Beware of Inflating Bubbles

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After Leinster put seven tries on Bath at Lansdowne Road, one radio reporter mentioned that he’d overheard a fan in Kiely’s say ‘They might as well give us the Cup now.’  The bookies have anointed Leinster as probable HEC winners and, in end of year  predictions bloggers and commentators queued up to forecast another Leinster HEC win, with several throwing in a Rabo Pro12 title for good measure.

Things are certainly looking rosy in the Leinster garden.  In spite of injuries to BOD and Shaggy, they look set to secure a home quarter-final in the Heiny, and are nine points clear in the Pro12.  Jamie Heaslip is looking like his old self and Johnny Sexton is looking Europe’s premier fly-half once more.  Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley have pitched in at centre to good effect and the return to fitness of Rob Kearney and to form of LukeFitz have partially offset the backline injuries. 

They can afford to mix up their team according to their opponent, playing a vdMerwe-Browne-McLoughlin-Boss axis for physical away days, and unleashing Church-Toner-Jennings-Reddan at home when they look to play at lightning speed.  Their success is generally built on a high tempo attack and in particular phenomenal aggression at the breakdown, where the likes of Heaslip, Healy and Jennings hurl their bodies into the wreckage to continually generate quick ball.  Even when they butcher all their try opportunities (Bath away) or just play rubbish (Connacht away), they still seem to find a way of winning.

It’s all enough to make this Leinster fan decidedly nervous.  There are umpteen reasons to be cautious.  Firstly, it needs to be borne in mind that the Heineken Cup is a strange competition in many ways, not least its bitty, broken structure.  Once the home quarter-final is secured, the team breaks up for a whole Six Nations.  Who knows how the players will return?  Will Sexton be in the same frame of mind?  Will Ireland’s cumbersome attacking patterns need to be coached out of the players’ systems?  Who’ll be injured?  It’s like qualifying for an entirely different competition.
For another, there’s the all-important (too important to be truthful) semi-final draw.  Leinster, good as they are, would still travel to Clermont or Toulouse as second favourites, and a trip to Saracens would be something of a coin toss.  As champions, they are there to be shot at, and the historical difficulty of retaining the Cup is so well established we need not dwell on it.

It’s also important to note that the Heineken Cup isn’t necessarily, or even all that often, won by the best team, but that which can continually stay alive.  Once you enter the spring, it’s a knockout competition, in which you’re always one game from going out.  Leinster were superb from start to finish last year, and deservedly took the spoils, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  It may be more instructive to look at their 2009 victory, when they were dismal for at least half the group stage, and decidedly fortunate to emerge victorious from a freakish quarter-final against Harlequins. Leinster would also do well to remind themselves of what fate befell Munster that season.  For it was they, at the time, who appeared unbeatable.  After the twin peaks of the 22-5 win over Leinster and the 39-6 thrashing of the Ospreys, back-to-back Heineken Cups seemed inevitable.

Such performances can paper over the cracks a little.  Munster looked flawless at the time, but Michael Cheika recognised that neither of their centres were distributors and ruthlessly exposed them.  Similarly, Leinster have a glaring weakness in the second row, which has yet to be properly tested.  Nathan Hines’ importance to last years’ team is well documented – on top of that, Leo Cullen appears to be in decline.  Devin Toner has improved immeasurably, but will it be enough against a Toulouse or a Clermont (hello again Nathan!)? And don’t forget he is still playing second fiddle to Damian Browne (it feels like we should emphasise his name somehow, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair) on away-days.

Joe Schmidt is an outstanding coach, but this year he has another aspect of the game to manage: expectations.  He must do his utmost to ensure that the warm, fuzzy feeling emanating from the stands doesn’t impact too much on the players’ mindset.  If he can do that, and Leinster do land back-to-back Heineken Cups, their third in four years, with the Pro12 to boot, then we can declare them even better than the great Munster, Wasps, Leicester and Toulouse sides of the professional era.  But not before.
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9 Comments

  1. A well timed dousing of cold water. In a conversation with a friend on how the ERC might play out I noted that if we get a home semi-final we can be reasonably confident of seeing Twickers this year. He replied that my Leinster arrogance was shining through! Touche.

  2. Spot on lads…no doubting Schmidt's number one task is to prevent complacency setting in. Bizarrely as a Leinster fan I'd ALMOST have preferred for either the Connacht or Cardiff trips to have gone the other way for a dose of reality!The second row weakness is there it's true, but can be offset, in the lineout at least, by the presence of Heaslip and McLaughlin. The only thing we really have to worry about in that area are the darts from both Strauss and Cronin. Well, that and Leo's yellow-magnet, The Polar Bear Hug.

