Cheika tells Leinster to stay calm

 

Rugby - Heineken Cup final: Gerry Thornleyis getting a wee bit nervous as everyone he talks to feel Leinster can justify favouritism.

ALMOST UNNERVINGLY, it’s hard to find anyone with or without insider knowledge of both camps who doesn’t feel Leinster will underline their status as favourites in Saturday’s Heineken Cup final in Cardiff. Yet it’s a Cup final, where one-sided games are decidedly uncommon, as 10 one-score games in the last 11 Heineken finals demonstrates.

A particular concern for Leinster and Irish fans will assuredly be the appointment of Romain Poite as referee for his first final, given the way he has often infuriated players and supporters alike. But therein lies the rub, according to Michael Cheika, coach of Stade Francais. “I think that the key with Monsieur Poite is to make sure your scrum is in order and that if he does penalise you early in the scrum, that you adjust to what he wants and stay calm. If he gets on a run of penalties against you it can get tough, but he’s a pretty calm guy. You can see he’s quite deadpan, and if you stay calm he’ll respect that.”

Nor does Monsieur Poite like having his authority questioned. “You only have to think of the run-in that Paul O’Connell had with him to see that it doesn’t work,” says Cheika, in reference to the pool game last season when the Munster captain was binned toward the end of Munster’s 12-9 win over Northampton at Thomond Park.

“I think that Leo Cullen is pretty smart in the way he’ll manage that situation and I don’t think it’s anything for Leinster to worry about.”

Andrew Trimble was on the Ulster team that lost on successive weekends away to Northampton, in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, and at the RDS in the Magners League. “Northampton were very, very clinical. In the first half I felt that we were better than them and we went in ahead. They scored two tries and their counter-attack was just spotting one weakness and turning it into seven points, and pick and go through the middle was something similar.”

“But I felt that if we could have stayed ahead, I don’t think they had enough behind the scrum to trouble us and we just lapsed in concentration twice, they scored two tries and then they just shut up shop.”

Even then Ulster had chances, chances which Leinster will more likely than not take. The Ulster and Irish winger admits that Ulster struggled physically against Northampton, “and I thought that was as physical a game as you could expect”. Encouragingly though, from a Leinster perspective, he immediately adds: “We had a few days off, went down to Dublin, tried to get our confidence up again and even the level of physicality we experienced in Milton Keynes went through the roof in the Leinster game. We struggled with it and then they got their tails up and started playing with confidence and width, and the game was over by half-time. We were rabbits in headlights.”

Nonetheless, Alan Quinlan thinks Northampton will be dangerous. “They’ve played a lot of high intensity games themselves. They’re six out of six in their pool so they’ve eight on the bounce in the Heineken Cup. They’ve have confidence and certainly see themselves as having a chance. It’s going to be a tough, physical game but Leinster have that bit more experience and they’ve played super rugby this season.”

Aside from the scrum, Quinlan also believes Northampton will go after Leinster’s lineout. “They have a good lineout with Courtney Lawes and Christian Day there – even if Tom Wood doesn’t make it. (Dylan) Harley’s throwing is pretty good now and it’s critical for Leinster that Richardt Strauss plays. His work around the pitch has caught the eye but he is key to Leinster because his lineout throwing has been very good. It’s going to be a tough battle and a hard one to call because there’s not much to separate them up front. It’s a cliché, but it just depends on the day.”

As far as Quinlan is concerned, the key to the outcome will be the breakdown and the quality of ball, especially the speed of Leinster’s ruck ball. “The only chance Northampton have, I think, is if they disrupt Leinster’s flow, because if Leinster secure quality possession and quick ruck ball, they’re pretty much unstoppable with the pace in which they’ve played the game, and they have a lot of strike runners.”

EXPERT VIEW

Alan Quinlan (Munster)

Where do you think Northampton might target Leinster?

Northampton target everybody in the scrum. They destroyed the Perpignan scrum in the semi-final, they fancy themselves there and they’ve shown that they do have good quality in the scrum. But I don’t see Leinster having too much weakness there. Their scrum has been pretty solid all season. I’m sure they’ll try to disrupt the Leinster lineout too because when Leinster get good fast ball they’ve played some unbelievable rugby this year.

Where might Leinster target Northampton?

The way they target every team, by getting good quality set piece and quick ruck ball. Just the pace they’ve played the game this year has been phenomenal and listening to Joe Schmidt last week they’re not going to change their game. They’ve beaten a lot of top quality teams by playing high intensity rugby and they’re very, very competitive at the breakdown.

Who will win and why?

We played Northampton twice last season and they are a dogged, strong team with a really competitive tough bunch of forwards who will roll up their sleeves and have a huge amount of heart and passion, but I’m not sure the 10-12-13 axis is as good as Leinster’s. I think that will edge it toward Leinster. It will definitely be close, it’s not going to be an easy game for Leinster.”

Andrew Trimble (Ulster)

Where do you think Northampton might target Leinster?

If Northampton get ahead, they’ll target Leinster’s scrum. Not speaking as someone who’s got tons of experience in the scrum, I don’t think there’s a weakness in Leinster’s scrum but at the same time Northampton fancy themselves and rightly think they’re exceptional there. And if they get ahead they’ll play nine-man rugby; they’ll look to scrum and maul, and they’ll not play much rugby. But I don’t think they’ll get ahead.

Where might Leinster target Northampton?

In the first-half against Toulouse, Leinster didn’t hold onto the ball and they struggled. In the second half they held onto the ball and that’s what they have to do. The way they play, with their phase play and their width, will look after itself, I think.

Who will win and why?

I think if Leinster play with anywhere near the width and pace that they’ve played with in the last month or two fairly consistently, I think they’ll blow Northampton off the park. Although Northampton have got a lot of quality out wide I don’t think they’ll be able to handle the pace that Leinster play with.”

Michael Cheika (St Francais coach)

Where do you think Northampton might target Leinster?

I think Northampton will try to play a real direct game, they’ll try to outpower Leinster. They’ll try to go hard up front, scrum, maul, pick and go; I think they’ll just try to crash through them. That will be their game and then they’ll work off counter-attack.

Where might Leinster target Northampton?

I don’t think they’ll do anything differently from what they’ve been doing. Their game is pretty complete and it’s up to the opposition to stop them. But I think Leinster will make a special note on the scrum because that’s where Northampton gain an awful lot of their power and I think Leinster are good enough to attack the strength of the opposition

Who will win and why?

I think Leinster will win, because they know what it takes and I just think they’ve got too much class across the board in too many positions. You’ve got to take into account that Leinster had Saracens, Racing and Clermont in their pool, then beat Leicester in the quarter-final and Toulouse in the semi-final. You’ve got to take that into account when you’re assessing who’s going to win the final.