Sunday 21 January 2018

Pro12 finishing position still in our own hands

But we've used up all our get-out-of-jail-free cards and must return to winning ways against Treviso

Fergus McFadden

Sport. It's a fickle world and it never surprises me how results and emotions can be flipped on their head in the space of a few weeks.

Only a few weeks ago, in my last diary entry, it was all positives! The high coming off the back of a winning Six Nations was superb. Unfortunately, things haven't continued in that vein for Leinster over the past couple of weeks and I've picked up an injury to make matters even worse.

The block of fixtures with Munster in the RaboDirect Pro12 followed by Toulon in the Heineken Cup quarter-final marked a pivotal point in the Leinster calendar. We knew that and knew the importance of both games.

Beating Munster in the league was the perfect start in many ways and was nice momentum leading into Toulon. We would be the first to say that the performance was lacking in areas but we managed to work our way through a tricky start in particular.

Our performance in Toulon though was not up to our usual standard and we knew going over that there was not going to be much margin for error against such a quality side. Looking back on the stats, it made for tough reading with a high level of missed tackles in particular and too many fundamental errors with the ball in hand. As a team, it was a tough pill to swallow.

You look at the likes of Leo and Drico who are retiring at the end of the season and it's hard to think they won't have another opportunity at European glory with the province. In saying that if you said to either of them before 2009 that before the end of their careers they would have six Heineken Cup medals between them I'm sure they would have taken it. Personally, it was a double blow.

I was gutted, naturally enough, on the result side but to compound matters I picked up an injury to the medial ligament in my right knee that will keep me out of action for a few weeks. While not as bad as we first thought, mentally that is also a setback. After a loss like that you just want to move on to the next game and get that loss and that performance out of your system but, unfortunately, I haven't had that opportunity yet.

Contrast that with Munster! They picked the right game to lose when falling short against ourselves in the Aviva but they really fronted up against a star-studded Toulouse side. Starting well was the key for Munster and they did that within five minutes when constructing a great team try with over 20 phases that was finished well by Keith Earls. With Thomond in full voice, the feeling grew that the French were not ready for the challenge, and so it proved.

It turned into a thumping with Munster going on to beat them well by 47 points to 23. Toulouse had their moments of course and showed glimpses of class, like the great individual score from Hosea Gear in the second half, but ultimately Munster proved too strong and it was fitting that Paul O'Connell should score a rare try to round off a great result for them.

Ulster, I'm sure, are still looking back on footage of their quarter-final exit and are wondering how they lost albeit playing with 14 men after Jared Payne was shown a red card for his challenge on Alex Goode in the air.

While I know there has been much debate about the whys and what nots of that decision, it is a tricky one. Jared had eyes on the ball for sure, yet once a player is off his feet you have to be ultra-cautious and if there is a coming-together you are giving the referee a decision to make. Would a yellow have sufficed? Yes. Can I see why a red was given? Yes. So I suppose we are not going to resolve that debate here!

To their credit, Ulster showed admirable mental strength and team spirit to play the majority of the game with 14 men and losing Rory Best early was another massive blow. Like ourselves, it just wasn't to be their day!

All our focus has moved to the Pro12 now and it's vital to put ourselves in as strong a position as possible when the play-offs come around. Home advantage can be the difference and that was highlighted to us after a tough trip over in Toulon!

But there are questions still to be answered. It looks like the fourth play-off spot is up for grabs still but you would think that Leinster, Ulster and Munster are all in strong positions to occupy the other slots.

One team in the hunt for that last slot is the Ospreys. Last Friday against them was not the backlash we were hoping for after a tough loss in the Heineken Cup. Playing the Ospreys over there is always a very tough game and with them scrambling for the play-off spot they were just as keen for a result.

The most important thing from this game and the Toulon game is to learn from the loss. The main lesson from the loss over in the Liberty Stadium was discipline. Or a lack of! Our discipline wasn't good enough, and if you offer kickable penalties to people like Dan Biggar you are going to get punished. He kicked 20 points in total and essentially won them the game. I am not sure what it is, but Leinster games seem to bring out the best in him and he has consistently played well against us home or away in the last few seasons.

I suppose, in the overall scheme of things, the defeat was not so bad when Munster were beaten the following night against Glasgow at home.

So, with three games to go, it leaves Leinster on top of the table but I feel we have used up our get-out-of-jail-free cards for this season. We can't be hoping for slip-ups or favours elsewhere. We have our end-of-year positioning in the Pro12 in our own hands but we have to earn that position. Every game now is really important. Treviso at home is an opportunity to get back to winning ways and, although they have been inconsistent this year, they are capable of big performances and they can't be taken lightly.

It's that time of year where every point is huge so we are looking to take full advantage at home in the RDS today.

Irish Independent Supplement

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