Leinster men o’war happy to steady ship for young guns

Elite sport holds no respect for age.

Veteran status kicks in for those lucky enough to make it at the turn of 30 and teenagers are accorded little or no dispensation when chucked into maelstrom. It’s why a guy like Robbie Henshaw can come across like some old soldier taking new recruits under his wing.

“It’s good to be back with the young lads and to offer them some advice and to help them out,” he said this week on his return to Leinster from Six Nations duties. Henshaw is 23.

Most of his schoolmates will likely still own clothes they wore in college. Those on a career ladder will be just a step or two off the first rung.

Those protective instincts are worth exploring.

Leinster’s last Champions Cup appearance was a seat-of-the-pants draw away to Castres in January and, although Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa started, the rest of the backline boasted an average age of under 23. That’s painfully green at such a high level.

Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery have belied their inexperience to fill the gap created by Sexton’s frequent injury absences so far this season but it is difficult to imagine the harum-scarum nature of that 24-all stalemate at Stade Pierre Antoine had the Ireland 10 not limped off in the first-half with a calf strain.

Or if some more experience was sprinkled through those wearing the double digits.

One of the talking points to emerge from Ireland’s Six Nations was that Joe Schmidt’s team was possibly overreliant on Sexton and that the use of a second first-receiver, such as Jared Payne in the last outing against England, would be to the team’s benefit.

You could argue that Leinster, with their exciting but youthful back line, depend even more on their out-half for direction and inspiration but senior coach Stuart Lancaster refuted that completely when the theory was run by him at the start of this European quarter-final week.

“No, no, no,” he said.

Lancaster, as so many coaches do, turned to the All Blacks to explain the desired template. They may have had Dan Carter for years, he said, but New Zealand also had the added assurance of a Conrad Smith at 13, an Israel Dagg at full-back and an Aaron Smith at nine.

“We have Luke McGrath, Johnny, Garry (Ringrose), Robbie, Joey, Isa,” said Lancaster. “We need to spread the workload, the decision-making. Clearly, Johnny, well, any fly-half, is the guy who controls the ship.

“But it’s more than that. To win this game you need a variety of players. There are the decision-makers in the set-piece, where to throw the lineout, how to win the lineout ball.

“The energy and emotion Sean O’Brien will bring ... the experience of this group. When I look back at the previous Leinster wins in the European Cup — in 2009, 2011 and then 2012 — there are quite a lot of players who played in those three games (still with the club). That experience will count, hopefully, come five o’clock on Saturday.” Tomorrow’s game will tell us more about that.

Nobody doubts Wasps’ spread of playmakers across the back line. Danny Cipriani signed from Sale in the summer and sits in the cockpit at 10. They have Jimmy Gopperth, another out-half, outside him at 12. Kurtley Beale, a man who has played 10, 12 and 15 in his day, offers another approach from full-back.

“We had a few injuries in the early days in the 12 position and I was happy to fill it,” Gopperth explained. “Danny and I play really well together. We both read the game really well and I’m probably the more steady hand and he has all the flair and creates a lot of opportunities.

“We seem to have a good relationship in the way we play and I am enjoying myself playing a bit wider out where there is a lot more space and a bit more time on the ball, so it’s been good for us to have those two receivers on the pitch.” The stats would suggest that Leinster are firing fine, regardless of who is calling the tune.

Where Wasps have managed 4.2 tries per game in the Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup, the Irish province is working on a strike rate of 4.58 between the Pro12 and Europe and both sit atop their respective leagues.

Buckle up.


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