Dan Leavy’s man of the match performance epitomised Leinster’s attitude towards Saracens on Sunday. The openside flanker showed pure disdain for the reigning champions, hammering into them both sides of the ball and tearing up through the middle of their vaunted defence to score a crucial try. Leinster were far from perfect, and have their work cut out for them if they are going to get past a lethal Scarlets team that dumped them out of the Pro12 last season.
Leinster’s exploitation of the five-metre channel for Garry Ringrose’s try was superb, but they were afforded a degree of comfort in their passing that you don’t normally see in the quarter-finals of any competition:
The running lines and handling are both first-rate in the above instance, and the same can be said for the phases that led to James Lowe’s try, but Leinster were incisive in their phase play throughout the game against the much-lauded Saracens ‘Wolf Pack’ defence:
Rob Kearney is on a hot streak at present, but making big gains in the 15-metre channel isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Ireland’s starting full-back. The enthusiasm in defence that has been the cornerstone of Saracens’ success in Europe was, to an extent, absent on Sunday. Their intensity in-close was high (Leinster struggled to cross the gain line tight to the ruck at times), but the ability to shut down space in the wider channels deserted them.
Some of that had to do with the fatigue levels from Saracens’ English internationals (Mako Vuniploa looked shattered long before he was substituted, George Kruis had an uncharacteristic passenger-type outing and Maro Itoje was outperformed by James Ryan), but the variation in Leinster’s patterns and the speed at which they transferred the ball from one player to another made it hard for Saracens to predict where the point of attack was going to be.
Oiling The Gears
For years now, Leinster’s Achilles heel has been their lineout; back in the 2012-2013 season, it cost them a famous win over Clermont in the Stade Marcel-Michelin, and that loss was followed up with a home defeat to the same opposition in the Aviva Stadium. These two results ended their quest for three Heineken Cups in a row, and the worry that they are going to over- or under-throw is always in the back of your mind whenever they are in a make or break game.
Nearly six years later, the same issue continues to crop up from time to time; problems out of touch almost cost them a home win over Exeter back in December, but on Sunday, their lineout was flawless, with accurate throwing, variation of targets and good co-ordination between jumpers and lifters preventing Saracens from disrupting their throws:
Seven clean takes is impressive, especially when you consider that the visitors had Itoje in their ranks, and although some of Leinster’s decision-making once they secured possession was questionable, they still had an excellent platform to play off. Their lineout functioned as smoothly as it ever has, and they used a mixture of mauls, maul feints and ball off-the-top to launch attacks.
The quality of Leinster’s work in this phase of play allowed the rest of their game to flow; there was no scrambling to retain possession and then having to start from scratch. Despite their creativity with ball in hand garnering a lot of attention in the aftermath, it was the supply of quick ball from this set-piece that provided them with the platform to throw the ball around as effectively as they did.
Lapses In Concentration
One of the most frustrating things about watching Leinster is the manner in which they take the foot off the gas as soon as they build a comfortable lead in crunch games. It was a habit that they couldn’t break even when Joe Schmidt was in charge, and Sunday was the latest example. In fact, you have to go back to the quarter-final against Cardiff in 2012 for the last time they really went for the jugular in the knockout stages.
When James Lowe barged over the line against Saracens, it could have been a watershed moment, but Leinster chose to shoot themselves in both feet by conceding a try from a five-metre lineout maul, and then giving Jackson Wray free reign from the ensuing restart:
The Saracens number eight galloped for more than 40 metres before Leinster bothered to tackle him. If it had been Billy Vunipola who received the ball in that situation, a try would have been a certainty, but luckily, they put Wray to ground before he could do further damage.
That wasn’t to be the only occasion where Leinster fell asleep at the wheel, though. The final 10 minutes had some of the worst kicking out of hand that you will see at this level, and the home side repeatedly invited pressure on to themselves by kicking loosely to a Saracens back three who are all dangerous, Test-standard finishers:
Handing any team the ball back this easily is asking for trouble, particularly one with a counter-attacker as potent as Alex Goode at 15. What made it worse was that Leinster started doing this at a time when they should have been focusing on ending the game as a contest with further tries. Instead, they made hard work of the fourth quarter, letting in a try and conceding penalties to the point that Jérôme Garcès was left with no choice but to send Devin Toner to the sin-bin.
Leinster got away with falling asleep in the second half of this game because of the amount of points they had accumulated, but they won’t be so lucky against the Scarlets. The Welsh side are difficult to contain from minute 1 to minute 80, and if Leinster aren’t willing to concentrate for the entire match in the next round of the tournament, a fourth star will elude them for another season.
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