Here’s one for the conspiracy theorists. Leinster have occasionally selected a 6-2 split on the bench, but it is definitely not what you would describe as a calling card of the province.
It may just be coincidence that Leinster head coach Leo Cullen opted for a forward heavy battery of replacements in the win over Munster but, for me, it feels a little more than that in the context of the weekend.
Jacques Nienaber wasn’t present in the Aviva Stadium last Saturday night as Leinster just about scraped through the match with a win, but it does feel like he was involved in the preparation, not necessarily on a training ground but perhaps in pitching a couple of ideas.
The best coaches leave little to chance, something I experienced first-hand when Joe Schmidt took over at Leinster. I had yet to agree to a contract extension with the IRFU. Joe and I spoke on the phone before we ever met and he made it clear that my place was in Ireland with Leinster.
There is an art to coaching that extends way beyond the technical side when it comes to lateral thinking and innovation. Leinster’s collaboration with the Crusaders during Covid-19 was one example. My belief is that Cullen and Nienaber would have discussed aspects of Leinster’s set-up over the last few weeks and that the composition of the bench last weekend was a byproduct of that collaboration.
The South African model when it comes to replacements has been to introduce the majority of the beefy brothers in one fell swoop on 50-minutes to maximise the time they have to impact the contest. The injury to Ross Byrne may have stymied those plans.
Watching the two players, Byrne and Jack Crowley, who understudied Johnny Sexton at the World Cup going head-to-head should have been enthralling and a chance to impress Ireland coach Andy Farrell. Byrne’s unfortunate early injury meant the spotlight was retrained.
Munster’s halfbacks Crowley and Craig Casey were very much in the ascendancy early on, playing with tempo and accuracy that caused Leinster plenty of problems and the shape of Munster’s attack was very impressive, playing off front-foot ball. Crowley was a constant threat with the ball in hand without ignoring the opportunities that presented themselves further out. He made good choices.
The Munster halfbacks kicked well initially, exposing weaknesses in the Leinster backthree, but overplayed the option subsequently and it negated the fast start that they would have spoken about as crucial in a quest to win.
Munster got a decent return from the pressure in terms of early points and frustrated their hosts during that period. Leinster were culpable in damaging their own prospects, but it was hard to identify whether it was inaccuracies from lack of game time together for some players, individual mistakes or an emphatic defensive display from Munster, that forced the errors.
Leinster supporters were left with sweaty palms and it could have been even worse but for Hugo Keenan’s decisive late intervention when his tackle forced a poor pass from Calvin Nash after a break. The home side’s attack was disjointed from the opening whistle, passes hitting inside shoulders.
Ciarán Frawley’s introduction added a better balance and while the final scoring pass was still frustratingly absent for the most part, the team looked more threatening in their attacking patterns. This felt like the first time Frawley had played at 10 since the Maori game in New Zealand last summer, he was tidy going about his work, and like Crowley, he was a threat with the ball in hand.
A characteristic I like about both Frawley and Crowley is their ambition to try and take the ball moving as first receiver; even if it is one step, it makes defenders hesitate and that can often be decisive.
Chris Whitaker, the former Australian and Leinster scrumhalf, helped me to develop my understanding of depth and movement on to the ball as first receiver. His natural pass was to put the ball a yard in front of you, forcing you to move on to it with your hands up and to scan early.
Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack are the perfect illustration of the modern halfback combination. The French scrumhalf is the primary playmaker with Ntamack the ideal foil in embellishing that work.
The outhalf role is less traditional than we are used to. It has evolved based on more direct attacking and decision-making input from the scrumhalf, which has facilitated the emergence of players with attacking chops like Finn Russell, Marcus Smith, Ntamack, Crowley and Frawley.
The battle of the nines at the Aviva Stadium was also worth noting with all three Irish World Cup scrumhalves involved. Casey set the early running and in some of his gameplay you can see spending time with Jamison Gibson-Park at the World Cup has influenced his evolution as a player.
Casey and his replacement for the final half-hour Conor Murray, almost combined to deliver what would have been a very memorable victory, but for me, Gibson-Park remains peerless. His ability to inject tempo, to spot and exploit gaps with a predatory instinct, is hugely impressive.
His try offered a classic illustration of those qualities. With the game in the balance, it was his vision that enabled the contest’s definitive moment in that fraught end game in engineering that sliver of space and time for Jordan Larmour’s try.
His feint to the open side sells too many Munster defenders and he then pivots and throws a bounce pass to Larmour, a fusion of vision and execution in getting the ball to the danger man in the wide channel and in doing so forcing Munster defenders to panic and over-chase.
Nienaber’s arrival is timely. Munster, while not getting the result they wanted, looked a little further along than Leinster in terms of cohesion. The ex-Springbok coach will bring a new voice, new stimulus and look to set some new standards.
It is only natural that when a player of the calibre of Sexton retires it leaves a vacuum to be filled. It felt a little that way on the pitch last weekend and I’ve no doubt he is missed around the training group too. He drove standards. Maybe it won’t be a player initially but a two-time World Cup-winning coach that helps to fill that void.