It is go­ing to take some­thing spe­cial to beat Le­in­ster

Ir­ish are play­ing in per­fect har­mony, re­lent­less in ev­ery area, and are now Europe’s pre-em­i­nent side

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - SIR IAN McGEECHAN

Le­in­ster’s bru­tal de­mo­li­tion of Wasps on Fri­day night was quite a state­ment. In­flict­ing a record 52-3 de­feat on one of the Premier­ship’s best teams re­ally set the stan­dard for the rest to fol­low this sea­son. It was a real lay­ing down of the gaunt­let.

Yes, Wasps were miss­ing key play­ers to in­jury and sus­pen­sion. And you could ar­gue Lima Sopoaga’s yel­low card just be­fore half-time was un­for­tu­nate. But the truth is Le­in­ster out­classed their vis­i­tors. They were re­lent­less in ev­ery area of the game.

Wasps’ tackle count in the first half alone (139) was al­ways go­ing to be un­sus­tain­able. But what most im­pressed me was the Ir­ish prov­ince’s con­cen­tra­tion and dis­ci­pline. They just never let up, with the re­place­ments prov­ing to be equally ef­fec­tive as the starters. It is go­ing to take some­thing pretty spe­cial to beat them this year.

Col­lec­tive un­der­stand­ing

What im­me­di­ately struck me – it was ap­par­ent al­most straight from kick-off – was Le­in­ster’s re­mark­able col­lec­tive un­der­stand­ing. They are a team play­ing in per­fect har­mony; built steadily over the past few sea­sons and now, un­der Stu­art Lan­caster’s guid­ing hand, the pre-em­i­nent side in Europe.

Every­one knew his role. Every­one was adept at ev­ery facet. You had props dum­my­ing in the out­side chan­nels. Le­in­ster’s first at­tack of the match was an im­pres­sive 12-phase drive. Their first-half pos­ses­sion alone was 75 per cent. It was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the dam burst. Sean Cronin’s try from the base of a ruck in the sixth minute pun­ished a lapse in Wasps’ con­cen­tra­tion. But what struck me most about it was the move­ment of Josh van der Flier away from the ruck.

That re­ally summed up Le­in­ster; their move­ment and repo­si­tion­ing off the ball. Both for­wards and backs. James Ryan’s run from deep in the build-up to James Lowe’s sec­ond sec­ond-half try (the one that came from a through-the-legs pass from Johnny Sex­ton), the way he took the ball so flat – out­stand­ing.

Wasps had no idea where Le­in­ster were go­ing to at­tack from, so good were they at chang­ing their point of at­tack. It re­quired some huge de­fen­sive shifts from Wasps just to keep in the game. Without Thomas Young’s work at the break­down the score­line might have been even uglier. Tommy Tay­lor made 27 tack­les be­fore he was re­moved af­ter an hour.

De­fen­sive pres­sure

When Wasps did man­age to get hold of the ball, they were un­able to do any­thing with it. Their first at­tack went back­wards and that set the tone. Much will be made of Le­in­ster’s eight tries – and rightly so – but re­strict­ing Wasps to three points was for me even more im­pres­sive. They de­nied them so much as a line break all night. Just one en­try into Le­in­ster’s 22. Such stats are amaz­ingly rare. Wasps just could not han­dle the in­ten­sity Le­in­ster brought to the game; their line speed, their break­down work, their kick chase. Sopoaga’s pass­ing was in­dif­fer­ent. But only be­cause the pres­sure on him was so in­tense – led by Sex­ton and Luke Mc­Grath, the half-backs!

Ruth­less dis­ci­pline

I do not just mean in terms of not giv­ing penal­ties away (al­though seven penal­ties con­ceded was pretty im­pres­sive) but fo­cus. It was no­tice­able that when asked about his team’s per­for­mance, Leo Cullen was most pleased with the fact that his team never let up. No one missed a tackle, very few loose passes were thrown. All the key skills were world-class. It all showed a dis­ci­pline to de­liver. They could have eased off in the last 10 min­utes. But their con­cen­tra­tion was to­tal.

Strength in depth

Le­in­ster had 493 Test caps in their start­ing XV and only one un­capped player. But it was the strength on their bench – 171 Test caps be­tween them – that pro­vided an­other strong re­minder of why they will be so dif­fi­cult to knock off their perch. When you can bring on the likes of Jack Mc­Grath, Scott Fardy, An­drew Porter, Sean O’Brien – nat­u­ral ball car­ri­ers all – you are go­ing to do some se­ri­ous dam­age. Hence three tries in the last 10 min­utes.

The Pro14 bonus

The fi­nal rea­son Le­in­ster are go­ing to be so hard to beat, be­yond the fact that they are a squad of full Ire­land in­ter­na­tion­als who are bril­liantly coached, is that when the knock­out stages be­gin next spring their play­ers are go­ing to be more rested than those who play in Eng­land and France. The Pro14 is a fine com­pe­ti­tion with some bril­liant rugby, not least be­cause it en­cour­ages good rugby with no threat of pro­mo­tion or rel­e­ga­tion.

Four­teen teams in two con­fer­ences has its ad­van­tages; more teams giv­ing more play­ers the op­por­tu­nity to play, but fewer games. Less is more, es­pe­cially when the top sides in each con­fer­ence play off against one an­other to­wards the end of the sea­son.

But there is no doubt there are some gimmes in there. Teams such as Le­in­ster can af­ford to rest their stars on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions, sav­ing them for the big ones.

Le­in­ster rested sev­eral big names last week in the build-up to this. That was not a lux­ury avail­able to Dai Young, whose team are al­ready in­jury-blighted. I am not say­ing there is a right or a wrong here.

Af­ter all, Sara­cens have been Europe’s dom­i­nant force in re­cent sea­sons. But there is no doubt that to­wards the end of last year Ire­land’s play­ers were fresher than Eng­land’s – and that ex­tended to their prov­inces.

Full steam ahead: Le­in­ster’s James Lowe shows Wasps a clean pair of heels

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