Sport Rugby

Friday 20 April 2018

Leinster's backline talent clearly gives them edge

George Hook

George Hook

Today, the Aviva Stadium will host more than 40,000 rugby fans for the Leinster and Munster clash in the Pro12. It says everything about the professional game that barely 20 years ago the audience would have been 1pc of that.

Changing the Irish provinces to clubs has been part of the reason, but the real catalyst to increased support levels has been European competition.

The papers will bill this as a clash for 'bragging rights', but the reality is that the game is about fulfilling a fixture obligation and hoping that there are no additions to lengthening injury-lists.

Thus the selections are quaint and in the case of Ian Madigan downright surprising. The young pretender has been placed at full-back, while Isa Nacewa -- the natural replacement for the injured Rob Kearney -- has been left on the wing.

Meanwhile, Fergus McFadden has been teamed with Brian O'Driscoll in the centre. It is clear what the coach is trying to do. Assuming Kearney and Gordon D'Arcy are available for next week, he can just make straight changes and keep the core of the backline intact. It will not be much fun for Madigan as Ronan O'Gara will test the young man's fortitude under the high ball and his positional sense.

Munster appear to have a first-choice three-quarter line on show, but so far it has not remotely fired as an attacking unit.

The reasons are fairly obvious. O'Gara seems to be trying too hard and will not have been happy at being substituted last week, while Keith Earls and Casey Laulala look uncomfortable together. For the first time in years, Munster look to be without a natural inside-centre, and Earls remains an enigma in midfield.

Today's game could be about the Leinster pack and the Munster backs. After a dreadful performance up front against the Ospreys, Rob Penney has taken remedial action in the pack. The loss of Paul O'Connell will at least be disguised by the arrival of Donnacha Ryan.

Surprisingly he has not gone for a South African prop formation, so Dave Kilcoyne gets a chance. He is among the new raft of home-grown props, but so far none have made a substantial impact.

The Irish front-row position remains perilous, with just Cian Healy and Mike Ross of international standard. The appalling state of Irish front-row play and coaching was ignored because of provincial and indeed international success.

A raft of coaches from New Zealand and Australia flooded the country. They had many qualities but little regard for the scrum. The result of the neglect was seen against England last season, and in a few short weeks we are likely to get another wake-up call from Argentina and South Africa.

For Leinster, the problem is in the second-row -- Devin Toner and Damian Browne are unlikely to strike fear in to their opponents.

If the European champions are to prosper, they will need some beefing up in that area. For all his leadership qualities, Leo Cullen is reaching the end.

If, as conventional wisdom has it, the game is won by the back-row and half-backs, then the home team clearly have the edge. Jonny Sexton has been in form and is now paired with Eoin Reddan, who has the quickest delivery in the country.

The back-row features three internationals, even in the absence of Sean O'Brien. That said, the trio of Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings and Kevin McLaughlin have hardly covered themselves in glory so far this season. Jennings was always below the top level but covered his deficiencies with a high work rate. So too with McLaughlin, and they will need to be miles above recent form if they are to overcome the unit in red, who may not be household names but possess a dogged nature of their predecessors.

Heaslip is a surprising choice as captain, but it could be a plan to up his concentration levels. He continues to play in fits and starts. He is truly an 'enigma wrapped in a riddle'.

Peter O'Mahony will relish the challenge of playing against his more illustrious direct opponent.

Today's game is about preparing for the following week in Europe. Racing Metro and Exeter may not be in the front rank of European teams, but the French at home will test Munster, and Exeter -- new to the competition and a Dublin audience -- could be very difficult proposition if Leinster misfire.

Leinster will win because even with a minority of possession they have a backline of flair and talent coached by man with a keen understanding of angle, alignment and depth.

For Munster, Penney is trying some new ideas which as yet do not appear to be functioning as they might have south of the equator.

To have any chance, Munster may need O'Gara to close it out. He has done it often enough to spoil the Dublin 4 party. Don't be too shocked if he does it again.

Irish Independent

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