Monday 16 September 2019

World Cup dreams can be ignited if the Ireland coaches opt to follow Leinster’s lead

Johnny Sexton showed what he could do best on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton showed what he could do best on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

Victor Costello

For the first 10 minutes of the semi-final against Toulouse, our minds wandered back to what happened the day before with Munster and more importantly the Six Nations.

Leinster were rusty out of the blocks and couldn’t get their hands on the ball.

Most of the management’s talk in previous weeks was about how Leinster could pull a big one out of the bag even if current form reflected otherwise.

From the outside looking in, we had no evidence to believe this was possible, but after 15 minutes Leinster kicked into European rugby form.

What we saw from that moment was a confident, composed side led by their newly composed and focused captain Johnny Sexton.

Midway through, we knew that this would be a difficult game against Toulouse and we found out that should Leinster get through Saracens in the final, it would be an even more difficult task.

But by the time the final whistle went at the Aviva, it was hard not to get a feeling that the pressure was now on the English side to halt the defending champions.

Since the Wales-Ireland game, Irish rugby has had little to cheer about or look forward to.

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Cleansed

Thanks to Leo Cullen and the rest of the coaching staff, Leinster’s international contingent have been rehabilitated and cleansed since the Six Nations campaign.

The talk of the end of the Munster-Leinster rivalry is premature, but there is no doubt that Leinster are currently in a different class.

As a group, they have single-handedly rejuvenated Irish rugby and the players within.

The Leinster management seem to have a perfect mix of world-class coaching ability and experience, and the blend between Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and Felipe Contepomi is becoming a real force in European rugby.

With Sexton’s performance and later Ross Byrne’s, it is clear that Contepomi has become somewhat of an out-half ‘whisperer’ as he continues to get the best out of all his fly-halves.

Tomorrow’s game against Ulster will mean more to the northerners than to Leinster.

Cullen’s men are in the enviable position of being able to put top players on ice for the next few weeks and let the young guns develop further up the ranks.

With the senior squad back in form, this match gives Leinster an ideal chance to prepare the younger players who will be needed come World Cup time, with the expected player drain that the club have become accustomed to.

No other club in Europe has put themselves in the position of being able to forward plan for next season while still in contention in the two competitions this season.

There is no doubt the best is still yet to come from this group of players, so if Leinster can pull it off there is no reason why this successful cycle cannot continue.

In contrast, Saracens’ lead-in is very different.

They have an away game against Wasps and a home clash with Exeter, so there is every chance in either or both of these games that they will pick up injuries.

The Vunipola brothers, if you take them as a yard stick, have been an integral part of the England and Saracens set-up.

When both play together, their teams are invincible. If one or the other is out, the repercussions to the team is twice-fold.

This is where the pressure is on Saracens.

As opposed to Leinster, the likelihood of injury with Saracens over the coming weeks with the intensity of their Premiership is higher and if not, injury fatigue levels will certainly start to climb.

Saracens took a while to break down Munster but their game plan didn’t change throughout, The reason for this is they have no plan B.

Munster were able to contain Saracens for 50 minutes but had little left to give after that.

Saracens, therefore, will rely on route-one rugby as they haven’t had to shift the game-plan focus thus far.

Leinster will contain Saracens’ attack but Saracens wont cope with Leinster’s multi-phase play.

If you add in the performances of James Lowe, Jack Conan and James Ryan, Leinster have more fire-power across the board too.

Familiar

Newcastle will be more familiar for Saracens than Leinster but reflect back to Bilbao last year and this will not matter as they have once again found comfort and belief within.

It is very obvious watching a game which team is more of a unit than the other.

What we saw last Saturday was a Leinster side trusting each other.

Robbie Henshaw’s sin-bin aside, Leinster were confident and composed in defence.

What will also be vital in Newcastle is who wants it most.

There is no doubt this group of Leinster players want to be part of history and five titles will certainly secure that.

For the rest of us watching, the effect will be more than that as once the Irish management take a leaf out of Leinster’s book, the World Cup hopes are alive again.

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