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Ospreys vs Leinster Rugby
RaboDirect Pro12 Round 19
Liberty Stadium, Swansea,
Friday, 11th April 2014, 19:05

Television: Live - RTE2, BBC Wales

Last week Leinster were well beaten by Toulon in the south of France. In the depressing media post-mortem that followed there's been a huge amount of guff written about why they lost, from focusing on individual selections to how the team walked into the stadium. However, Leinster know what it takes to win in France as they've done it before. But to do so, there are number of requirements that are non-negotiable.
  • A solid scrum
  • A reliable line-out
  • A rock solid and aggressive defence
  • A smart tactical kicking game
  • A high-level of efficiency and accuracy in converting scoring chances
  • Domination of the breakdown area

Of these six key areas, Leinster probably only succeeded in one in that their scrum was not only solid but reasonably dominant and yielded some points from penalties won. However in all other areas, they failed miserably. Their line-out let them down at key moments, they missed 26 tackles, their tactical kicking game was poorly conceived and executed, they blew most of the few chances they had to score and finally they were blown out of the water by Steffon Armitage and company at the breakdown.

In fairness, even if they had excelled in all these areas, as Leinster did two years ago in Bordeaux against Clermont, there still would have been no guarantee they would have won. That year, Joe Schmidt had Jonny Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Brad Thorn to call on, plus the rampaging Sean O'Brien and Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll at the height of their powers. Current coach Matt O'Connor never had Sexton, Thorn or Nacewa to begin with and he lost O'Brien cruelly to injury at Christmas. And truth be told, both Cullen and O'Driscoll have been declining figures in the blue jersey this season, their last before retirement. O'Driscoll got his fairy-tale finish with Ireland, but it was asking a lot for it to happen twice.

So it would be unfair to put all the blame on O'Connor, but he does have some difficult questions to ponder. The first is why Leinster's basic skills have declined so dramatically this season. Sure, Leinster have won lots of games this term but more often than not it's been more down to luck or the poor quality of opposition rather than top-class performances. There have been a few good all-round performances such as the away wins in Ospreys and Northampton and the home performance against Ulster. Then there have been snatches of good play such as the decent second half away to Castres and the third quarter at home to Munster.

But unfortunately these performances have been the exceptions this season. For the most part Leinster fans have grown used to watching Leinster struggle to execute accurately in all the key areas, breakdown, passing, kicking, tackling and set-piece. If you're struggling to get these basic skills right against the likes of Connacht, Zebre and the Dragons, they are hardly going to suddenly correct themselves against a team of Toulon's quality, are they? O'Connor has too often glossed over the quality of the performance (publicly at least) by focusing on the results or making excuses about player availability, but poor form is poor form and it will always catch up with you in the end if you're actually looking to win trophies.

O'Connor's job is safe for now but he needs to sit down with his players over the summer and reassess where they're going wrong, and there needs to be complete honesty on all sides. O'Connor is known for being less intensive on the training pitch than Joe Schmidt and if this is linked to the deterioration in basic skills then it needs to be addressed. His gameplan will also need to be discussed too. Too often this season Leinster have played conservatively, kicked aimlessly and looked bereft of ideas in attack. Far too often Leinster have made clean breaks only to have them come to nothing as they reverted to endless one-out runners or inside pop passes in the opposition twenty-two. Something needs to change if Leinster want to be holding the top European trophy again anytime soon.

O'Connor will earn some breathing space if he can reclaim the Pro12 title. Leinster's win the last time out against Munster put them in pole position to top the league and earn a home semi-final and final. They lead Munster by five points with four games to go but they face a tricky away tie to the Ospreys tomorrow evening. With only a five-day turnaround since last Sunday's bruising match, their task is made even tougher against an Ospreys team who had last weekend off.

