Since last posting Leinster have lead us on a bit of a dive from the top of the roller coaster. Today’s game gives and opportunity to reach the heights again.
The quarter final against Saracens was a masterclass of rugby. We did to them what they have been doing to everyone for the past few years; bullying up front, outclassing in the backfield.
A key element to that game was the way the pack fronted up and won all the important battles. They made Itoje look ordinary. They made Berger and the rest look ordinary. They looked like men against boys.
Admittedly, over the last two weekends, playing against the Italian opposition, we were missing most of the front line players, but we have witnessed a dramatic dip in form.
To struggle to score in the first have against Zebre was worrying. We soaked up pressure but never buckled under it (not unlike in the Saracens game). The second half was a different game altogether and we coasted home.
Last week’s game against Treviso appeared to be following the same pattern. We soaked up pressure in the first half and edged ahead. Surely we’d pull clear in the second as they got tired?
They never tired. They got hungry. They finished the game in a bit of style, and claimed their first ever victory in Dublin. Leinster were the ones looking tired.
It was as if the fringe players were trying too hard to make and impression and to get noticed for this week. But the mistakes kept piling up and every promising position broke down.
Unfortunately, little that Joey Carberry tried worked. He still looks shy of game experience to me. As usual he makes the bench today, covering both the out half and full back positions. He also can cover center. Is such versatility stretching him too far?
Sean O’Brien only played a single half - we really have no idea where he stands on the road to recovery, hardly having witnessed him playing this year at all.
On the positive side, Jordan Larmour made his return after injury and did enough to get a place on the bench this week. Personally I would have given him the starting position, keeping the effervescent McFadden for later in the match.
Also returning, albeit without a preparation game, is Robbie Henshaw. This is one player everyone has been dying to see again. I don’t think we should be worried about game time; he is the sort of player that gets up to speed instantly.
Let’s forgive him in the first few minutes should his timing of the pass be off. His value in defense against this opposition could be the difference between the teams.
The international break for the Six Nations and the use of the second string team for the last few weeks means that we have not really seen much of the team in 2018. It’s almost like comparing an test squad to a club side!
While I feel confident about the result today, the memories of last year’s Pro-12 semi-final in the RDS are still fresh in my memory. They scored two tries in the first half in moves started by picking and going close in around the ruck. We showed a soft belly and they gutted us.
Other than that - yes, fourteen points is a lot to peg back - there was not a lot to divide the teams. Both defended resolutely; both had tons of pace in the backs; both were hungry. But give up a lead to such quality and you will have a long afternoon.
Saracens used a similar tactic against us a few weeks ago; close in picking and going around the ruck. They made more ground using that technique than any other carrying. They simply did not score from the opportunities the etched out.
Let’s hope this is a “fool me once” type thing and Leinster will have done their homework and be prepared.
Being prepared does is not always enough. Munster were gutted in the final in almost the carbon copy of the moves that ended Leinster’s title challenge. Surely they would have done all the video analysis necessary to plug the gap. Scarlets were still able to cut through.
Today our scrum may have an edge, but the line out will likely to be a even battleground. Both back lines are good, I suspect theirs has more attacking flair than ours, especially since James Lowe has had to be left out. Both back lines will defend resolutely, but there will be tries on offer today.
So the key are today is likely to be the team that wins the contact area. Leinster, the first team anyway, take contact and make ground. Every meter helps. They also make line breaks - the key will be the speed of the support to clear out the tiger like Scarlet back row.
If Dan Leavy was one of the form players in the Six Nations and the Irish team, then Tadhg Beirne is one of the form players in Europe and the Pro 14 this year (not to mention last year). While they are not directly head to head today, Beirne is a playing in the second row, don’t be fooled by his number; he’s a back rower at heart. The winner of the back row battle, for me at least, will decide the game.
Leinster play a strong back row: Fardy, Leavy and Jordi Murphy. Admittedly Fardy has played second row more often this year, but he was awesome in this position against the Saracens.
Fardy moving to six allows both Toner and James Ryan to partner as locks. This selection gives us plenty of line out options, enough to at least win our own ball if not challenge theirs. And we will not be deficient in ball carrying or at the breakdown.
Ryan has been a revelation at both this year. One of those rare players that goes straight into international duty before ever starting for his province, he has answered the faith shown in him completely.
I’m confident about today’s game. I think we have enough to edge it, especially given home turf advantage. The loss last week, while most of the team were not involved, will have been a warning: Take nothing for granted.
Last year’s semi final in Lyon against Clermont was tough; losing was a bitter blow. Today will be no less tough, but having the packed crowd baying for the boys in blue will create the sort of atmosphere that brings the best out of players.
I felt we were in the game despite being behind twelve months ago. We entered a purple (blue?) patch, but silly indiscipline stopped the game. A lengthy TMO decision went against us. Momentum was lost.
Today we need to make sure not to give the referee the slightest whiff of foul play. Romain Poite, now one of the most experienced in world rugby, can have his own way of interpreting the break down and scrums. We have got to stay on the right side of the law, his law anyway.
Leigh Halfpenny went off the boil at the end of his tenure in Toulon, but has been revitalised. He was great on the tour of New Zealand last summer with the Lions and has shown serious form since returning to his native country. Beware of soft penalties - he will kick them and score.
On the other side, we all trust and love Sexton, but his kicking this year has been just as much a roller coaster as the recent Leinster performances. He got it right against the Saracens; that form should carry through to today.
Today is going to be a close one. As usual I cannot be completely objective and so I give it to Leinster. I think the scores will be close throughout and the key is to avoiding a soft try. As long as we are ahead or within two or three points of them, I think the last twenty minutes will allow us to sneak clear by a score or more.
I expect there to be tries today. But it may be cat and mouse for the first quarter. Expect the forwards to battle it out, supported by hard runners from both sets of centers, but that the first blood will be created by the forwards. I’m thinking a maul drive or even a penalty try.
The game will eventually break down and get more open. That’s when the Scarlets are at their best and most dangerous. We’ll have to simply cope with them until he can reestablish control.
We may rue not having a game breaker like Lowe out there today. He simply goes where no one should get through, offloads in the most unrealistic way, and splits defenses.
Verdict: Leinster by 8. First tryscorer: Dan Leavy