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
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.
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.
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!
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