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Gordon D’Arcy: Craig Casey has an opportunity to prove he should be the next cab off the rank for Ireland

Leinster can learn from experience of 2002 when Freddie Tuilagi caused me no end of problems highlighting risks of setting out to contain a team

Most people can recall a moment from childhood that fired the flames of a sporting passion. In a rugby context mine, as I have previously described, was perched precariously on the wall at the Bective Rangers end of Donnybrook looking to catch sight of Leinster against Leicester Tigers. The stewards would normally have chased us off, but they were too preoccupied in watching the match.

The English visitors were exotic to young eyes, a team that had letters rather than numbers on the back of their jerseys. That’s where the famous “ABC club” moniker came from, the Tigers frontrow of current Munster head coach Graham Rowntree (A), Richard Cockerill (B) and Darren Garforth (C) a trio that laid waste to many an opponent.

In those days the All-Ireland League still held sway in the affection of supporters. There was no United Rugby Championship (URC) or its equivalent, the interprovincial series, and an occasional run in Europe was the focus for the provinces.

Leicester had a host of English internationals and also the odd World Cup-winner, like South African outhalf Joel Stransky. The top English clubs of that time were powerhouses and the European history between Leinster and Leicester goes back to the dawn of the tournament, when the Tigers were in the ascendancy.


I had a slow start to professional rugby, a lack of application off the field meant I began to miss out on selection around this time. Leinster’s former head coach and current television pundit Matt Williams had offered me a lifeline which involved me eating plenty of humble pie and wearing a positional switch from fullback to the wing.

Leicester were the defending European champions when we ran into them the following season in a 2002 Heineken Cup quarter-final at Welford Road. On the day we were outgunned and outclassed despite jumping out to a 10-0 lead. Our preparation had been reactionary, focusing on trying to neutralise or at least minimise their myriad threats.

It’s a mindset that in many ways resembles bailing water on a sinking ship; the outcome is largely predetermined by the circumstances. My instructions were to defend the gargantuan Freddie Tuilagi, albeit sketchy on how I should actually go about it.

I spent a whole afternoon using the touchline as my friend, trying to adjust angles in an effort to reduce the number of front-on tackles I’d have to commit to and absorb in squaring up to the massive Samoan. I ceded territory to be able to tackle and that was after I had negotiated his huge fend.

Across the board we were trying to contain our opposite numbers, and while we managed to do so for large periods of the game, our game plan didn’t really cater for any attack on our part. Two opportunistic tries, including the first of the match scored by Denis Hickie, barely made a dent as we were well beaten, 29-18.

Even though that match took place 22 years ago, the same principles apply today. You can’t simply look to contain a team, at some point there is an onus on you to put points on the board if you aspire to winning the game.

Wales offered a good example of this during the Six Nations Championship against Ireland, brave and passionate in defence that frustrated the Irish attack, but the lack of scoreboard pressure eventually told against them in the final reckoning.

Last weekend’s fare in the URC gave Leinster and Munster some food for thought ahead of this week’s European matches. The Bulls brought a physical edge to the RDS, possessed a very clear game plan where they looked to find bodies to run into, or on occasion kick to Leinster right wing Rob Russell and fullback Jordan Larmour.

However, it was the South African side’s pace out wide that troubled Leinster, and it was head scratching as to why they didn’t look to try and exploit that more. The Bulls pursued that desire for contact and contestables in kicking form, from which they failed to put points on the board, before Leinster summoned the cavalry from the bench.

The Tigers, their opponents on Saturday night at the Aviva Stadium have struggled, their form patchy. Maybe their win on the road against the Newcastle Falcons and the possibility of some returning bodies up front will be a catalyst for a big performance against Irish opponents who beat them fairly comfortably at Welford Road in the pool stage of the competition.

Leinster’s bench impact against the Bulls was significant, Jamison Gibson-Park called into action earlier than anticipated following Luke McGrath’s very poor attempt at a covering tackle. It may yet result in further sanctions for McGrath but also served to highlight, yet again, how important Gibson-Park is to Leinster and Irish rugby.

It is not just his speed to the breakdown, but decision-making when he is there, and his range of passing makes him so hard to defend. He is the metronome of Leinster’s attack.

Munster too face into familiar opposition against Northampton – the English side won in Limerick at the pool stage – the two clubs have a rich history of matches in the tournament. Northampton have won 14 of 16 matches in the Premiership but are prone to the odd hiccup.

They shipped 50 points against the Bristol Bears but then followed that up by beating Saracens 40-31 last weekend. Munster will expose any mental fragility.

Ireland and Munster outhalf Jack Crowley stole the headlines in a hard-fought win against Cardiff, while his Northampton counterpart Fin Smith won the man-of-the-match accolade for his display in the victory over Saracens. Looking into a crystal ball, they could be contesting a Lions jersey in Australia further down the road.

Sunday’s game in Franklin’s Gardens is also a huge opportunity for Crowley’s halfback partner, Craig Casey to put in a performance that removes any doubt that he should be the next cab off the rank behind Gibson-Park at Ireland level.

The fact he hasn’t pushed past Conor Murray over the last couple of seasons has left him in the ‘lots of potential category’ with not enough consistent game time to nail down the nine jersey for the big matches.

There is no doubting his energy and speed to the breakdown, the next challenge is to showcase his decision-making and passing range to best effect. The balance looks to have shifted in his favour now. The stage is set for Munster’s halfback pairing to produce a statement performance on the road this weekend.