Subscriber OnlyRugby

Gordon D’Arcy: Leinster may need to look further afield to find missing link to future success

No indigenous talent production line is capable of fulfilling all of a team’s needs and as the province’s history shows foreign recruits have been hugely influential in a winning culture

Sport owes nothing to an individual or a team other than the opportunity to win. I learned a painful and prolonged lesson in that respect in the first 11 years of my career with Leinster, when we had very little silverware to show for the blood, sweat and predominantly, tears.

We ticked many boxes associated with winning teams but still could not take that final step for a variety of reasons. Favouritism is just a pregame label that sits easily or weighs heavily but one thing it does not do is guarantee victories.

The consensus was that Leinster would win the United Rugby Championship (URC) semi-final against the Bulls based on form, pedigree, and home advantage, one with which I wholeheartedly agreed.

It was not a case of dismissing or underestimating Jake White’s team but the suggestion that it might take a season or two for the South African sides to become fully acclimated to the tempo of northern hemisphere rugby.

The post-mortem to determine the cause of Leinster’s defeat will shine a light introspectively in tandem with guaranteeing the glare of external scrutiny. Familiar failings that have haunted the club in big matches since beating Racing 92 in the 2018 Champions Cup final resurfaced in the latest setback.

Leinster remain vulnerable to physically big teams that can shut down their preferred game plan at source. Leo Cullen has used the chequebook sparingly, relatively speaking in comparison to other marquee European clubs, instead largely relying on the home-grown production line of talent. It now feels that Leinster are two or three players short.

It’s possible to point to narrow margins but five consecutive defeats in knockout matches to teams with a similar physiological make-up is too many to consider a coincidence or an unfortunate run even for those who view the glass as half full. Top sports teams don’t completely fill rosters exclusively with indigenous talent.

Introducing players and coaches from different cultures with different ideas is a vital cross-pollination that enhances the prospect of success. When Leinster claimed silverware in the past, they had a very strong overseas contingent that was fundamental to the success: in no particular order Brad Thorne, Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom, Nathan Hines, Scott Fardy, Chris Whitaker, Felipe Contepomi, Stan Wright and Ollie le Roux were key figures.

Not many were current internationals at the time, but they brought a rugby IQ that was not replicated in the home-grown talent. Looking at the recruitment of overseas players for next season it seems more likely that Jason Jenkins rather than Charlie Ngatai has the capacity to make the starting XV.

Leinster’s game is based on pace and ruck speed; if you take that away it is extremely hard for the team to generate quick ball

Are Leinster just one player short? I think that may have been the case a year or two ago but, as the age profile of the squad has grown and with a World Cup year looming, there are other areas where the quality looks a little threadbare when it comes to those top-level European matches.

In my view the recruitment over the past couple of seasons has not adequately reflected the needs of a younger inexperienced squad, and the expectations of success by fans. Scott Fardy was not replaced and while James Lowe has filled the vacuum left by Isa Nacewa other gaps have materialised and there are certainly question marks surrounding the succession planning.

Tadgh Furlong’s prodigious workload in the big matches not only highlights how important he is but also that Michael Ala’alatoa has not quite broached the standards for which many hoped. If that sounds a little harsh, it is but this is professional sport where small margins dictate outcomes.

Ala’alatoa’s ability around the field is fine but, in the nuts and bolts of the matches Leinster wanted to win he has not had the desired influence. Furlong, carrying a niggle here and there in recent weeks, has looked a little careworn and leggy and is not delivering at his best; Leinster have suffered as a result.

He hasn’t been able to recreate those impressive chop steps and high knee carries of late and it feels like he has been going from game to game rather than peaking. It is a tough ask for a player in that position to start the amount of matches he does for club and country, with probably three more Tests in New Zealand.

This is just one area, there are others in the back three, loosehead, halfbacks and secondrow where not only some tough decisions will have to be made but the accelerated development of young players is vital.

There are some things you just cannot coach your way out of, and the Bulls head coach Jake White conjured a simple and effective game plan that his players delivered superbly. White suggested he replicated many aspects of La Rochelle’s victory over Leinster in the Champions Cup.

Leinster’s game is based on pace and ruck speed; if you take that away it is extremely hard for the team to generate quick ball. With Robbie Henshaw, a noteworthy exception, and to a lesser extent Dan Sheehan and Jordan Larmour, there was very little individual creativity to unlock the Bull’s defence.

Once the Bulls slowed their opponents’ ruck speed, they operated a skeleton staff at the breakdown and instead filled the defensive line. Leinster defaulted to one-off carries into bigger men or dropped deeper to make passes; the Bulls simply upped their line speed and smashed Leinster on or behind the gain-line.

Leinster too often had to over-resource the breakdown which left them outnumbered in attack and save for Henshaw’s try they never really tried to take advantage of their opponent’s lightly manned ruck defence.

Whenever Cullen’s side did get over the gain-line with quality possession, they looked extremely dangerous. The Bulls response was to go hard at the Leinster lineout and caused mayhem, including turning over their hosts’ throw three times close to the South African side’s try line.

It has been accepted for a while now that Leinster find it hard to regain momentum if you disrupt their primary possession. They do not have a Semi Radradra, or a Marcell Coetzee that can simply carry others over the gain-line and convert static or medium pace to quick ball.

No one has filled the void Rob Kearney left in terms of his aerial prowess in regathering possession

James Lowe was missed in this respect especially around the fringes of the ruck and his presence would have undoubtedly gone a long way to getting Leinster over the line last Friday. Too often Leinster needed something not off the training paddock but something special in an individual context either in attack or defence to light the touch paper again.

This is a hard balance to strike. Leinster are in some respects a victim of their own success. Their approach works with such ease against most teams but there is a common identikit to teams whose game plan and defence ensure that the Irish province will struggle.

On reflection the lineout calling and the way the game was managed in general by Leinster’s outside backs will face a harsh review. When Johnny Sexton does not play, and Leinster are deprived of premium primary possession, it can blunt the cutting edge in attack against the best teams.

No one has filled the void Rob Kearney left in terms of his aerial prowess in regathering possession while a lack of attacking threat at first receiver makes Leinster easier to defend against. Ross Byrne did not have a bad game but as the tempo dropped, he was not able to reinvigorate the attack.

The Bulls filled the pitch, committed only one player to the breakdown and their line-speed ate into his decision-making time. There was little space anywhere on the field, and as he dropped deeper to buy himself a split second on the ball it had ramifications further out.

Aside from the outstanding Henshaw there was little done from those in the 9-13 jerseys to try to solve what was going wrong on the pitch. If you compare the misfortunes of the Ulster pack on Saturday, they were in much the same arm-wrestle as Leinster were up front.

However, their backline kept them in the hunt through the cutting edge provided by Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stewart Moore and Ethan McIlroy.

There is much to admire in the way that Leinster perform for the majority of each season since that last European success. Winning with 22 of a matchday 23 eligible to play for Ireland would be an incredible feat but is it attainable? Tilting the odds in their favour with a bit of magic that isn’t cultivated in Leinster might just be the missing link.