Leinster need to rediscover ruthless streak to beat Bath
Alan Quinlan: Matt O’Connor has been hampered by losing players
Matt O’Connor was not happy before the game against Glasgow at being made to start without his Six Nations players. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/Inpho
It’s gone under the radar with everything that’s been happening in the Six Nations but Leinster’s season has really run into trouble. This is the wrong time of the season to be picking up only one win in five league games – and it a home game against Zebre. At least if it was against one of the teams around them in the table it would help them get a semi-final place in the Pro12. But as it is, they’re in serious danger of missing out.
They look to me like a team that has lost its identity. You think of the Leinster teams of the past decade and you knew what each of them was about. Michael Cheika’s teams were hard and edgy and played like they were fed up with having to go through all those years without success. Joe Schmidt’s teams were fluent and slick and played like they knew they were the best team in Europe and wanted to show it every time.
What do you think of when you think of Matt O’Connor’s Leinster? What’s their identity? What do they stand for? What way do they want to play? Coming towards the end of his second season, it’s hard to pick anything out.
Nearly the first thing that comes to mind is excuses. He has very rarely been able to put his best team on the pitch. He started this season with a massive injury list and then when a lot of them of them got back fit, it was just in time to go off and play for Ireland.
O’Connor’s squad depth has been tested far more than the other three Irish provinces, more than anybody in the Pro12 in fact. No question, that is a definite excuse if O’Connor wanted to use it.
But even allowing for that, I think Leinster’s problem goes a bit deeper. When you replace one player for another, it’s totally acceptable that there might be a loss in quality. Rugby players have different abilities and it stands to reason that if one guy is off playing in the Six Nations, the player who comes in for him won’t be as good. But there’s no reason whatsoever that the replacement player can’t get himself into the same mindset as the guy he’s coming in for and I think that’s where Leinster have looked vulnerable.
I watched them lose to the Dragons in the RDS back in mid-February and I couldn’t get over the way they allowed the game slip out of their hands. Yes, they were missing a dozen or so frontline players but they still had Shane Jennings, Dominic Ryan, Richardt Strauss, Michael Bent, Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney in the starting line-up, as well as Mike McCarthy and Luke Fitzgerald off the bench. That’s eight Irish internationals before you get to the likes of Jimmy Gopperth, Kane Douglas and Ben Te’o. So there was no shortage of quality.
As if that wasn’t enough, two Dragons players were sin-binned inside the opening 20 minute. One of them was Rhys Thomas, by far their most experienced player. And still they led 10-6 at half-time. When Leinster did finally manage to get their noses in front in the second half through a Dave Kearney try, they couldn’t hold out. Dragons ended up winning 16-14.
On the night, O’Connor was well within his rights to complain about the fact that for whatever reason, the league hadn’t provided a TMO, causing a Fitzgerald try to be disallowed. But even so, Leinster should not be losing at home to the Dragons when they spend a quarter of the game with an extra man on the pitch. It should never be close enough for the TMO to matter.
What really struck me about Leinster that night and in some of their games since is their inability to put teams away. They give teams too many opportunities to come back at them and don’t kill them off when they have the chance. We’ve had year after year of Leinster teams who were ruthless. This Leinster team is not ruthless.
That’s what I mean by mindset. You don’t have to be an international standard player to know that a game is there to be killed off. It’s basic stuff – next ball, next tackle, next score. When you go 10 points up, you bust a gut to win the kick-off and get back down there to put pressure on them again. Take away their breathing space, give them no time to think, put them to the sword.
Defend a lead
Never give the other team a break, never take a backward step. That’s how you finish them off. You tackle with more intensity to defend a lead than to build one, purely to let the opposition know that however deep a hole they’re in, it’s going to get deeper for them before this is all over. You have to break their hearts and give them no encouragement.
This is a simple matter of keeping your standards high and staying focused. But too many times this season, I’ve watched Leinster stutter and stumble in games where pure carelessness has kept the other side in it.
The Harlequins game in the Aviva before Christmas was the perfect example. Leinster were 11-0 up at half-time and should have cruised to a handy win from there in front of their home crowd. But instead, they were lucky to get away with a 14-13 win in the end because they let Quins back into the game.
Giving away penalties
Their scrum started to suffer and they began giving away penalties. Quins scored a try by breaking the line straight down through midfield and finding numbers out wide. Leinster survived but only just.
The simple fact is that they’ve given up far too many tries this season. If you look at the Pro12 table, they’ve conceded 31 tries in 18 games. That’s already one more than in the whole of last season when they played 22 games.
In fact, since the league has gone to 12 teams in 2010-11, only once have they conceded more tries in 22 games than they have in 18 this time around.
They’ve looked porous, giving away easy yards and soft turnovers. There’s no mitigation for that. It doesn’t come down to this player being missing or that player being away with the international side. Defence and breakdown work is all about attitude. It’s about refusing to get pushed around.
And it’s about recognising that you have responsibilities to live up to. I know O’Connor wasn’t happy before last weekend’s game against Glasgow at being made to start without his Six Nations players but I still couldn’t believe the soft lead they let Glasgow build up. It was as if some of the players didn’t properly realise the size of the game. They were disjointed and defended badly and nearly let Glasgow get away from them.
Leinster looked like they really lacked leaders. Whatever about losing Brian O’Driscoll and Johnny Sexton, it’s in games like that that they’ve really missed the likes of Isa Nacewa and Leo Cullen. These are guys who pushed a ruthless mindset no matter if all the internationals were away.
It didn’t matter to them whether Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and the rest were in the team or not – they kept the same standards, they nailed teams that were there to be nailed. I just don’t see their equivalent coming to the fore in the current squad. You’d be hoping that guys like Gopperth and Zane Kirchner would lead the charge but against Glasgow in a really big game last Friday, that wasn’t the case.
This all feeds into making this weekend a huge one for Matt O’Connor. He has been hampered by all the chopping and changing but that’s what the Leinster job is these days and it’s the price they pay for success. With a full squad available to him, I don’t doubt that they have the beating of Bath. Anything less and all the focus will fall on O’Connor.
This is the problem for him with Leinster not having any great identity through his reign.
If all the internationals come back and play like they can and beat Bath, all the credit goes to the players. It will be seen as a matter of them turning up and doing what they do best and winning on the back of their talent and experience. But it will be seen as a players’ victory, rather than a coach’s one. And if they lose, all the flak goes in his direction – which is wrong and unfair.
Defeat is certainly possible. Bath’s backline has serious pace and cutting edge in the shape of George Ford, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph and if the Leinster defence is as soft as it has been, they could be exposed. The one thing you always got against Leinster was that you had to fight like hell to get a score. They need to get back to that.
If they do, I can see them grinding out a result.