Saturday 18 November 2017

Re-jigged trio can take sting out of Wasps' high-fliers

Joey Carbery will start at full-back today for Leinster against Wasps. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Joey Carbery will start at full-back today for Leinster against Wasps. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Eighteen months ago, rudderless Leinster were carved apart by today's opposition in the RDS, but so much has changed since that dark day.

Only four survivors of that starting XV resume their position for today's renewal; in between times, Wasps completed a humiliating double with a 51-10 home win to compound their 33-6 RDS mugging.

Graham Henry, then Stuart Lancaster, were drafted in to help Leinster's rookie coaching mob and, with a similar overhaul in vibrant playing resources, the three-time champions are primed to strike on their return to the knock-out stages after last season's galling wipeout.

Such has been the renewal, all seems set fair for the Leinster coaching ticket to be signed up en masse; the last time a Leinster coach brought his side to a semi-final, he was shown the door.

All has, indeed, changed.

"I don't think today is the day for that," said Leo Cullen yesterday when asked about the speculation, fuelled by an optimistic Stuart Lancaster throughout a series of media appearances, that his tenure was being extended.

"Everyone is just focused on what is a quarter-final in the Aviva, so we'll have plenty of time for discussions about coaches and whatever else in good time."

A victory today would offer a significant sop to those proffering the contract-signing pens.

"They were a very difficult couple of games for us," Cullen recalls. "Coming off 80-odd points to 16 on aggregate, it was a tough time for everyone associated with the club. Players have battled back well and have shown really good characteristics this season.

"You've got to learn from your mistakes. We did make a lot of mistakes last year - players and coaches combined.

"Most of the credit goes to the players because they have worked incredibly hard. Having that continuity with the group over pre-season was really important for us leading into this season.

"A lot of young guys have bought into it and have come through really well. There's healthy competition. Plus added to that, guys who have had success in the past.

"They want to experience that again. We're far from the finished product and I think there is still a huge amount of growth in the team."

Being a much better team than that which bowed out so tamely last season will certainly help, even if there may be much merit, in anticipation of an opposition who scream anarchic pace and penetration, of a return to some of the more yeoman characteristics deployed, to much home-grown distaste, by the previous coaching ticket.

Nonetheless, with Joey Carbery slotting in at full-back - his ability to cover ten, akin to that of his captain, Isa Nacewa, edging Ross Byrne from the 23 - Leinster possess a notable cutting edge of their own.

The Six Nations midfield partnership of Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw will be less emasculated too, you feel, after Lancaster suggested during the week that his side will not necessarily funnel all their play-making via Jonathan Sexton, as the out-half seems to do so much with Ireland.

Despite some fears about his defence, Adam Byrne's exciting ability on the wing demonstrates the trust in the younger players who emerged through the storm of last season's Champions Cup debris.

A slight caveat to that faith is the presence of Fergus McFadden and Zane Kirchner on the bench; perhaps both men represent a nod to a Plan B should Wasps get anywhere close to their average collection of four tries per game this campaign.

Leinster, though, are marginally more free-scoring but, for all the attraction of viewing this fixture as one that may offer a sun-splashed spectacle of primarily running rugby, the home side's preferred gambit will, presumably, be to focus on shutting the visiting talents out of the game as quickly as possible.

Jamie Heaslip's absence is offset slightly by Jack Conan's fine form and, although Rhys Ruddock's calf injury threw a spanner in the works, the fact that Dan Leavy's international form allows him to edge out Josh van der Flier reflects the strength of a key area.

"We will try and stop them in a number of ways and breakdown is one of the opportunities you get in the game and Josh coming off the bench brings great energy as well," said Cullen.

Leinster have a proficient attacking game of their own but their primary aim will be to prevent Wasps allowing theirs a free rein.

Expect, then, Sexton and his auxiliaries to turn the back three into unfamiliar back-pedalling mode in order to gain sufficient territory to produce a decent mauling and set-piece platform from which Leinster can establish a firm foot-hold in the game.

Wasps have had a turnover of players too since but, while their back-line oozes even more class now, their back-row is the area where Leinster can hope to exploit, after previously being undone by George Smith.

James Haskell and Nathan Hughes, when he arrived, had minimal impact against Ireland. Win this battle and Leinster can win the day.

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster - J Carbery; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (c); J Sexton, L McGrath; J McGrath, R Strauss, T Furlong, D Toner, H Triggs, D Leavy, S O'Brien, J Conan. Reps: J Tracy, C Healy, M Bent, R Molony, J van der Flier, J Gibson-Park, F McFadden, Z Kirchner.

Wasps - K Beale; C Wade, E Daly, J Gopperth, W Le Roux; D Cipriani, D Robson; M Mullan, T Taylor, J Cooper-Woolley, J Launchbury (c), K Myall, J Haskell, T Young, N Hughes. Reps: A Johnson, S McIntyre, M Moore, M Symons, A Rieder, J Simpson, A Leiua, J Bassett.

Ref - N Owens (WRU).

  • Leinster v Wasps, Live, BT Sport 2, 3.15

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