Tuesday 24 April 2018

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Unconfirmed coaching ticket and knockout failings lead long summer of angst for Leinster

Learning from the mistakes of this season will be crucial if Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen are to take Leinster forward next time around Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Learning from the mistakes of this season will be crucial if Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen are to take Leinster forward next time around Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

They must be getting used to introspective summers at Leinster's base in UCD.

Back on April 1, when they were hammering Wasps in swashbuckling style at the Aviva Stadium, it seemed inconceivable that the season would end with the kind of whimper it did last Friday night when the Scarlets turned them over in a stunning upset.

In the space of six games it all turned upside down and instead of basking in the reflected glory of a transformative campaign they are once again left questioning how they had so under-performed when it mattered most.

The style and success helped mask the questions that lingered beneath the surface. The season is over and there is still no announcement on the make-up of the coaching team for next season.

For months, it has been known that the plan is to continue with the status quo but the news has not yet been confirmed.

While Cullen remains the head coach, much of the credit for the relative turnaround in the team's fortunes has been landed at the feet of Stuart Lancaster. Brought in late with the title 'Senior Coach', the former England supremo has been lauded for his innovative and intense training.

Although ostensibly hired to replace defence coach Kurt McQuilkin, Lancaster has been credited with revolutionising Leinster's attack.

In the days that followed the high point of their season, he sat down with Newstalk for a fascinating, lengthy discussion about his role with the province.

When he spoke about his team being "comfortable in chaos", he was talking about his team's attack but in the weeks that followed it became more and more apparent that when the pressure came on from the opposition team Leinster were uncomfortable and in chaos in defence.

The signs, perhaps, were there. A week before the Wasps game, Cardiff Blues should have won at the RDS and caused the under-strength rear-guard lots of problems.

Wasps were well beaten, but still managed three tries and exposed issues out wide that would be exploited by Clermont and Scarlets in the biggest games of the season.

By securing a home Guinness PRO12 semi-final so early, the province were left in something of a limbo phase. When they lost to Clermont in Lyon, it left them with two effectively dead-rubber games in three weeks before they re-entered competitive action and they didn't handle it well.

A 31-30 end-of-season runout against Glasgow was followed by a dreadful performance at the Kingspan Stadium. A week off followed that, before the Scarlets came to town.

Throughout the period, Cullen was trying to manage his resources as best he could and used 39 players in six games.

Already without Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney, Sean O'Brien hasn't played since the Wasps game. Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton have only been brought out for the semi-finals, meaning Isa Nacewa has largely found himself surrounded by young players with big talent and limited experience who have played a lot of rugby this year.

Cullen and Lancaster's hands are tied at times, but they must consider if they conducted their business right at the business end of the season.

Did they get the balance of training right? Did they rest players to the detriment of team cohesion?

Last Friday, it was noticeable that some of their leading lights looked shattered before half-time. It's been a long season and many have had huge involvement with Ireland, but a month ago it was their staying power that kept them in the game against Clermont.

That day, an overly pumped-up start, poor work at the breakdown, and defensive weakness in the wide-channel cost them - but their resolute refusal to be beaten meant they were largely given a pass by most pundits.

The repetition of those flaws in subsequent weeks means fans will be questioning the progress they saw earlier.

The 29 turnovers last weekend followed a similar issue against Clermont. Too often, the Leinster players were too slow to arrive to rucks in support of their team-mates - perhaps waiting on an expected offload that earlier in the season would have come.

It allowed James Davies to have a field-day, something he's unlikely to enjoy on his return to Dublin this weekend to face Munster at the Aviva Stadium in the PRO12 final.

A year ago, Leinster learnt some home truths in the equivalent fixture at Murrayfield when Connacht exposed their flaws. Twelve months on, they again reserved their worst performance for last but when the disappointment fades they will have more positives to grasp this summer.

The arrival of James Lowe and Scott Fardy and further development of their brilliant youngsters will help get them back to this stage.

But the key for the coaches is to learn from their mistakes and ensure they time their run of form to perfection when the pressure comes on next season.

Irish Independent

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