The Ospreys have been the one real success story of the Welsh regions, having won the league a record four times. However, like the rest of them, they've now been brought low by the chronic mismanagement of their executives. They've been decimated in terms of their playing squad with most of their top internationals gone or going at the end of the season. They do have some fine young players and they have put in some decent performances this season, but their defeat last time out to Glasgow seems to have put paid to their chances of a top-four finish.

The Ospreys still won't roll over and die though, they never do against Leinster, and they've named a strong looking team for tomorrow's game. Full back Richard Fussell, who's nearly always caused Leinster problems in the past, makes his 100th appearance in a back three with Jeff Hassler and Aisea Natoga. Jonathan Spratt and the powerful Ashley Beck pack a punch in the centres. Dan Biggar, another man who's caused Leinster plenty of heartbreak in the past is at ten where he partners Tom Habberfield.

Duncan Jones, Scott Baldwin and Aaron Jarvis are the front row. Ryan Jones, who leaves at the end of season, partners skipper Alun Wyn Jones in the second row. There's a fine backrow in Joe Bearman, Justin Tipuric and Dan Baker. They may have won only one of their last four games but they always put in a performance so Leinster need to be wary of them.

For Leinster it's a case of getting a side out strong enough to get a result while managing all the injuries. O'Connor has named a team showing eight changes from the team that started last week. With Fergus McFadden injured Zane Kirchner comes in to start on the right wing in a back three with the two Kearneys. Gordon D'Arcy moves to outside centre to allow Noel Reid to take the number 12 jersey. With no sign of Ian Madigan and Eoin Reddan at all, Jimmy Gopperth stays at number ten with Isaac Boss coming in at scrum-half. With Collie O'Shea and Darragh Fanning named on the bench Reid will have to cover out-half in event of an injury to Gopperth.

In the pack Sean Cronin and Martin Moore come in to start alongside Cian Healy in the front row. Leo Cullen returns as captain and partners Mike McCarthy in the second row. Kevin McLaughlin for Rhys Ruddock is the only change to the back row as Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip retain their places.

Leinster haven't lost a league game since Edinburgh away back in December. That game was on a Friday night too and came off the back of a big European disappointment, the loss at the Aviva to Northampton, which was to prove very costly in the end. Hopefully both O'Connor and the players will have learned from that and they respond to last week's disappointment with a big performance and a win to cement their place on top of the table.

Team Lineups

Ospreys

Leinster Rugby
Teams Richard Fussell 15 Rob Kearney
Jeff Hassler 14 Zane Kirchner
Jonathan Spratt 13 Gordon D'Arcy
Ashley Beck 12 Noel Reid
Aisea Natoga 11 Dave Kearney
Dan Biggar 10 Jimmy Gopperth
Tom Habberfield 9 Isaac Boss

Duncan Jones 1 Cian Healy
Scott Baldwin 2 Sean Cronin
Aaron Jarvis 3 Martin Moore
Ryan Jones 4 Leo Cullen (C)
Alun Wyn Jones (C) 5 Mike McCarthy
Joe Bearman6 Kevin McLaughlin
Justin Tipuric 7 Shane Jennings
Dan Baker 8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Scott Otten 16 Aaron Dundon
Nicky Smith 17 Michael Bent
Adam Jones 18 Mike Ross
James King 19 Devin Toner
Morgan Allen 20
Jordi Murphy
Tito Tebaldi 21 Luke McGrath
Sam Davies 22 Collie O'Shea
Hanno Dirksen 23 Darragh Fanning

Not Considered
due to Injury
Dmitri Arhip,
Ryan Bevington,
Richard Hibbard,
Tom Isaacs,
Ben John,
Lloyd Peers,
Tom Smith,
Eli Walker,
Sam Williams

Andrew Goodman,
Fergus McFadden,
Sean O'Brien,
Tadgh Furlong
Officials Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR),
Assistant Referees: Neil Hennessy, Jon Mason (both WRU),
Citing Commissioner: John Charles (WRU),
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2014-04-10

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