Gerry Thornley: Leinster seem to be running straighter than anyone else
Province’s talented young guns and ability to run straight setting them apart
Leinster’s James Lowe breaks with the ball to score his first try during the Champions Cup win against Wasps at the RDS. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Talk about throwing down the gauntlet. Such was the scale of Leinster’s 52-3 win over Wasps on Friday night that when rival coaching staffs began assembling on Saturday and Sunday morning it’s likely the champions were the first choice of topic.
“Did you watch Leinster last night?” “How good were Leinster?” Etcetera. Etcetera.
Rather fittingly, the Monday morning tables show the champions are the only ones to have registered four tries in the opening round and thus are already a point, and a step, ahead of the rest. Indeed, they were so good they scored eight tries, never mind four.
In truth, the gap already looks bigger than that. Even though it was a thoroughly, typically absorbing and often unpredictable opening weekend to the Heineken Champions Cup, Leinster appeared to be almost playing a different sport such is the effectiveness of their brand of rugby right now.
Technically and mentally, Leinster are in a great place right now.
Two things strike you about this Leinster team. As Ronan O’Gara ventured last week, they have an infusion of young ready-made, highly skilled professional rugby players who bring a ridiculous amount of energy and work to their game. Hence the tackle counts, rucks clear-outs, carries etc of James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and co.
Leinster also seem to be running straighter than anyone else, which has the effect of making the pitch appear slightly wider as it has to fix defenders. Everybody comes straight on to the ball. And this includes the decoy runners.
This improvement can perhaps be attributable to Felipe Contepomi’s attention to detail, as evidenced by the set-piece try off a line-out by James Lowe off Robbie Henshaw’s inside ball. Admittedly it was against 14 men, with Lima Sopoaga in the bin, but it was the runs off the ball of van der Flier and Jack Conan which fixed the defenders to create the space for Lowe.
Then there is the footwork before contact of all their runners which Brian O’Driscoll highlighted in commentary, notably when Rhys Ruddock stepped out of an onrushing tackle. He only gained a metre, but he didn’t have this in his repertoire until Stuart Lancaster came aboard to painstakingly work individually on this aspect of Leinster’s game. It was evident in the try Ruddock scored against South Africa last November.
Confidence is high after last season’s double, as it should be, yet Leinster’s hunger clearly remains voracious. From Rob Kearney last Friday, to James Lowe afterwards, it’s clear everyone is on message. Leinster are no longer the holders in their own eyes. They are one of 20 contenders, like everyone else.
In the final quarter, with the win and bonus point already secured, Garry Ringrose shot out of the defensive line to nab Sopoaga and force a spillage, from which Sean O’Brien manufactured a turnover.
In all of this, they are being supremely well managed by Leo Cullen, who is managing to keep familiarity and freshness in his selection policy.
Of course, as Warren Gatland for one readily admits, the secret to being a good coach is to have good players. And above all else, Leinster have the personnel, a huge reservoir of them and mostly home grown.
Conceivably, of course, with their work ethic and attention to detail out in their High Performance Centre in UCD, they could get better. They actually left a few tries behind against Wasps.
But then again this is only October. Leinster are almost too good for this time of the season. You think of Arsenal’s Invincibles, who carried on where they left off the following but saw their 49-match unbeaten run come to a halt at Old Trafford to an erroneous penalty and ended up winning nothing that season.
To state the blindingly obvious, next May is, well, seven months away. So much can happen, be it injuries, refereeing decisions, weather, the vagaries of one-off knockout matches and, not least, the bounce of a rugby ball. And Leinster will be bulk suppliers for Ireland’s four-game November Test window as well as the Six Nations.
Ross Byrne has already shown himself to be a fine deputy for Johnny Sexton in big games, such as the wins over Montpellier last season and in the Pro14 semi-final, but Sexton’s health is still vital. Similarly, consider for a moment the ripple effects of an injury to Luke McGrath given Leinster’s three into two non-EU conundrum.
Little about the opening round of matches dispelled the feeling that the main dangers will come from proven rivals, the likes of Saracens (a starting team containing 14 internationals and seven Lions) and Munster. The addition of Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carbery makes Munster look both more interesting and better.
Both Munster and Saracens also displayed the kind of sleeves-rolled-up stubbornness on the road which also leads to lengthy involvement in this tournament.
Meanwhile, the best French team this season are competing in the Challenge Cup, namely Clermont Auvergne, whose 41-20 win away to Northampton suggests they are of a mind to emulate their last appearance in the secondary tournament in 2006-07, when they won the trophy.
In part thanks to Freddy Burns, Stade Toulousain will be seriously up for it next Saturday. Leinster’s presence as the most prized scalp in the competitions will add to that. As will, perhaps, the knowledge within the rouge et noir cognoscenti that, in many respects Leinster have become the new Toulouse, generating players from within, playing with a certain elan and hoovering trophies.
The new Toulouse. Next Sunday, Leinster have the chance to underline it.
Email Gerry Thornley at firstname.lastname@example.org