Leinster tactics and tough defence to prevail

 

I think the home team will edge it based on their ability to dig out their last two victories, writes LIAM TOLAND

POTENTIALLY THERE will be 19 players in the RDS tomorrow who have played with or against the British and Irish Lions (or were selected but missed out, such as Alan Quinlan, Jerry Flannery and Tomás O’Leary). The rest are internationals and the remaining few are sure, by season’s end, to play in the green of Ireland. There are over 50 European Cup medals, countless Magners League medals and Triple Crowns, not to mention the Holy Grail, the Grand Slam. That said, regardless of calibre, there’s a lot of rust sprinkled amongst the starting 30 players. Having kept an eye on the Guinness Premiership last weekend there’s precious little rust in London Irish lying second and Northampton third. Very worryingly, they are the top two scoring teams in the English league.

So to begin with where we left off, last season’s Croke Park victory finally parked the rubbish between Leinster and Munster. Tomorrow’s derby is important and if you don’t grasp the seriousness of this fixture check out Hitler’s reaction to Leinster beating Munster on YouTube. He even bought a Leinster season ticket! But with so much at stake next week in Europe and with new combinations once again for both sides the coaches will be looking for a “performance” that is measurable, where obvious patterns are built on a process. The result is less important.

The risk in this fixture is to rely on the “stars”. But this game will be won and lost on the core team, its values and the ever improving auxiliaries such as the Fogarty brothers. Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell can only achieve so much after their well deserved rest from competitive rugby. So the lesser known but more battle-hardened players must protect them. Both Michael Cheika and Tony McGahan will want a safe passage for the “Lions”. They will both be looking to their scrum and lineout as a benchmark for the ever-improving season.

The scrum has been an interesting ride for both provinces thus far, with varying degrees of mixed fortune. When it doesn’t function the obvious target is the tighthead where tallies such as Tony Buckley receive a degree of criticism but it simply isn’t that simple. The scrum is a very technical platform that requires huge concentration and thought by all 15 players, not just the tightheads.

As professionalism pushes the boundaries of our game at an alarming rate the scrum simply hasn’t kept up. In fact it could be argued that as an attacking tool it has got worse. With the extra space available to the attacking team we have witnessed very little inventiveness. With Munster’s Jean de Villiers at 12 and Lifeimi Mafi at 13, and Leinster’s Gordon D’Arcy and O’Driscoll apposing them, the scrum can seriously test either midfield. Both combinations are “rusty” but Munster’s is very new, so a well-oiled scrum can give a huge advantage. Leinster’s failure to score a try against 13-man Ospreys brings this point to the fore. As the de facto leaders at scrum time, both Denis and John Fogarty have a wonderful opportunity to create space for their centres.

So how will they do it? As a example, in order to gain the scrum advantage while in possession Leinster’s John Fogarty must remember that the quality of the ball arriving at Jamie Heaslip’s feet is key. Allied with tying down the Munster backrow a predictable ball arrival affords Eoin Reddan several options which they failed to take on 13-man Ospreys’ try line. To do this Fogarty must ensure Cian Healy doesn’t get into a dog fight with either John Hayes or Buckley.

Both Stanley Wright and Healy, who is putting huge pressure on Marcus Horan’s green jersey must, as they did against Leicester in Edinburgh, win the hit and then gain immediate control. Wright needs to put sufficient pressure on Horan without getting into a “who dropped it” debate with Irish referee Simon McDowell. He shouldn’t sacrifice quality of the ball over the hit on Horan. Against the Ospreys, Wright tangled with Duncan Jones, resulting in a series of dropped scrums which forced referee Peter Allan into his pocket. In this environment John Fogarty’s strike must be perfect to his number eight. In turn Heaslip, with his opposition backrow tied down, can elect to explode into the open field and/or time his offload to Messrs D’Arcy and O’Driscoll in full flight.

Of course all this is easily replicated by Munster’s Denis Fogarty! Thereby releasing de Villiers. But before that Munster will want to disrupt the Leinster put-in. Horan will do all he can to invite Wright into an arm wrestle to upset the role of a quality scrum. Keep a close eye on the feet position of the Munster tall tightheads. They have a tendency to allow their feet slide back which will put huge downward pressure on Healy. This inevitably forces the scrum down, creating confusion in the referee, which will result in penalties (and cards). Ultimately when judging the effectiveness of the scrum watch how successful each team is on their own put-in.

Finally, the Leinster versus Osprey’s match three weeks ago is telling. We all remember Munster’s total rugby in Thomond Park against hapless Ospreys in the European Cup last season. But Leinster’s well worked and deserved victory in Wales gave a snapshot into their approach this season, especially without their talisman, Felipe Contepomi. There is somewhat of a sea change in Leinster led by both Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa. Clearly Ospreys are a running team, especially with Lee Byrne, Tommy Bowe and Nikki Walker/Shane Williams at the back. So Leinster countered that by controlling their natural instinct of counter-attacking by returning the ball with yardage through the boots of Sexton and Nacewa. With the obvious influence of Kurt McQuilkin this Leinster team will be happy to invite the Munster backs at them. That’s a risky business but it has worked very well. Considering the broken-field ability of Nacewa it was interesting to witness him elect for the tactical kick.

Of course this augurs well for Leinster tomorrow as they have weathered difficult storms thus far by employing field-position tactics built on a steely-tough defence. For what it’s worth, I think the home team will edge it, based on their ability to dig out their last two victories but especially their management of the Ospreys. But as I have stated above, tomorrow’s result is not important!