Barges, line speed and shitfights: Is Leinster’s defence better under Jacques Nienaber?

With plenty of players still finding their feet under the senior coach, a knockout game is going to be decided by individual moments

The question surrounding Jacques Nienaber’s arrival at Leinster this season focused on his ability to get them over their European hump. Could the defensive mastermind of South Africa’s back-to-back World Cup triumphs add the missing ingredient to break their La Rochelle hoodoo? If so, how long would it take?

Thankfully, for narrative-hungry journalists, Nienaber offered a timeline for the bedding-in period of his new defensive system. “It will be 14 weeks,” he said, not long after first arriving in Dublin. “It took 14 weeks with Munster, it took 14 games with the ‘Boks when we took over in 2018.”

How convenient that in advance of this weekend’s season-defining quarter-final against La Rochelle, Nienaber passed the 14-game mark after the recent defeat of Leicester. Such a span includes two friendlies during the Six Nations where Leinster’s non-international contingent lost to Bath and Saracens.

What is the state of Leinster’s defence now that Nienaber has had his desired window?


Statistically, it’s difficult to draw any sweeping conclusions; we need a much larger sample size than 14 matches. Lest we forget, Leinster haven’t had access to their first choice XV available for much of these games due to Ireland commitments.

Regardless, there is sufficient detail to shine at least some light on the two identifiable shifts to Leinster’s defensive system under Nienaber.

First, there is a stark statistic that portrays a change in Leinster’s line speed. Passes per defensive action (PPDA) illustrates how many times a defence allows an attack to make a pass before an attempted tackle. Essentially, the metric can be used to show the aggression of a line speed; a faster line speed allows fewer passes between tackles.

Per analyst Carrick Blake, Leinster were in the 69th percentile for allowing a low PPDA figure last season. This year, they have jumped up to the third percentile. Their speed off the defensive line has undoubtedly increased.

Before the round of 16, Ryan Baird led the Champions Cup in dominant tackles with eight. Asking a dynamic athlete to come flying off the line — akin to Pieter-Steph du Toit with South Africa — could well be the key to unlocking his best defensive work. Second to Baird was another Leinster man, Josh van der Flier.

The second area of difference is harder to assess statistically. Following his first game back for Leinster after the World Cup, Hugo Keenan succinctly summed up Leinster’s new attitude towards the defensive breakdown: “Lads were trying to make a shitfight of it.”

Under Nienaber, Leinster’s forwards in particular have been tasked with being more disruptive, both in the jackal and when counterrucking.

“Towards the end of last season, it was something we spoke a little bit more about, creating chaos at the breakdown and every tackle is an opportunity to create chaos,” explains Caelan Doris.

“I think there is more of an onus on the individual tackle and barge, post end, and post tackle effort and trying to create a bit of a mess there. Teams have done it to us over the last couple of seasons … it’s hard to play against.”

“You can see with South Africa they have that massive barge mentality, you can see it from us, we’re trying to implement it into our game as well,” said Scott Penny, who has been involved in half of these first 14 games. “Barge” has clearly become word of the day in plenty of Nienaber’s sessions at UCD.

On Saturday, the prevailing wisdom is that Will Connors is a horses-for-courses selection at openside given his ability to chop-tackle La Rochelle’s powerful carriers. There is merit in this, given plenty of Leinster players, not just Connors, had success with the chop tackle the last time these two sides met in December when Leinster prevailed in the pool stages.

Yet perhaps Connors is included for his barge as well. In that Leinster victory, he impressed with his disruptive breakdown work. In this year’s URC, he has been effective at slowing down opposition ball at a third of the rucks he’s hit. If that factored into the selection, Van der Flier may feel hard done by, given he led Europe for turnovers forced (eight) before the round of 16.

Interestingly, Doris suggested that the newfound breakdown aggression started last season, before Nienaber came on board. It may be a stretch to suggest the province got sick of teams like La Rochelle disrupting their ball and decided to follow suit, but it’s not beyond the bounds of imagination either. If you can’t beat them, join them, then beat them.

The fact that Leinster started trying to turn opposition rucks into a “shitfight” towards the end of last year may partly explain the limited statistical differences from 2023 and 2024. In last year’s final defeat to La Rochelle, Leinster forced a turnover once for every 27 defensive collisions. In this season’s pool victory, that lowered slightly to 22. In this year’s Champions Cup, Leinster are averaging 6.4 turnovers forced per match. Last year, that figure was six.

Even the average points conceded per match, the most important figure in defence, hasn’t changed dramatically. Last season, Leinster conceded 18.1 points per game. In Nienaber’s opening salvo, that number is 17.6.

Despite the neat 14-game narrative, it’s difficult to use data to gauge how effective Leinster’s new defence is. At this early stage, with plenty of players still finding their feet under Nienaber, a one-off knockout game is going to be decided by individual moments, rather than identifiable trends.

Robbie Henshaw came up with one such moment last week, rushing out of the line to make a try-scoring interception despite giving up a dangerous overlap if he didn’t come away with the ball. That was arguably the swing point of the match with Leicester then stressing a 14-man Leinster. Would he have made that bold decision if Nienaber wasn’t his defence coach?

In theory, this new system suits such moment-driven contests. Leinster are more likely to show that desire to force a breakdown turnover in the 22 or pilfer a try-scoring intercept now than in previous years.

In December, in the swirling La Rochelle rain, Leinster prevailed against the masters of the defensive shitfight. On Saturday, expected to be a dry Dublin day more conducive to attacking rugby, Leinster’s shitfighting skills will receive their sternest test yet.