Donal Lenihan on the boxes Leinster must tick in Cardiff today
1. The set piece
LEINSTER’s analysis of the opposition will not have had to quarry too deep to assess where the main threat will come from in today’s Heineken Cup final. Northampton play a very unsophisticated game with their first point of attack coming from the set piece. Their scrum has wreaked havoc this season and is used as a tool of psychological advantage. Leinster must not allow them to generate any momentum from this phase. The Saints’ international front row represents a real league of nations with Tongan loose head Saone Tonga’uiha and South African tight head Brian Mujati flanking England hooker Dylan Hartley. As a unit they have been impregnable and were primarily responsible for dismantling the challenge of Ulster and Perpignan in the knockout phase.
That said, there is much debate about the legality of Mujati and Hartley with the Springbok constantly cutting an angle under the opposition hooker while Hartley spends much of his time standing up in the scrum looking for a reset. Much will depend on the interpretation of referee Romain Poite but, in common with most French officials, he is not too concerned with illegalities at scrum time which may work to Leinster’s disadvantage.
Mike Ross and Cian Healy have enjoyed a great season for both Leinster and Ireland and have proved more than a match for all opposition. Leinster coach Joe Schmidt should direct his two props to put everything into every scrum for the first 60 minutes before introducing the highly competent Heinke Van Der Merwe and Stan Wright off the bench to finish the job. Northampton’s front-row replacements are not up to this level and therefore their starting troops will be required to do a full shift.
The lineout is an area Leinster are capable of attacking. With Tom Wood out, there is an over-reliance on Courtney Lawes to produce clean ball. He is very athletic and enjoys a roving role up and down the line. Leinster must man mark him and pressurise the Hartley throw which has proved fallible on more than one occasion this season.
Northampton regularly launch a dynamic maul off attacking lineouts and Leinster forwards coach Jonno Gibbs must establish a clear policy on how to deal with this — compete aggressively in the air in predetermined areas of the field or restrict themselves to repelling the initial Saints drive on the deck when the catcher returns to ground. Northampton will compete aggressively on the Leinster throw and Leo Cullen must be prepared for this.
The fact Leinster hooker Richardt Strauss has been passed fit to start is a massive boost. Without him, all bets are off and one hopes from a Leinster perspective that he is fit enough to last the course.
2. Middle five supremacy
TO win trophies at the top level it is imperative to have a balanced back row and a half back pairing with the ability and temperament to control and direct proceedings. Leinster have that. Their back row, with Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien imperious, has been indomitable all season. To tweak the balance, they had the option of augmenting the dynamic duo with the ball carrying lineout presence of Kevin McLaughlin or the groundhog continuity skill of Shane Jennings. McLaughlin’s line out skills evidently tipped the balance in his favour.
Northampton have a pair of accomplished ball players in their back row in Irish international Roger Wilson and Phil Dowson but their balance is upset somewhat by the absence of Wood. As long as Leinster’s front five can compete in the areas outlined above then I expect their back row to shade this area. Two years on from his first Heineken cup final appearance, Jonny Sexton has progressed to being one of the linchpins of the team.
He is up there with Strauss as one of two key players Leinster cannot afford to do without. When it comes to directing traffic at this level of competition, Sexton is streets ahead of his opposite number Stephen Myler. The Northampton out half is a product of rugby league and very few have converted from that code and made the grade as a quality No 10. He does not have the vision and variety to his game that Sexton possesses while the Leinster pivot is also a far more consistent goal kicker. Inside him Schmidt has opted for the slick passing of Eoin Reddan over the more physical attributes of Isaac Boss and in those two Leinster have more experience and international pedigree that Northampton’s competent No 9 Lee Dickson.
If Leinster succeed in their quest to produce quick ball at the breakdown they are vastly superior to their opponents today in that crucial middle five sector of the team. In addition they have quality backup in reserve to steer them over the finish line in the final quarter. By comparison, the Northampton bench is decidedly under-whelming.
DESPITE the quality, pace and creative menace Leinster possess, the characteristic that defines this team most is their honesty and work ethic in defence. Teams find them incredibly difficult to break down. Munster, despite winning their most recent contest in Thomond Park, have now gone six games against them without registering a five pointer. When they do concede now there seems to be an element of luck involved like the freak bounce in the in-goal area that set up the opening Toulouse try in the semi-final.
In the D’Arcy-O’Driscoll midfield axis, Leinster have the perfect defensive combination. In former Leinster player James Downey and Jon Clarke, Northampton have a very big and physical centre partnership but the Leinster pair are well versed in the art of defending against bigger men at this stage. If anything they seem to welcome it as a younger set of steppers might cause them more trouble. Northampton were gifted points early on in their semi-final against Perpignan and that eased them into the game. That is unlikely to happen this time around with the pace and intensity of the Leinster defensive line set to catch them by surprise.
Defensively Northampton are no shrinking violets either and favour a rush defence with good line speed. They are aggressive in the tackle and will look to close the space early to stifle the threat from Leinster’s quality backline. Leinster have the ability to pressure opponents even without the ball and have this uncanny ability of forcing errors from their opponents even when defending in their own twenty two.
Schmidt will be conscious much of Northampton’s attacking threat stems from turnovers or from poor kicks to the likes of Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. In fact they seem to pose more of a threat from opposition mistakes than anything Northampton create themselves. That is why Leinster’s kick/chase has to be spot on and leave little scope for either of those gifted runners to counter attack.
Northampton are a route one side who like to bash their way to the opposition try line. Leinster’s defence is more that capable of dealing with the threat of one out runners after surviving the might of the magnificent Toulouse off-loading game. If Leinster are focused and in the zone they will win.
Picture: Leinster's Richardt Strauss walks out of the tunnel for the Captain's Run at the Millennium Stadium yesterday. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
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