners against a strong Clermont side.

The key thing was that Toulouse played nearly all of their starters and the team were humming.

Their key players and leaders are in top form, they seem to have something special brewing and they come to the Aviva knowing that they have a good chance of unseating Leinster.

There were 11 offloads from the Toulouse forwards last weekend.

They have found their traditional game again and the way their big men link up with their backs, and offer themselves up in support, will cause Leinster no end of difficulty.

It was, as the French commentator of the match said, 'la festival de la passe.'

It is the one area where Toulouse have a real edge over Leinster - having watched some of the Blues' laboured passing over the last couple of months you would wonder whether the accuracy that they need to beat Toulouse can be switched on at the press of a button.

The relevance of last week's 24-39 loss to a fully-loaded Glasgow Warriors can be summed up in one sentence: 'Leinster can be bothered by well-organised, dynamic sides that can pass and exploit space.'

Leinster only had four or five starters who will play this weekend but they were embarrassed in the last 15 minutes by a side that came over to win. Toulouse will be doing the same.

The difference between the two sides will be demonstrated, hopefully, in the quality of Leinster's 10-12-13 axis.

Once again, the number of times that Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose have played together in blue or green has been strictly limited.

The hope is that the lack of time spent together will not be a major factor and that they sync into the sort of orthodoxy that we expect from them.

Leinster and Ireland have struggled against aggressive blitz defences all season and maybe the reason they have thrived against Toulouse is that the Toulonnais do not employ this type of defence.

They are, however, still a very effective and well-organised defensive team.

Leinster's team selection will also play a key part in how the reigning champions perform.

Involved

In the away game against Toulouse in the pool stages James Lowe and Scott Fardy were both involved but it looks as if Luke McGrath will start this weekend with Jamison Gibson-Park on the bench.

Nick McCarthy hasn't got any game-time recently and I'm not sure that Leinster will take a risk on picking Hugh O'Sullivan on the bench.

On the basis that Fardy has to be involved, it means Lowe will not see action at the weekend which I think would be a dreadful mistake as he is such an effective player, a genuine game-changer.

It is important that Leinster don't get suckered in to playing a fast-and-loose game.

Any entreaties from the French side to 'come on in, the water is lovely' must be resisted.

Leinster must be hard-nosed and pragmatic, pin the French into their own half, and turn it into a game of tactical kicking if they must.

This is not the Toulouse side of old that might not be entrusted to last the full 80 minutes. This is not a side that you flop over the line against.

Leinster did just enough against Ulster at the key moments but if they have any pretensions of retaining this title a show of strength and a demonstration that they can turn it on when it is required is the absolute minimum.

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