Donal Lenihan: What Leinster and Ulster have to do to progress in Champions Cup

An Irish presence in the last four of the Champions Cup is dependent on a number of factors 
Donal Lenihan: What Leinster and Ulster have to do to progress in Champions Cup

James Ryan during the Leinster Rugby captains run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Leinster v Saracens 

(A) Beware the dispersing Wolfpack

Between them, Saracens and Leinster have won the last four European titles with Mark McCall’s men the last to beat Leo Cullen's side in the 2019 decider.

If hunger and an insatiable drive to win constitute a vital ingredient for success then Sarries have it in bucketloads. With a number of their players already gone, this game could be the final outing in Europe for at least two years if they lose.

Saracens have thrived on a voracious mix of brilliant individual talent and a manic collective desire encapsulated by their ravenous Wolfpack defensive structure. Destined for the lower regions of English club rugby, this game will also be the last truly competitive outing in club colours for those stars who have chosen to stay the course such as Maro Itoje, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch and Elliot Daly.

They will be doing everything in their power to expose any areas of Leinster vulnerability identified by their coaching team.

Leinster have comfortably risen to every challenge this season but, despite their technical excellence, will also have to dip into their emotional reservoir in order not to be overwhelmed by the sheer will and physical power they face today.

Last season’s final defeat in Newcastle still rankles with this squad. Even if they win, people will point to the quality of players that Saracens have lost since that final. Leinster need to be razor-sharp to quell the frenzied energy the visitors will bring to this contest. Match that and they will be on their way.

(B) Set-piece face-off

The return to action of James Ryan in the Guinness PRO14 final could not have been better timed. While the young lock was relatively quiet by his standards, that game will stand to him for what lies ahead today.

Ryan and Maro Itoje represent the prototype for the modern-day second row. That adds intrigue to the line out battle, in particular, an area where Leinster have been inconsistent since their return to action.

Itoje is a menace at the line out, even after the ball has been won. Leinster use their maul to good effect but that too has been less than efficient of late. Itoje’s ability to swim his way through the maul and get his hands on the opposition ball is extraordinary. Teams know in advance what he is capable of but still struggle to negate his threat on the ground.

It’s in the air however where Leinster must be more accurate. Ronan Kelleher is deemed the long term successor to Rory Best in the Irish No 2 shirt but his inaccuracy on the Leinster throw of late sees the more experienced Sean Cronin start today.

Sean Cronin of Leinster during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 3 match against Exeter Chiefs in 2017
Sean Cronin of Leinster during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 3 match against Exeter Chiefs in 2017

He too is prone to the odd blip as Saracens will be no doubt aware. It helps the Leinster cause that George Kruis, Saracens chief line out organiser in recent seasons, is no longer involved.

Saracens offered Cullen a timely reminder of what their own maul is capable of when scoring three tries via this platform when their pack last played together as a unit against London Irish a few weeks ago.

The worrying absence of Tadhg Furlong coupled with the fact that his Lions teammate Mako Vunipola has been passed fit to start at loosehead offers Saracens a slight edge in the scrummaging battle.

The key head to head here will be the direct contest between Cian Healy and Vincent Koch on the other side of the scrum. If Koch manages to nudge the right hand side forward to any appreciable degree, a path will automatically open up for Billy Vunipola to pick and run directly at Sexton.

Leinster must keep their captain on his feet and not smashed up at the bottom of a ruck.

(C) Breakdown compliance

The biggest challenge facing teams post lockdown has been in dealing with the adjustments placed on the tackler and the tackled player at the breakdown. While there are no new laws at play here, just a more ridged implementation of the existing law that has forced players to be more clinical and transparent in this area.

As a consequence, the penalty count in many matches has gone through the roof and impacted on the flow of the game. Critically, Leinster seem to be coming to terms with this and for the first time since the resumption managed to keep their penalty count to single figures when conceding only nine against Ulster last weekend. If they can repeat that again they will be well on the road to victory.

Saracens have chopped and changed their team so much in meaningless Gallagher Premiership games of late that one wonders if their front line charges are as practiced and up to speed with the new requirements. 

Leinster’s back row of Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Will Connors, though comparatively inexperienced, has really impressed as a unit of late.

Connors has been entrusted with the unenviable task of chop tackling Billy Vunipola for the afternoon in an effort to stop him building up a head of steam. The No 8 was a hugely influential figure in the 2019 final and if the Leinster back row succeeds in quelling his impact then they should have enough firepower elsewhere to win this.

Toulouse v Ulster

(A) Clear the mental baggage

By their own admission, it’s proved a very challenging week for Ulster.

The manner with which Leinster disposed of their challenge in the Guinness PRO14 final last Saturday has dented their confidence. Losing their best ball carrier in Springbok No 8 Marcel Coetzee to injury in that game has only served to add even more pain.

It doesn’t help either that Ulster have been brittle on the road in big European games. That is something Dan McFarland has sought to address since his arrival in Belfast and away pool wins over Bath and Harlequins this season is a positive to build on.

Dejected Ulster players after the Guinness PRO14 final deafeat to Leinster. Picture: by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dejected Ulster players after the Guinness PRO14 final deafeat to Leinster. Picture: by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

That said, their 29-13 pool defeat at the Stade Marcel-Michelin against Clermont Auvergne last January is probably a fairer reflection of the task they face tomorrow. To have any chance they have to carry the fight to their hosts by cutting down the space available through their defensive line speed, something they never managed against Leinster.

Toulouse are off the back of a very impressive 39-23 win over La Rochelle, scoring three superb tries in the process, which tees them up perfectly.

They harbour no inhibitions and, if granted opportunities off Ulster turnovers, have the capacity to create havoc through the counter-attacking quality of their back three where South African World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe, in tandem with French internationals Thomas Ramos and Yoann Huget, is on fire at present.

Ulster’s body language in the opening quarter will offer a fair indication of how this contest will progress. Only then will we know if they have parked last weekends disappointment and are ready to move on.

(B) Half-back mastery

The acquisition of Alby Mathewson and Ian Madigan convinced Dan McFarland that he has the necessary depth at halfback within his matchday squad to compete with the best in Europe.

How ironic then that John Cooney, so often the hero of the Kingspan Stadium since Ruan Pienaar’s departure, should choose now to have a wobble with his form having proved the talismanic figure in Ulster’s journey to this stage.

Chastened after his demotion to the bench for last weekend’s final, he has been offered an immediate reprieve by McFarland to start and inspire an unlikely Ulster win. Tasked with lifting all those around him, he already has more than enough on his plate in curtailing the impact of his opposite number Antoine Dupont.

Cooney’s half-back partner Billy Burns will also have to rise to the challenge and share the workload when it comes to putting their forwards into the right positions and controlling this contest. Burns has shown flashes of brilliance but needs to be more consistent.

With McFarland following the trend of only carrying two backs on the bench in a 6/2 split, surprisingly Madigan doesn’t even make the squad. That is a big gamble.

To have any chance, the Ulster half backs will have to match the impact the Toulouse pairing of Dupont and Romain Ntamack are sure to bring to proceedings. Dupont is up there with All Black Aaron Smith in the top two scrum-halves in the game at present and is poised to create all kinds of problems for the Ulster back row.

With Coetzee now out of the picture the task of containing the mercurial No 9 has become even more difficult.

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