Brent Pope: Wasps won't get enough ball to threaten Leinster
Read Brent Pope every week in The Herald
Forwards dictate which teams win matches and the backs by how much. For me, that sums up Leinster’s opening Champions Cup match in the RDS against Wasps tonight.
In my opinion, Leinster simply have too much grunt up front in order for the visitors to win. Any chance Wasps did have in trying to contain Leinster’s superior scrummaging and ball-playing ability faded this week when their talismanic captain Joe Launchbury was ruled out through injury.
Coach Dai Young was dealt another blow yesterday when big English ball-carrying number eight Nathan Hughes was suspended for the visit to Dublin; Hughes awaiting a second hearing over a suspected punch thrown in last weekend’s home loss to Gloucester.
Meanwhile, Leinster at full strength can pack down a full internationally-experienced scrum and then some, with more Test players to unleash from the bench.
Wasps cannot, nor can many of the English teams, given that most of the top players are spread across a dozen or so clubs.
Ex-Hurricanes and English-qualified flanker Brad Shields is a welcomed return for his coach but, as yet, Shields has not developed into the type of high-quality destructive forward that Young and maybe Eddie Jones had hoped for when he was named in England colours last year after a long career in New Zealand.
In the backline, Wasps do look dangerous, with their Kiwi import Lima Sopoaga leading an exciting strike-force that contains the likes of Elliot Daly and Springboks Juan de Jongh and Willie le Roux.
In my opinion though, the Coventry-based outfit simply won’t get enough ball to use these thrilling backs unless they radically change their gameplan.
The most demanding period in sport can often be the ‘second-season syndrome’.
Leinster have had plenty of silverware to polish over the past decade, but reaching last year’s lofty heights of the double will bring its own external and internal pressure.
The external heat will come from the fact that every team in Leinster’s pool will know that if they can beat Leo Cullen’s side, then they are in a good place.
Any complacency from Leinster could play into the underdogs’ hands.
Internal pressure comes from difficulty in selection. Everybody wants to be involved in Europe, but Leo can still only pick 23 for any given match-day squad and that will have to leave some players out in the dark and licking their wounds.
Some positions, even on the bench, are almost certain: you have to carry replacements in the front row, at scrum-half and another kicker – that is a minimum.
The rest of the selections can be juggled somewhat, with a lot of the players being able to play in a multitude of positions.
The big decisions for Leo this weekend was set to be which of his ‘foreign’ players he would have to leave out, given Leinster can only field two from three in the Champions Cup.
That decision was taken out of his hands though, due to the injury to Kiwi scrum-half Jamison Gibson Park.
If Gibson Park had been fully fit then, remarkably, it may have been the outstanding Australian flanker Scott Fardy that would have made way – not on his ability, but simply because his was the easier position for Cullen to cover.
As it stands, Fardy starts on the bench and will provide a real physical impact if and when he is introduced.
It is on the wing however, and with the retirement of Ica Nacewa, that Leinster have less cover. James Lowe has shown that he is a player that simply cannot be left out, such is his present form.
Leinster have proved in the PRO14 this year that they are pretty comfortable playing the game any way the conditions or selections dictate.
In the last two weeks they have had to front up to some serious tests from both Connacht and then an almost full-strength Munster in the Aviva last week.
In both those wins – still missing some key players and not playing to their best – Leinster still had that almost All Black-like ability to match the opposition in tight play and then pick them off out wide.
The Blues have an capability to just up another gear when they want to. In that regard, it is hard to see where Wasps have the ability to really test Leinster.
Leinster have a world-class tight-five, a dynamic, ball-carrying back-row and the world’s top out-half to go with the pace, flair and safety in the back-three and a physical presence in the midfield. Pick holes in that!
The only area that Leinster have been slightly exposed is in their ability to deal with a strong mauling game, as Munster proved last week. But I don’t believe this is an area of strength for Wasps from what I have seen of them so far this season.
Wasps’ plan must be to try and unsettle Leinster and to dictate the pace and possession in the game. That change of game-plan will carry an element of risk and stepping out of their comfort zone.
Leinster’s miserly defensive is now a major weapon to their game and, combined with the line speed of flanker Josh Van de Flier and ability to isolate the opposition backline, Sopoanga will probably have to play deeper to avoid running into trouble.
That in itself will curtail Wasps’ ability to attack flat and challenge the gain-line.
It’s Leinster then to dominate upfront and deny the Wasps backs any decent ball.
Wasps may have to chase this game early on and, in doing so, mistakes and holes will appear.
Given all that, I’m predicting another home win for the defending champions.