JACKSON COLUMN: Leinster’s leaky defence is a concern

Guinness PRO12 Editor

3 Oct 2012


Features, News

The most surprising statistic to emerge from the first month of the season is not that London Welsh have won twice in the English Premiership, nor that the Ospreys lost their first three matches.

Mont-de-Marsan’s pointless status after seven matches on their return to the Top 14 is not that much of a surprise but Leinster’s defensive record most certainly is – all the more so given that Europe’s undisputed champions will put the most glittering of prizes on the line as from next week in pursuit of an unprecedented hat-trick of winning finals.

Throughout last season’s entire RaboDirect PRO12 campaign of 24 matches, Leinster conceded 31 tries, including the three which the Ospreys found the nerve to deliver during the Grand Final on a hot Sunday afternoon in Dublin.

That Europe’s finest have already leaked 18 during their first five Pro 12 fixtures cannot be shrugged off as a direct consequence of being without too many of their centrally-contracted international brigade.

What will worry head coach Joe Schmidt is that everyone has been helping themselves since the Scarlets set the trend by running in seven at Llanelli on the opening weekend of the season.

The Dragons, Treviso and Edinburgh accounted for six more between them before Connacht opened Leinster up often enough in Galway last Friday night to touch down five times and claim the try-bonus point which eluded them throughout last season.

As if that was not worrying enough, the injuries have been piling up. The trip out west which began with Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Dominic Ryan and David Kearney all on the casualty list, ended with Rob Kearney, Gordon D’Arcy and the South African lock Quinn Roux in varying stages of uncertainty for the big one on Saturday.

The home match against Munster drew a few short of 48,500 to the Aviva Stadium last November and more than 40,000 tickets had been sold by the start of the week for Saturday’s return. For Leinster, reinforced by the return of such formidable figures as Brian O’Driscoll, Cian Healy and Jonny Sexton, the mightiest of collisions is their last before plunging back into Europe.

The same, of course, applies to a Munster team anxious to reassure the faithful that their punishing trip to Swansea last weekend has not caused any serious damage. While the champions of 2006 and 2008 start the six-match pool stage in Paris against Racing Metro, the champions of 2009, 2011 and 2012 will be grappling with new opponents.

Exeter Chiefs take their Heineken Cup bow as worthy reward for finishing fifth behind Harlequins, Leicester, Saracens and Northampton – some achievement for a club after just three seasons among the English elite. Not for nothing, therefore, did Schmidt make a point of talking them up ahead of their baptism at the RDS on Saturday week.

Now it’s down to Joe the plumber. If his team succeed against Munster in plugging the leaks which have been springing up with alarming frequency in recent weeks, they will be ready for whatever the rest of Europe will try to do in the months ahead to knock them off the grandest of pedestals.

Toulouse were the last to manage it three seasons ago when they made home advantage count to beat the the holders 26-16 in the semi-finals. Since then, Leinster have not only regained the trophy but established themselves as the most successful team in European history, one unbeaten in 15 consecutive ties.

None of the other European giants has ever gone that long without losing – not Toulouse, not Leicester, not even Munster. In the course of overtaking the 13-match unbeaten streak set by the neighbours between 2005 and 2007, Leinster have taken on all-comers from France, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

They have beaten four French clubs (Clermont Auvergne, twice, Montpellier, Racing Metro), four English (Bath, twice, Leicester, Saracens), one Scottish (Glasgow Warriors) one Welsh (Cardiff Blues), one Irish (Ulster – 42-14 in last season’s exhilarating Twickenham final).

Of all those, only Montpellier have avoided defeat, in the opening tie last season when Sexton saved the champions by securing a 16-16 draw with a timely demonstration of his ability to nail the high-pressure penalty. Once over the Montpellier alarm raised by a try from their international back row forward Fulgence Ouedraogo, Leinster took their game to a level beyond the reach of everyone else, enhancing the prestige of the RaboDirect Pro 12.

In the eight European matches which led to the climactic finale at Twickenham, Leinster conceded seven tries in the course of scoring four times as many. Clermont, alone among the challengers, ran them close during a semi-final on French soil but not even they managed more than five Brock James penalties in losing 19-15.

Leinster’s running and passing game has been duly acclaimed but they would not have survived the Clermont experience without the collective iron will of a defence which refused to buckle. Unlike Clermont and Cardiff Blues in a fearfully one-sided quarter-final, Ulster did find a way through only to pay an exorbitant price for Dan Tuohy’s try.

It added up to the biggest losing margin in a final but Ulster have already demonstrated that the RaboDirect PRO12 contains more than one team with the potential to conquer Europe. Galvanised by the Twickenham experience to go one better this time, Ulster issued a powerful declaration of intent in Cardiff last weekend, their seven tries inflicting the biggest home defeat the Blues have suffered since Wales went regional ten seasons ago.