Friday 22 February 2019

Victor Costello: 'You'd worry about Munster but realistically this Champions Cup is now Leinster's to lose'

Leo Cullen alone with his thoughts at training in Energia Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leo Cullen alone with his thoughts at training in Energia Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Victor Costello

It's not often in the Champions Cup that you expect an easier game next up on the road than the one you just played at home.

It's also not often that the French sides you played away at the beginning of the season are both still in the competition the next time round and then also perform better on your patch than they did on theirs. But that's the uncertainty of Europe.

What is certain is the need to win your home games and grab as much as you can on the road.

Leinster had a tough outing. Toulouse came and played for 70 minutes before succumbing to a superior team that needed to dig deep into the mental and physical reserves as Leo Cullen's men proved their mettle.

Leinster's performance against one of the other European giants will stand to them, just as long as the two sides don't meet again.

From the off the intensity provided a great spectacle. Leinster battled for a longer time than normal to grab control of this game; they came up against a Toulouse side that had improved since the last outing.

Vigour

When Jordan Larmour made his initial line-break he was hunted down with a vigour that we have rarely seen from any club, never mind a travelling French side. This in itself shows the scrutiny that the champions are under.

Seán Cronin's try count is extremely impressive not just as a player but as a front-rower. Throughout his try haul, you will find that most of them have been against the run of play and extremely opportunistic.

Last weekend was no different. Cronin (unlucky to not be man of the match) and Rhys Ruddock (unlucky to not be another man of the match) kept Leinster in the hunt for the majority of the opening half of the game.

Ably guided by a stable Ross Byrne, Leinster were absorbing pressure but the scoreboard was not replicating the normal activity of a home game.

You would think by watching the first 30 minutes that this game could go either way and you would be right, but in typical fashion Leinster stuck to the job in hand.

There is a good chance they may not come across a tougher game than last weekend, albeit the stakes might be higher and the period of time defending their try line against Toulouse was a testament once again to the trust this group have in each other.

The prospect of Wasps away this weekend pales into insignificance compared to the last few weeks. That in no way means that they should be taken for granted but on current form, Wasps in a half-empty Ricoh Arena provides no threat to Leinster's European ambitions.

It will just provide more proof of the gap between Irish and English rugby paving the way for the Six Nations opener at home in a few weeks.

In the meantime, looking across the board, Leinster's performance, albeit less glamorous than the rest of the provinces, was certainly the most effective.

With the ongoing injury list and the new additions, the squad depth will be tested. Luke McGrath's injury has come at the worst time for his Six Nations ambitions, but his abrasive performances were always going to come at price.

Jamison Gibson-Park's performances recently have provided Leinster with the Kiwi scrum-half's classic moment of madness during most games.

We have had neck tackles, wayward kicking and passing, but last weekend Gibson-Park got it right. His skip passes and vision in open play reignited the second-half dominance.

With Gibson-Park's experience and the exciting Hugh O'Sullivan, and indeed Paddy Patterson, in reserve, this scrum-half position is sewn up for the future.

There is no doubt that the cream is rising to the top and familiar brands in this competition's history are coming to the fore.

If there were games ahead against Munster, or indeed Toulouse again, one would be worried for the outcome and the venue, but in realistic terms this Champions Cup is Leinster's to lose.

Problems

They can cope with injury problems more than any other club and in a one-game-at-a-time scenario, Cullen's side are in a great position travelling to Coventry for Sunday's clash.

When Leinster were in a rebuilding phase, Wasps managed to stick the knife in and run riot both at home and away. Leinster are a different team now, however, and Wasps know this.

The Ricoh Arena is a soulless environment, an example of all that is wrong with the commercial element to modern rugby.

In comparison to last weekend's game, Leinster will be playing against a Wasps outfit that will be well-structured but little else.

With Nathan Hughes and Willie le Roux leaving at the end of the season, it is clear that Dai Young's coaching time is coming to an end and they are a side in transition.

Leinster will need to be professional and see the job through on the road. There will be selection changes due to injury but also the need to freshen up the side after the last few weeks of attrition.

Physically, this game against Wasps will not be as tough but mentally it will be.

With the Six Nations on the radar, Leinster individually have a lot to play for and a lot to lose.

Irish Independent

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