Thursday 23 January 2020

Leinster's old tricks enough to outwit inferiorStade, but familiar foes Ulster aren't as easily fooled

Blues must stay on even keel after cakewalk with Pro12 decider looming large, says Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Atonement? Probably not. Yesterday's Heineken Cup was where Leinster wanted to be but as they bask in the post-coital glow of yet more silverware they can reflect on the notion that they are still one of the best sides in Europe capable of beating either of yesterday's contestants.

Friday's Amlin challenge match was not one that was going to set off the sprinkler system; there was such a gulf in class between the two that you felt the term competitive match would not apply to this fixture. Leinster were utterly compelling in the way they unpicked the French side and once they got 21 points up, they faded, as usual, into a state of narcolepsy until they decided to finish off the match with a late try by Cian Healy – which underscored just how superior they were.

How would they overcome Stade? Intelligence or belligerence? A less-than-heady cocktail of both was required but they really did out-think Stade and figured out their defensive formations early on using old tricks from their old playbooks.

My old buddy Gary Halpin, formerly of Manhattan College RFC, Wanderers, London Irish, Harlequins, Leinster, Esher and now Brecon, is a fantastic after-dinner speaker. He uses the same stories time and again because he moves around the place so often that nobody has heard his old jokes time after time. Leinster just looked at some of their old jokes, knew that Stade would not have been able to look back that far in their video analysis and cut them to pieces with a sort of surgical precision that they won't get away with against Ulster because the men from the North know all their old moves and all their new moves.

Joe Schmidt took a calculated gamble by introducing five or six starters who would normally be bench men. The reasoning, we were told, was that the Glasgow game drained the sap out of their more productive players and it would be far better if these guys only played 20 minutes. The hope was the match would be over by then and the reinforcements would not have to sweat gravy on the pitch. Leinster got away with it but they still had to put in a hard night's work.

The defence was much better than it was against Glasgow. This was because they were dealing with a different type of threat. Leinster's line speed was good but because they were still playing with the usual 40 per cent possession/territory and they had to make an awful lot of tackles – 138 in all, of which they missed 10 per cent.

Stade, though, had no structure and all their dangerous runners were hopelessly static when the ball came to them. The French side were frenetic and enthusiastic but with the obvious exception of their phenomenal captain Sergio Parisse, their forwards were not able to match Leinster's forwards when it came to ball-handling. They looked like a fire engine turning up to the wrong fire and all that energy was channelled into non-productive areas when in possession.

Neither were they helped by a pretty myopic performance from their young outhalf Jules Plisson, who had the air of somebody who had just stepped into an empty lift shaft. His range of vision was in complete contrast to that of Jonny Sexton and he rarely released his backs on an optimal basis, even when they looked a little bit more dangerous in the second half when Paul Warwick and Waisea Nayacalevu came into the game.

Leinster were getting squeezed at scrum time and Jamie Heaslip for once looked uncomfortable at the base of the scrum, but the lineout held firm and once they got into possession it was very hard to counter their rhythm. Leinster's maul was also very good and they used it to walk 20 metres to get out of trouble deep in their '22'. It really is a very well organised and determined phalanx.

Jack McGrath did okay in his first real major start. Devin Toner too has come on enormously this season and while you might reckon that he is a little bit short on international class, he does the things that are expected of him really well. Apart from his line-out and kick-offs, he made 12 tackles in open field, he carried better than he normally does and he has become part of the furniture in this Leinster team.

Unfortunately, his second-row partner after one season of observation just does not have the minerals to operate at this level. Quinn Roux made just three tackles in 60 minutes, missing one of them. Cian Healy, when he came on, made six without missing any in 30 minutes.

All season Roux has knocked ball on and missed simple tackles and that is not good enough. He was a passenger. We are told that you can make penicillin out of mouldy bread – we're not sure about this loaf. Mark Flanagan, who played in the 'A' team's victory over Newcastle on Friday night as well, gets the gate and Roux stays on.

Rhys Ruddock also had a big night leading the tackle count and playing with effect and aggressive intelligence. Once the Leinster pack stood up to the challenge of the bigger Stade pack, the game was over. That is not to say that Leinster gave a brilliant platform for the backs to attack. A lot of work was done for Leinster with some of Stade's fitful quality letting them down. They were consumed by creeping errors and their passing was not of the requisite quality and the amount of ball that went down when the press came on defensively from Leinster told you that Stade just weren't up to the job.

All of Leinster's tries in the first half were brilliantly simplistic and, as I explained, were from their old playbook. The French have never encountered the blind inside pass towards the ruck because it is never executed in the Top 14, and when Isa Nacewa ghosted in from Boss's no-look pass, the French were lost. That try in the first five minutes told Stade that it was going to be a long night.

From a Toner take in the middle and a subsequent ruck the French were consumed by getting across the field to counter the wide threat when they were completely blind-sided by a box kick by Boss in behind and against the grain. Stade only had Julien Dupuis covering and Andrew Conway beat him to the jump to feed Seán Cronin. Yet again that one was thought out probably last Wednesday – all Leinster had to do was win the line-out and make sure that they cleared the ruck; they were just far too clever for Stade.

The try that more or less sealed it came off yet another retreating scrum – a surgical cross-kick to Nacewa by Sexton caught Hugo Bonneval square and lacking the sort of depth

required. I think Dracula would have been more comfortable with the cross. The Frenchmen awkwardly stuttered backwards – only belatedly realising that Nacewa had ghosted in behind him and the Fijian easily caught the ball to shuffle-pass the ball to Rob Kearney who came on a great supporting line. Ulster wouldn't be caught out by this but because the French aren't used to playing Leinster they were caught cold.

Leinster stepped off their perch of inertia after Jeremy Sinzelle scored in the corner but the game had descended in quality at this stage and there were too many mistakes by both sides to have a decent ending. Healy scored with two minutes to go and if he does not nail down a Test spot for the Lions, I'll eat my hat. Ulster will provide a far different challenge next week and Leinster will need O'Driscoll back and a far better performance at tight.

Irish Independent

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