Donal Lenihan: Keep an eye on Scarlets ‘poachers’

The key issues that will decide Champions Cup semi finals.

Donal Lenihan: Keep an eye on Scarlets ‘poachers’

1. Battle for deck supremacy

In all rugby contests these days, the battle to control continuity is absolutely crucial. That is why the ability to manage what happens at the breakdown has become every bit as important as the set piece.

Where once the openside flanker was the key figure in chasing turnovers or in slowing down opposition ball, now the more players you have contesting for possession the better.

While Scarlets have been widely lauded for the quality of their wide attacking game and their ability to stretch defences, the launchpad for that has been the work rate and effectiveness of their superb back row, ably supported by new Munster recruit Tadhg Berne from the second row and Lions hooker Ken Owens, at the breakdown.

Of the four semi-final contestants Leinster, with 17 players who saw game time in Ireland’s Grand Slam triumph in their match day squad today, are the clear favourites for ultimate honours. But unless they come to terms with the Scarlets at the contact area, they will struggle to make the final.

On the flip side, if they succeed in nullifying the key point of difference that Scarlets have enjoyed in all their recent triumphs then Leo Cullen’s men will have one foot in the Bilbao decider. The quality across the two back rows is quite phenomenal with an all-international sextet on show.

As so often happens in sport, one players misery is another’s opportunity and so it has proved for Dan Leavy who has been outstanding for province and county in the absence of Sean O’Brien. Given the impact O’Brien had for the Lions last summer, his loss would crucify any team but Leavy has been so consistently good that O’Brien’s absence has been seamlessly absorbed - until now.

Speaking to a high-ranking referee recently, he mentioned how impressed he has been when officiating Scarlets at how effective Scotland captain John Barclay, British Olympic sevens silver medalist James Davies and Welsh international Aaron Shingler perform as a unit in the back row and their awareness of when it’s legal to go for the poach and when to step away.

Having that awareness in the heart of battle of the complicated laws surrounding the breakdown is key for any back rower. For Leinster to win, their work in clearing out the ruck and their ball presentation in contact will be crucial in denying Davies and Beirne opportunities to poach and will go a long way towards deciding this contest.

A measure of their influence was the ten turnovers generated between them against La Rochelle in their quarter-final. That equates to ten set piece possessions with a better opportunity to attack given that the opposition defense isn’t set as it would be off a scrum or line out. They will always seek to go wide off turnover possession.

Leinster are fortunate that in second row James Ryan they have a young starlet capable of matching Berne’s impact in contact. Delivering quick ball to a quality three-quarter line could be the difference between winning and losing this game. In the hunt to achieve that, both sides have the armoury to deliver but only one will come out on top.

Whoever manages that will be in pole position to finish in front.

Johnny Sexton will captain Leinster for the crucial clash. Pic: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Johnny Sexton will captain Leinster for the crucial clash. Pic: INPHO/Bryan Keane

2. Attacking prowess mixed with defensive solidity.

The more you analyse this game the more you realise that it is likely to be a closer contest than many expect. Leinster carry all the aces in terms of home advantage, a team packed with serial winners at club and international level with the perfect mix of youthful exuberance and hardened experience.

To counter that, Scarlets play without inhibition, have a total belief in their capacity to score tries and back themselves with and without the ball. Because of the attacking flair they bring to every contest, it goes unnoticed at times how solid they are defensively.

In addition, 12 of their starting team featured in the recent Six Nations championship. They will respect but not fear Leinster in any way.

The battle at half-back will be crucial. Johnny Sexton brings more experience and a far more rounded game than Dan Jones who gets the nod in the No 10 slot ahead of Rhys Patchell, while the impressive Gareth Davies has an edge over his opposite number Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum-half.

Patchell was put under pressure when playing at out-half for Wales at Twickenham and, as England showed, he can be got at. That is one of the reasons Wayne Pivac starts him at full back.

The other, and more important one, is that Patchell’s counter-attacking skills are far more effective when operating in the back three where his presence is such that he has forced Welsh and Lions No 15 Leigh Halfpenny on to the wing.

Whatever happens, it is imperative that Leinster don’t allow themselves get sucked into a loose, unstructured game in an attempt to show what their talented back line is capable of producing.

The likes of Robbie Henshaw, Gary Ringrose and Isa Nacewa must be given an opportunity to play but in a manner that best suits the home side.

Leinster have quality right across the board and their kicking game will be geared towards keeping Scarlets on the back foot.

That allied to the quality of their line speed in defense will contribute to negating the space and time on the ball that Scarlets are normally sued to and usually exploit.

Verdict

Ringrose was superb for Ireland on his return from injury and with more game time behind him and a return to midfield of his international partner in Henshaw, Leinster have the armory both in attack and defense to make the final for the first time since 2012.

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