Plaudits can wait as Kevin McLaughlin and Leinster front up for for Castres visit
Leinster’s Kevin McLaughlin (left, with and Dominic Ryan) says he has already learned a lot from coach Matt O’Connor about defensive shape. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
This week the backrow narrative is one of “banged up bodies.” Kevin McLaughlin, always a sober post-conflict voice, packed in a decent shift last week in Swansea alongside Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
But the prevailing mood is one of caution and wariness. There’s an imperative about winning home games, all themore so this week because menacing French Top 14 Champions Castres arrive determined to show they can party just as well in Leinster’s crib as Stade Pierre Antoine.
“Obviously, we’ve been considered favourites,” says McLaughlin. “But at the end of the day the way we’re looking at it is the French champions are coming into town. With this group we take it week by week, each individual game, six games. We basically have to get six wins. Only one team is going to go through from the group.
“I didn’t see the Northampton v Castres game but obviously Castres beat a really good Northampton side. We’ve got to be ready to get better from last weekend and don’t spend the week patting ourselves on the back.”
Monday was a recovery day and with the A side also playing at the weekend in the British and Irish Cup, resources were spread thin. But Leinster at home have their own expectations and have beaten French teams too many times to be awed by their poetic names and feats of derring-do on YouTube. McLaughlin, on his 100th Leinster cap, expects Leinster to boss the RDS.
“We had a long look at the video on the Monday after the Munster game,” he says of that Rabo defeat. “There was an element of embarrassment within the pack at the way we got beaten up at the breakdown.
“Last weekend, we made a conscious effort to target guys like Justin Tipuric early and try to take them out of the game. I think for a large part we did keep himself and Ryan Jones and those dangerous guys out of the game at the breakdown.
“And we’ll be looking to build on that. We had another look at the video this morning and while there was an improvement, it was far from perfect.
“As a backrow unit, as a whole pack, it’s an area of the game that is crucial because we know if we get quick ball, with the backs that we have, they’re going to cause damage.”
Adjusting to O’Connor’s rugby philosophy and his systems is also a work in progress and perhaps at this stage is an easing influence on Leinster’s normally unrestrained attacking instincts.
But with the RDS headphones on thoughts naturally turn to more spirited aspects of the game Leinster know they can deliver, zesty go-forward ball. Their clout is about far more than denying other teams expression.
“He’s (Matt O’Connor) brought in a new defensive system and you could say that we’re focusing very hard on that in training, maybe not giving as much time to attack as we did last year,” explains McLaughlin.
“As Rob (Kearney) was saying, when we play at home, we’re looking to up the tempo. We’ll be looking to do that this weekend against a huge team with a big pack.
“But the work we’ve done on our defence is starting to pay dividends. We’re getting more line speed and we’re attacking more in defence, which is something we wanted to do this season.”
It says something of O’Connor’s own mindset. His vision is far from soulless suffocation of the opposition but control and having players slot into the new framework is important.
The current outhalf contest between Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth is a telling case in point, Madigan the match-winning soloist with an impertinent, brilliant streak, Gopperth the dependable team prefect who can move the scoreboard.
There’s been a nuanced shift from Schmidt’s philosophy and McLaughlin can see the merits.
“Joe was constantly on our case trying to up our line speed. Matt has brought in a slightly different system. He’s trying to change our understanding,” McLaughlin explains. “I’ve certainly learned a huge amount from him already from a defensive shape point of view. And I think it has the potential to improve my game and everyone’s defensive game.”
A new Leinster but in Castres, an old challenge awaits.