O’Driscoll can make the difference amid Leinster injury woe

It says much about the continuing allure of the Munster vs Leinster rivalry that 46,280 people turned up at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night to assess how Rob Penney’s more expansive game plan would match up to the more established wide threat posed by the European champions.

Two superb tries, one from Ian Madigan, playing out of position at full-back due to Leinster’s ever-increasing injury woes, and a Brian O’Driscoll special which showed conclusively that age has not impacted on the flexibility and ingenuity of the Special One, underlined Leinster’s continued brilliance with ball in hand.

O’Driscoll’s five-pointer in the corner of Lansdowne Road was a carbon copy of the one he scored late in the second half of Ireland’s pool game against Australia in Melbourne at the 2003 World Cup that almost produced the shock result that was finally delivered in Eden Park at the 2011 instalment of the global showpiece.

Munster, for their part, demonstrated that they too are capable of producing quality finishes when Mike Sherry and Simon Zebo combined to put Peter O’Mahony over in the same corner. The big difference with Leinster this week was that their famed defence, which astonishingly had conceded 18 tries in their opening five RaboDirect contests, was back functioning with its customary efficiency. The fact O’Driscoll was once again coordinating that defensive effort from midfield made all the difference to Joe Schmidt’s charges. He really is a remarkable player.

With the first step in their ambitious journey to become the only side in European history to win three Heineken Cups in a row only days away, Leinster have some fire-fighting to do given their horrendous injury list. Already depleted in the back row with Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, and Dominic Ryan long-term casualties, the loss of Kevin McLaughlin after 12 minutes on Saturday night has hit hard.

In addition, the sight of Andrew Conway being stretchered off after Isa Nacewa had already departed with a dead leg to join the Kearney brothers and Luke Fitzgerald on the treatment table is bound to impact on Leinster’s preparations for their opening Pool 5 game against Exeter Chiefs in the RDS on Saturday. The fact that the Chiefs accounted for Aviva Premiership champions Harlequins over the weekend (42-28) will also have struck a chord with Leinster management. Tournament debutants they may be but Exeter will relish the challenge of travelling to Dublin at the weekend.

Captained by The Bull’s brother Tom Hayes, who enjoyed many a victory in the capital in the famous black and blue colours of Shannon over the years, Hayes will have his Exeter side at fever pitch for a game that Leinster need to win. The next two weekends will require a massive effort from those left standing but they have the experience, resilience and composure to cope. With the crucial back-to-back games to come in their pool against great French rivals Clermont Auvergne in early December, Leinster must dig deep to overcome both Exeter and the ever improving Scarlets before the break for the autumn internationals. Despite those injury issues, they have it in their armoury to achieve that.

Munster have a more difficult opening assignment when they travel to Paris next weekend to face a Racing Metro outfit riddled with inconsistency this season. Losing at home to Montpellier over the weekend was a surprise while their 14-point defeat away to Bernard Jackman’s newly promoted Grenoble side the previous week was another shock to the system. This is so typical of Racing — they travelled to mighty Clermont three weeks prior to that and only lost by a point — and makes them so difficult to assess going into this weekend’s clash. With just four wins from eight in the opening phase of the French championship, will they now decide to concentrate on domestic issues or will they go full throttle in Europe? It is impossible to know.

A big plus for Munster in the build-up to this crucial opening contest is the presence of new backs coach Simon Mannix. After spending five years in Paris with Racing, the New Zealander is perfectly positioned to assess just what Munster need to do to undermine the confidence of their hosts early on and sneak a crucial win on the road that would offer a bit of breathing space in what is set to be a competitive pool.

Saracens and Edinburgh, after their heroics last season, will also be very difficult to beat away from home and the margin for error here is slim. The danger for Munster is that even if they manage to beat Racing on Saturday, and I would give them every chance of doing so, the French outfit could then throw in the towel against the other opposition if defeated first up on home soil. As a result, a win for Munster would not only ease their cause but inadvertently could also aid Saracens and Edinburgh.

With Europe now looming large, Munster also need to re-assess where they are from a tactical prospective. All the emphasis so far this season has been on honing their newly developed expansive template. As a result all the players now have a clear vision of what Rob Penney expects. However, to be successful in Europe requires a mix of approaches and while I fully support Munster’s wider vision, it is vital that they get the mix to their game right. The new template is stretching opposition defences to the limit in their efforts to fill the field which offers Munster the opportunity to be more direct at times through pick and go’s. Last weekend’s game in Dublin proved the point with a tactical shift in the final quarter and if Munster can strike the right balance in their approach then they will prove a handful for any opposition.

Finally, a word on New Zealand who have added the newly constituted Rugby Championship to the World Cup they captured 11 months ago. While others have struggled to cope with the mantle of world champions in the season following their success, this All Black squad have been liberated and are miles ahead of everyone else on the international stage at present. New coach Steve Hanson has now presided over nine straight wins since his appointment despite making significant changes to their World Cup final-winning outfit over the course of those games. Only seven of that winning team started against Ireland in the 60-0 horror show in Hamilton with nine starting against the Springboks last Saturday.

Ireland face a difficult autumn examination despite the fact that they will face the bottom two sides in the Southern Hemisphere tournament in South Africa and Argentina. That both have had rugby of this quality much later into their season than they would normally have when travelling north in November will do nothing to ease the anxiety levels of Declan Kidney either.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

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