Le­in­ster show ex­tra­or­di­nary strength in depth with vic­tory

Cullen’s side dom­i­nant as re­called play­ers make an im­pact

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Rugby - Gerry Thorn­ley

The num­bers are start­ing to stack up nicely for Le­in­ster. When they wel­come Toulouse in the penul­ti­mate round of the Cham­pi­ons Cup at the RDS on Jan­uary 12th, they’ll do so on the back of 12 home wins in a row in Europe.

In scor­ing six tries against Bath on Satur­day, they have taken their haul to 14 tries and 94 points in their two home games to date. Not bad.

It’s not of­ten that a head coach makes three changes in per­son­nel and two po­si­tional ad­just­ments to a win­ning side, and sees those al­ter­ations all so hand­somely vin­di­cated, al­though then again, this is in the con­text of Le­in­ster’s ex­tra­or­di­nary strength in depth.

All three re­called play­ers (Jack Co­nan, Rory O’Lough­lin and Adam Byrne) scored tries in the first half, as Le­in­ster claimed their bonus point by the 38th minute.

“Em, yeah. But it’s not all just about scor­ing tries,” said the ego-free Leo Cullen, not ex­actly from the José Mour­inho school of self-pro­mo­tion. The com­plete op­po­site in fact.

“It is be­ing re­al­is­tic enough to know, even though we won the game last week, that there are parts of our per­for­mance that we weren’t happy with, so it is try­ing to take the learn­ings from that game and un­der­stand how we can get bet­ter,” Cullen added.

Feed­back

“I think the more time we spend to­gether, the bet­ter we can be, if we are pre­pared to take on board feed­back and work hard to­wards what we are try­ing to achieve.

“Ev­ery week we ask our­selves the ques­tion: ‘Did we get the se­lec­tion right?’ And you never know the an­swer for sure, but we cer­tainly ask the ques­tion. A lot of guys are push­ing hard for se­lec­tion and will get the chance to play now over the next few weeks.

“That’s what we want, a com­pet­i­tive group. You see the amount of in­juries there are now and it is about be­ing smart about how we man­age the group. We have some guys who are mad keen to play.”

Co­nan was a case in point. He added real bal­last at num­ber eight (nine car­ries for 46m, in­clud­ing two clean breaks and three de­fend­ers beaten) and lots more good work at the break­down and in latch­ing on to car­ri­ers. Then, when Rhys Rud­dock was brought on, he made 13 tack­les, sec­ond only to Devin Toner’s eye-catch­ing 22.

Fur­ther­more, Dan Leavy was more ef­fec­tive in re­vert­ing to his cus­tom­ary role of blind­side, and also scored. So with the out­stand­ing James Ryan again lead­ing the charge, Le­in­ster’s im­proved work in con­tact and speed­ier identification of Bath’s threat over the ball re­duced, if not negated, the in­flu­ence of Sam Un­der­hill, Fran­cois Louw and co.

With Luke McGrath mov­ing the ball away quickly, Le­in­ster were able to build through the phases in trade­mark fash­ion and stretch Bath’s de­fence. With their maul and es­pe­cially scrum dom­i­nant, at least un­til the sec­ond-half reshuf­fling, this was more like the real Le­in­ster.

The reshuf­fled back­line also had plenty of po­tency. In O’Lough­lin’s first Euro­pean start since Jan­uary 2017, he scored his first try in the com­pe­ti­tion since the cor­re­spond­ing game here against Northamp­ton

‘‘ Ev­ery week we ask our­selves the ques­tion ‘did we get the se­lec­tion right?’

two years ago.

And in Byrne’s first Euro­pean out­ing since last sea­son’s pool opener against Mont­pel­lier, he scored his first try in the com­pe­ti­tion since a match against the same op­po­nents in Jan­uary 2017. You could see, and al­most hear, how much their scores meant to them.

Fur­ther­more, Jor­dan Lar­mour’s shift to full­back saw him hit the line from Johnny Sex­ton’s wrap­around, with Garry Rin­grose to lay on O’Lough­lin’s try, and his coun­ter­at­tack­ing even­tu­ally led to Byrne’s aerial take and try from Sex­ton’s pin­point cross­kick with a free play.

Mean­while, James Lowe did what he does, scor­ing an­other try and pro­vid­ing the X fac­tor with his dar­ing of­fload­ing, no­tably when tee­ing up Jami­son Gib­son-Park.

For O’Lough­lin, there was also the man of the match gong, al­though he gen­er­ously ad­mit­ted it could have been awarded to any one of many. More rel­e­vant was mak­ing the most of this op­por­tu­nity, a first start at 12 in his 50th game for Le­in­ster, hav­ing pre­vi­ously played at out­side cen­tre, on ei­ther wing or off the bench.

“You would al­ways like to have a set po­si­tion but it’s so com­pet­i­tive in that back­line that what­ever op­por­tu­nity I get, I’m go­ing to have to take.

“For me, if I can start in Europe – that’s what I have been told by all the coaches – reg­u­lar game-time in Europe is go­ing to take you to the next level. If it was a case that I wasn’t start­ing at all or not get­ting any op­por­tu­ni­ties to start in a game like this, then maybe I would get frus­trated, but at the mo­ment I am happy to take it when it comes.”

Ir­ish management

Joe Sch­midt and Andy Far­rell were there too, the pair re­ceiv­ing a rather warmer re­cep­tion be­fore Storm Deirdre’s sec­ond-half re­turn di­min­ished the crowd’s num­bers. Their pres­ence wasn’t lost on O’Lough­lin.

“Since I’ve been [in the] Ir­ish camp when­ever I’ve talked to Joe it’s al­ways been, ‘Games in Europe, see­ing you play in big games in Europe’, and it’s been frus­trat­ing – last year I got in­juries at the wrong time and kind of missed out.

“Even when lads were in­jured I missed out on Europe, and that was al­ways the feed­back, that he [Sch­midt] wanted to see me play in Europe. And again last week I was just com­ing back from in­jury, and while I kind of un­der­stood why they didn’t want to throw me in, it was kind of frus­trat­ing, I sup­pose.

“But when I got the op­por­tu­nity to start this week, that was just al­ways on my mind, was putting in a per­for­mance and mak­ing it as hard as pos­si­ble for a coach to drop you, I sup­pose, and I think I did al­right to­day.”

Yep, he did more than al­right.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: DAN SHERI­DAN/INPHO

Le­in­ster’s Rory O’Lough­lin on the at­tack with Johnny Sex­ton in sup­port dur­ing Satur­day night’s Heineken Cham­pi­ons Cup tie at the Aviva Sta­dium, Dublin; Adam Byrne cel­e­brates be­fore touch­ing down.

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