Friday 23 March 2018

Victor Costello: Things may have to get worse before they get better for Leinster

Leinster's Isa Nacewa, left, and Oisin Heffernan during training (Photo: Sportsfile)
Leinster's Isa Nacewa, left, and Oisin Heffernan during training (Photo: Sportsfile)

Victor Costello

If one were to cast a critical eye over Leinster at the moment, you would have to say that they are still far off their best.

The first 50 minutes of the Toulon game in the Aviva had them back in control, in front of their home crowd by dominating arguably the best team in Europe. Unfortunately, in the second half their dominance began to unravel.

Moving forward from that time it was clear that Leinster were an unsettled team, playing weekly in uncharted territory and finding it hard to stabilise. We could provide many excuses from early season but unfortunately professional rugby is less forgiving.

The Leinster team walking from the Aviva at full-time, was a less confident team than that played last weekend against Connacht but they needed more self-backing. Professional athletes demand perfection from themselves and very often, particularly in Leinster's case, they get frustrated when performances are not up to standard.

The immediate human reaction is to try and get a quick win or a quick try and Leinster's players invariably push the pass that is not on or in many cases this season, the discipline standard drops and penalty count increases.

The inter-provincial games were a great test to see where Leinster are physically and mentally.

The destruction of Munster at home was clinical and produced Garry Ringrose's best performance to date. Although Thomond is not what it used to be, the big-game performance by Ringrose was proof of his competency at this level and beyond.

The road to recovery has been bumpy and unforgiving. The exit from Europe will leave a sour taste until it is corrected next year. The impending departures of Ben Te'o and, particularly, Ian Madigan will have unsettled the squad.

Leo Cullen graciously leaving the door open for Madigan proves the importance of his presence. The pressure will now be on Johnny Sexton to keep performing and on Cathal Marsh to step up as the number two out-half.

During the World Cup period, pressure was on the younger members of the squad to perform. Fast forward a few months and it was the more senior players that got them through the dogged period of the inter-provincial games.

Mike McCarthy, Eoin Reddan and Rhys Ruddock have played their way into the Six Nations limelight and have paved the way for performances out wide when conditions prevail. Leinster found it difficult to break down Connacht's defence and need to think more on the pitch. Sexton's long skip passes are being over-utilised and show a possible lack of trust in those outside him.

The forward pack are beginning to dominate the set-pieces.

The blend of youth and experience in the front five will be coupled with the competitive back-row area.

The back-row will need to be built around Josh van der Flier. His ability on the ground will open up options for the currently under-utilised back line.

After that there are options depending on the fitness of Sean O'Brien and the opposition being played.


Ironically, Leinster, particularly in this area, will be decimated come the Six Nations with Van der Flier and Ruddock sure to be away on international duty.

The Ospreys away this evening will be a challenge. They are having a similarly inconsistent season and will be desperate for a home victory.

Leinster have an opportunity to draw from the confidence of being interpro champions and climbing up the Pro12 table.

With still the best squad in the league, Leinster will have to be favourites for the competition at the end of the season, although with the Six Nations looming, things again will get worse before they get better.

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