The stakes may have been higher for Munster in Ballsbridge on Saturday, but defeat for Leinster would nonetheless have been a difficult pill to swallow on the back of two away losses to Glasgow and Connacht.
History shows a home berth in the PRO12 semi-finals is invaluable when it comes to claiming the silverware, but Leinster’s ambitions in that regard will hardly survive through to the decider in Scotland in May if their performances don’t pick up.
Jonathan Sexton agreed after a game that delivered the desired result but one which fell short of the display sought.
“We need to be a lot better if we want to challenge for the title,” said the out-half.
“Teams like Glasgow now are bubbling. They’ve got all their players back and they seem to have a huge squad, they have quality in each position. They’re going to be in the top four and to challenge a team like that we are going to have to be much better than we are at the moment. That’s the challenge, but we’re all back together now for two months and hopefully we can build something.”
Leinster’s defence has been their foundation stone this season. Pat Lam said as much before the Connacht-Leinster game in Galway the week before and they were forced into prolonged shifts in that regard by Munster. Their attacking game looks less impressive. That’s understandable. Leo Cullen is still in his first year as head coach, one interrupted by the exodus of players for the World Cup and Six Nations, so it stands to reason that he should ‘build from the back’, as they say in football.
Still, two tries in their last four games is a bald expression of the struggles they have with ball in hand and Sexton echoed many thoughts on Saturday evening when he suggested that they had shifted the ball too wide too early too often.
They have three regular season games to improve and it isn’t as though they don’t have the natural talent in their back-line.
The question is whether they have the time to gel this season. Sexton, for instance, has started just five times for his province this campaign.
The hope is that he gets to start five more. “You’ve played 10 games and that would be the ideal,” he said. “If you can get another medal in your pocket, that would be even better. Our goal is to finish in the top two. If you do that, you can sit down and say, ‘right lads, we’re here now, we’ve got a big semi-final.’
“If that’s at home, you go for it. There are no easy games in the league anymore with the new format. You saw Scarlets losing to Cardiff (on Saturday) because they still have a sniff of getting into the Champions Cup spot. Even when Edinburgh come here, they’re trying to make it into that top six. When Treviso come here they’re trying to finish ahead of Zebre. They’re all tough games to come and we’ve another big interpro. We’re by no means there. This was one step.”
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