Sunday 17 February 2019

Leinster need to rediscover their winning method

O'Connor's men must cast aside memory of Thomond Park wipeout as they seek to return to play-off positions with a victory over Ulster

Ben T'eo's return from injury is a boost for Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Ben T'eo's return from injury is a boost for Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

As Leinster supporters continue to give their inconsistent team a piece of their mind, those in charge remain focused on trying to give their impatient fans peace of mind.

While their response after meek submission in Limerick has been vastly more impressive off the pitch compared to what happened on it, only a convincing display today against Ulster can help to alter perceptions.

Leinster coach Matt O'Connor remains convinced that performances have not been as underwhelming as perceived by their target audience, issuing a rallying cry ahead of today's clash which smacks either of deluded desperation or heartfelt honesty.

It all depends on perception.

"The reality is that you back your process and you back your standards," he says as his side seek to return to the play-off positions for only the second time this season, all the while maintaining a cushion ahead of Ulster.

"From that end, you know that if you keep delivering on those things, you keep trying to get better, week-by-week, it will come for you.

"There have been issues in around what we've had to pick from, relative to injuries and experience, and all sort of things.

"But that doesn't change the seven-day process of making sure that you're trying to be better.

Distractions

"That was disappointing last week because we didn't actually deliver on that. By and large, throughout the season, we've made significant steps forward relative to who's been playing and growing all the things that make up a performance.

"You can't get lost in the distractions of a poor performance. It's making sure you learn the lessons from those things along the way to make sure that moving forward, you're that little bit better."

Leinster fans may quibble about the attempt to gloss over last week's defeat in Limerick; a position that can only be mitigated should Leinster deliver today.

Much of the flak has landed on the coach's shoulders; an impromptu vox pop around the pubs of Ballsbridge may find little sympathy for the Australian but the players - at least those who are fit - are not immune from criticism either.

"That's the world we live in," expands O'Connor, when asked about the possibility of him losing faith in the players, as opposed to the other way around.

"They understand that. They would be the harshest critics there are. The individual wants to be really good. They don't try to be poor.

"They don't try to miss tackles and drop the ball and miss lineouts. The reality is that everyone is working really hard to deliver a performance at the weekend.

"It's not a matter of losing faith. It is about making sure that you're accountable for what you deliver to the group and to yourself. There's going to be ups and downs in relation to that. But they're working hard.

"They understand what is required and we're pretty optimistic we'll be able to deliver that on Saturday and moving forward into some very big games."

As alluded to by O'Connor, playing disruptions haven't helped but the return today of Fergus McFadden and Ben Te'o - the latter from the bench - should improve matters.

McFadden had surgery on a thumb injury after the game against the Ospreys in November while Te'o is available for the first time since fracturing his forearm during his debut against Edinburgh in October.

Four other changes are made to the pack that were bullied into submission in Limerick, with Jack McGrath and Mike Ross starting in the front-row alongside Richardt Strauss at hooker.

Devin Toner comes back into the second-row to partner Mike McCarthy, while in the back-row Jamie Heaslip starts at eight which means a start at blindside flanker for Jack Conan with Shane Jennings remaining in his familiar open berth after his self-confessed "poor performance" in Limerick.

In the backs, there is only one change which sees the fit-again McFadden start on the right wing in place of the hitherto ever-present Darragh Fanning whose own display in Limerick hinted at someone in need of a rest too after his fantastic contribution in the opening half of the campaign.

Gordon D'Arcy, who won his 250th Leinster cap against Munster, starts at inside centre with Luke Fitzgerald outside him at 13 offered another chance to audition for the midfield slot in what is now officially a Rugby World Cup year. Rob Kearney is rested.

Ulster's squad has been decimated in recent weeks too but, along with returning internationals Tommy Bowe and Rory Best, they are boosted by positive fitness reports from both Ruan Pienaar and Roger Wilson.

Stuart Olding is also included in the side having been on the bench last week. In the backs, Peter Nelson moves to full-back while Craig Gilroy switches flanks from the right to the left wing.

Leinster have not lost successive encounters in the competition in the same season since Joe Schmidt was in charge.

They have won their last 19 fixtures in all competitions at the RDS Arena since drawing there 29-all with Ospreys in September 2013, while their most recent defeat at the venue came when Ulster were the visitors in the Pro12 at a time when Schmidt was also at the helm.

Ulster have only won once on the road this term and they have struggled to find a way to beat Leinster in recent times; losing four in succession since that 2013 win, their only victory on Leinster soil since 1999.

"We need to make a statement," insists Ireland wing Bowe, who knows his side can extend their advantage to seven points with a notable win in Dublin.

"It's been frustrating the last couple of times going down there because we've put ourselves in a position to win. We've had the chances to close out a couple of games but we haven't taken them. It's come down to us not necessarily having a poor game but just being unable to maximise our scoring opportunities. That has to change.

"Leinster have shown they're able to do that and that shows why they're a world-class team in recent years. Things haven't always gone in their favour but they somehow find a way to win these games, particularly at home.

"They've very clinical when they get chances to score. We've talked about that. They'll be hurting after Munster and it's a good week to go down there. These are the games you want to play in and we want to make a statement of intent."

Upheaval

For his part, O'Connor has detected a change in Ulster's game plan amidst their whirlwind of coaching upheaval.

"There's been a bit of a shift. They're playing with a lot of vigour, more with the ball in hand. The South African boys they're brought in there at scrum and lineout are delivering for them.

"That's given them a platform to play off and given that they've been without Ruan for most of the season to this point, they wouldn't be too unhappy with where they are in the league.

"The semi-final here last year was in the balance and we didn't look particularly comfortable until about the 70th minute. That's what we're gearing ourselves up for."

Leinster, despite their travails, will find a way to win today against Ulster. They usually do. Verdict: Leinster

Leinster: Z Kirchner; F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, G D'Arcy, D Kearney; I Madigan, I Boss; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross, D Toner, M McCarthy, J Conan, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt). Replacements: S Cronin, M Bent, T Furlong, K Douglas, J Murphy, L McGrath, J Gopperth, B Te'o.

Ulster: P Nelson; T Bowe, D Cave, S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), W Herbst, D Tuohy, F van der Merwe, R Diack, C Ross, R Wilson. Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, B Ross, A O'Connor, S Reidy, P Marshall, I Humphreys, L Marshall.

Referee: M Mitrea (FIR).

Leinster v Ulster, live, Sky Sports 1/BBC 2, 2.40pm

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