  3. It's the regular error-strewn displays that have been most disconcerting, really. Toulouse or Clermont would indeed crucify us if we performed against them the way we have most games so far this season. As BOD said after the RWC about another error-merchant, Quade Cooper, "he's just a little on the loose side for me. It's about guys who don't make that many mistakes. And, if even they do, they're not that drastic mistakes" http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/nov/05/brian-odriscoll-ireland-rugby-union The away game against Bath was a case in point. Butchered opportunities galore. I'm sure the squad get it but the tightness we had last season isn't there now.

  4. Thanks for commenting guys.@Xyz assuming Leinster get there, you'd give your right arm for a home semi-final. It really does make too big a difference, and is the one glaring issue in the tournament.@JLPagano I know what you mean about the Connacht and Cardiff games. Last year the Thomond Park result was just the kick in the backside the team needed for the following week against Leicester – they were primed for battle.@Paul S – there have been a few dodgy displays alright, but there always are, especially when the frontliners are off duty. I wouldn't be too hard on them, they're unbeaten in 14 after all! But yes, they've been a bit leaky in defence, and maybe the Kurt McQuilkin-taught habits are starting to fade in his absence…

  5. A timely cold shower, Palla. As Billy S. said a few hundred years ago:"And you all know, securityIs mortals' chiefest enemy."

  6. I would agree up to a point, yes Leinster’s group hasn't been great but you can only play what is in front of you. Yes Leinster butchered many opportunities in Bath but even so they were relatively comfortable winners in that game. The next week when they were clued in they hammered Bath for 60 minutes then had a mix ‘n match side for the last 20 and still drew those minutes 21 all. After tough campaigns in 2009,2010,2011 I think the squad as a whole are battle hardened for all comers. In fact the only sides I would not have Leinster favourites against would be Toulouse or Clermont in France. Saracens in Wembley would be a game I’d back Leinster in. Don’t forget by the time the knock out stages come BOD will be back in the mix giving Leinster some extra experience. Regarding the comparison with Munster v.2009 I think Leinster are a different case as they have a much more rounded game plan, once Munster lost Tipoki their backline was very one dimensional however with a pick from Reddan, Boss, Sexton, D’Arcy, McFadden, O’Malley, BOD, Fitz, Naweca, The Kearney Sisters, Horgan, Conway Leinster have backline options Munster could have only dreamt about! Regarding Joe Schmidt managing expectations I think the senior group of players in the dressing room wont even let the situation get to that. We wont hear any talk about semi finals, unlike Ireland in the World Cup, it will always be about the next game.I would agree that the Sky Sports Hype Machine is in full swing, witness Greenwood last night re Sexton, but I think there is a hint of Irish fatalism in some of your analysis. On a side note it astounds me that Irish supporters are usually so pessimistic, we always seem to see the downside! I think the time has past for talking down our teams and wanting the underdogs tag. A quite amusing example of this is the build up to a match on Leinster Fans, the week starts with most fans predicting a win, then as the week goes by it is a close win, then “we’d take any win”, then “a losing bonus would do”.Enjoy Ravenhill tonight WoC, wrap up warm it tends to get very chilly there!!

  7. You only have to look back at Munster after the Ospreys QF in 2009 to see how quickly the tables can turn.I'm not for one second saying that Munster were complacent that year (or that the Leinster players are now), but it's exactly why the likes of Leo/Jennings/BOD are so vital to Leinster in terms of keeping fellas on an even keel.

  8. @JSRF – some great points there for sure, and I'd agree with pretty much all of it. I don't want it to be seen that we're criticising Leinster as such, because they're unbeaten in 14 and doing great. And my understanding of Joe Schmidt is that he is very good at keeping the guys grounded and mentally sharp for each match. It's more just a reminder that the HEC, with its quirky format, has a fairly large random element and that it's going to be bloody tough to retain the Cup, and tougher to do a double.On Munster in 2009, though: they replaced Tipoki with Earls who had a terrific breakout year that season, and the actually had a fairly rounded game that season, it was probably the most attractive rugby they've ever played. Paul Warwick was outstanding that campaign and his presence at full back gave them a spark of creativity they'd lacked before. Plus, Mafi in 2009 was unrecogniseable from the indisciplined, line-shooting shambles he's subsequently become.

  9. Round Five- 17 January 2009 Toulouse 26 – 33 Glasgow Warriors.Any who needs reminding, should look this one up. Toulouse at home and undefeated. Glasgow bottom and going no where! Ouch

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