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Gordon D’Arcy: Leinster need to drive Ford deep into the pocket

Steve Borthwick is reinstalling that old element of hardness in his side

Spending some time with my folks over the Bank Holiday weekend conversation eventually drifted towards rugby and specifically how well a young Leinster squad coped with the demands of playing two United Rugby Championship matches in South Africa against their top sides, the Stormers and Sharks, and how that experience would stand to them as they progressed their respective careers.

Jamie Osborne, a standout performer in a young backline, carried the responsibility lightly as evidenced by the quality of his contribution. It reminded me of the Bath match in 2016 when Leo Cullen blooded several 'Laighin cubs' and got me thinking about similarities between the two, but that assessment will be more relevant at season's end.

Cullen’s wishlist prior to travelling to South Africa would have been to return with no injuries having secured a number one seeding for the remainder of the tournament. James Tracy’s neck issue precluded a clean sweep, but Leinster’s head coach would have been pleased with the way his young squad competed.

When you are given an opportunity as a young player, a primary concern is to establish whether you can cope with the mental and physical challenges. Do you grow or shrink in that environment? Cullen threw his players to the Sharks first and then stuck them in the eye of the Stormers to see who would survive the experience.

Luxury

The Leinster coaching ticket got to map out the short- and medium-term future a little by running the rule over their extended squad in a harsh, unforgiving rugby climate. Cullen understands that developing young players represents a substantial down payment on future success. And to do so, you must step outside the laboratory conditions of the training ground.

If Leinster had shipped substantial losses in South Africa, it would have been disappointing for the travelling party, but in terms of next Saturday's Heineken Champions Cup match against the Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, the group that remained behind in Dublin has had a three-week lead-in to European fare.

That luxury has been the envy of our French and English counterparts. Leicester played a full team in the rout of the Bristol Bears at the weekend.

My dad reminded me of the last time Leinster played at Welford Road in January 2002, a Heineken Cup quarter-final in which we faced not only the defending champions but a team that would go on to conquer Europe for a second tournament in succession, beating Munster in the final.

It was a brutal encounter physically, Leicester were in their pomp, hard-nosed and aggressive up front but also blessed with pace and creativity. I played on the wing and my primary duty was to mark the gargantuan Freddie Tuilagi.

The game was vastly different in those days, where space was more easily created and one-on-one duels in the wider channels were standard fare. I had a better understanding of the art of tackling after that match than in the previous four years of my professional career combined.

There were moments that I can recall with scary clarity, like Denis Hickie's try that gave us some hope, but it was ruthlessly dashed as we succumbed to a more hardened team. That Tigers' environment provided the backbone of the England team while also dominating the Premiership and Europe for several years.

There was absolutely something special about the Leicester way, which Leinster benefited from when Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen returned from their time at the Tigers. A phrase I loved about Shane was that he was the kind of fella who drinks his coffee straight from the pot; he was genuinely tough and with a hard-nosed attitude that team-mates gravitated towards and supported.

The away changing rooms at Welford Road were closer to Wexford, albeit with better showers

I walked into Welford Road as a naive 21-year-old, still wet behind the ears in senior rugby terms. There was no shock and awe walking into the Tigers’ den, it was underwhelming and not what I expected of a team of their stature. I guess this type of perspective was normal and one that Leicester thrived on, that false sense of security.

Back in my younger days playing in Wexford Wanderers, the changing rooms were sparse, no mod cons, no heating, just a basic facility with muck everywhere. The showers were sporadically warm. In Clongowes where I went to school, there was a designated boot room to ensure that the corridors were kept spotlessly clean and undamaged.

I spent more than my fair share of time cleaning that boot room, an opportunity to reflect on some debatable decisions I may have made. The away changing rooms at Welford Road were closer to Wexford, albeit with better showers. They would house 20 players at a push so a travelling party of 30 rocking up to Welford Road had to make many adjustments.

Any sort of a match routine went out the window straight away as players had to unintentionally jostle for position with team-mates just to get changed. Bags were stacked in the corridor to make extra room. It was claustrophobic and there is no doubt it is exactly the sort of experience to which Leicester wanted to subject visiting teams.

It was clearly not the reason we lost in 2002 but it did reflect the Leicester rugby culture. This was a club that prided itself on its infamous Tuesday training sessions, full bore contact where punch-ups were the norm. Everyone was then invited to go for a beer that evening with a rest day on the Wednesday, irrespective of who had done what to whom. Any lingering resentment or ill feeling was left on the training pitch, along with skin, blood, and teeth on occasion.

It was purposefully not glamorous; they were a physically imposing side, and there is an element of that hardness that current head coach Steve Borthwick is trying to reinstall. The thing about a team's identity is that it must reflect the players for them to buy into it.

Leinster, at that time, lacked a collective identity; we had a plethora of talent, but as individuals. In contrast the Leicester Tigers knew exactly who they were, what they wanted and how to achieve it. With the benefit of hindsight it all makes perfect sense, the changing rooms, the pitch, and the attitude were important component parts in their success.

In returning to the weekend's game Leinster's identity and culture is secure while Leicester are still building after a few years in the wilderness. The changing rooms are slightly nicer now – I checked with Geordan Murphy – the aura perhaps less intimidating, although you can still hear the footfall of spectators in the changing room and the two teams still have to squeeze out through that tiny aperture in the Breedon stand to reach the pitch.

Leicester Tigers sit atop the English Premiership and a large part of what they are doing well stems from captain Ellis Genge and outhalf George Ford, who will both leave the club at the end of the season.

For Leinster to stamp their mark on this game they will need to drive George Ford deep into the pocket

Leinster have a full deck to choose from this week, the only doubt is whether James Ryan will be selected or not. The player welfare aspect is the primary concern. There is no doubt that Leinster's prospects would be greatly enhanced by his presence.

Leicester are very clearly in an excellent playing rhythm as evidenced in scoring some very impressive tries when leaving Bristol and London Irish in their vapour trail. A peculiarity to English clubs is that with smaller squads they try to play settled teams as often as possible and reduce their minutes on the training field.

The players rarely recover beyond 80 per cent of a full recharge based on that playing workload. The Irish approach has always been about coming in fresher and trying to peak for big matches. There are plenty of similarities in playing patterns; the desire to generate fast ball over the gainline to strike out wide, big aggressive frontrows and two form outhalves.

For Leinster to stamp their mark on this game they will need to drive George Ford deep into the pocket, where he is considerably less influential than when he is operating flat to the line and causing mayhem with his passing and kicking game. We know that Johnny Sexton will stand tall, flat, and take the punishment.

There are several intangibles, foremost of which is how Mathieu Raynal will referee the game. He got the scrums badly wrong, as he admitted subsequently, in the Six Nations game between England and Ireland and some of the same players are on duty here.

It is about being picture perfect for the official at set-piece and breakdown. An understated art form is being able to adapt in real time to what a referee wants on a given day. The aerial game, and how Leinster deal with the six-foot, five-inch Freddie Steward, on kick chase is another issue of interest.

Leicester are a well drilled, co-ordinated side, high on confidence and with the tools to win this game if Leinster aren’t at their best. Welford Road will help them fill out that jersey until the seams threaten to burst. Borthwick is doing many things right; there is a feel of the old Tigers’ hard edge about them and that rarely bodes well for the visitors.

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