Liam Toland: Cullen’s selection signals the tide may turn
Fine-tuning will improve trench warfare ahead of a tough run
Luke McGrath of Leinster passes the ball during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Bath and Leinster at the Recreation Ground. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
“Success is failure turned inside out; the silver tint in the clouds of doubt. And you never call tell how close you are; it might be near when it seems afar. So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit; it’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.”
These words I voiced at my brother’s wedding back in 1996! It’s hard to believe but weeks into the 2015-16 season I find myself wondering again – what is success? Especially as I’ve spent the past three weeks enquiring on behalf of our underage systems.
No doubt, for various reasons all four provincial coaches are asking themselves the same question; ditto Joe Schmidt. In the Rec, as Bath eventually overcame Leinster, I couldn’t but wonder how Leo Cullen views the coming weeks. Leinster at home to Ulster, Glasgow away, Toulon away, Toulon at home, Munster away and finally Connacht at home by New Year’s Day.
It’s no less horrific for Ulster – just replace Toulon for Toulouse. New coaching tickets, both hunting for any form and victory where it is conceivable that only scraps will be gained by year’s end.
But unlike previous years those scraps contained in the bowels of the Guinness Pro12 are crucial for next season’s European draw. For instance, is it possible that Robbie Henshaw may be in a Leinster jersey languishing in the Challenge Cup while his former team-mates Connacht are in the Champions Cup? The table doesn’t lie!
Cullen has picked a side that looks better equipped for the Leinster way. Jack McGrath at loosehead over the more explosive Cian Healy is a good decision. McGrath has more than earned the right.
Tadhg Furlong is a superb tighthead and with Mike McCarthy behind him in the tighthead secondrow berth plus Devin Toner slipping across to the loosehead side will improve the Leinster scrum hugely.
Sixteen points with 19 conceded in the Rec was far too damaging to Leinster but their inability to correct in real time was more troubling. That there was no replacement secondrow made the loss of Hayden Triggs to injury a real barrier to solutions for the scrum.
But the big change is Luke McGrath starting at scrumhalf. His entry last weekend along with the impressive Josh van der Flier brought the zip Leinster required to test Bath.
Nearly all statistics in the Rec broke even and against Wasps the previous week Leinster enjoyed over 60 per cent of the possession. So even without Seán O’Brien, fine tuning will turn the Leinster tide tonight.
For instance George Ford and Johnny Sexton made equal metres with ball in hand but Ford made 100 per cent more passes.
Add to this Sexton’s errant kicking and we see a side struggling tactically and technically. Why kick the ball to 6’6” Matt Banahan or as a team consistently pass the ball behind the Leinster shoulder?
Conversely the vast majority of those Bath passes went in front of the ball receiver while the majority of support lines asked questions of the Leinster defence.
Way too often Leinster sent speedy backs such as Luke Fitzgerald into well positioned Bath fatties inviting a slow recycle.
At worst Bath sent like for like but managed to get mismatches which is reflective of a settled squad, game plan and more advanced environment – which is all understandable.
Not to mention how much Joe Schmidt’s Irish environment sucks the life out of returning provincial players.
Leinster’s selection will improve their trench warfare, ultimately getting them into the wider channels.
Fitzgerald will have many more options to alternate his game – waiting for and also hunting for the ball. In the Rec he was corralled into heavy traffic; partly due to Bath’s defensive gate and partly the lack of recycle speed, not aided by the half backs.
Whether he likes it or not Ian Madigan at 12 is exactly what Leinster need to add zip to his outside backs. From that flat ball he can spin out while also adding zip to Sexton’s game which is struggling to ignite.
Over recent weeks I’ve bumped into several European Challenge Cup teams as represented by their backroom. Interestingly not one wanted to be in the Challenge Cup. Why? It comes at a huge financial and logistical cost with precious little return.
The door is closed for the winner to gain entry into the following year’s Champions Cup. Hence winning Challenge Cup games should be measured with extreme caution; likewise losing in the Champions Cup. But losing tonight will come at a huge cost – which will make the RDS a rocking place to be, come 7.35pm
Oligarchs taking over
So what is success? This is a question each Leinster supporter must be asking themselves. And with so much to play for in the Pro 12 and next season’s European draw, not to mention an Aviva Stadium to fill when Toulon arrive next month, it’s important that their answer is not this season’s European Champions Cup. But Leinster will win tonight which will more than help.
With oligarchs taking over European clubs at a rate and with massive money offers coming in from England, Irish rugby now faces the same question – what is success?
We can no longer play ‘our style’ of rugby with our resources while expecting to win European trophies and threaten in World Cups.
In many ways we can’t afford not to expand our style and welcome the likes of Australia captain Stephen Moore here. firstname.lastname@example.org