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Analysis: Sexton and Leinster start the season in slick, sharp form

There was fluidity and variety to the province’s attacking play in a strong win over the Bulls.

LEINSTER’S PERFORMANCE IN their 31-3 win over the Bulls was the most convincing that any side delivered on the first weekend of the new United Rugby Championship.

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s men looked sharp as they opened their 2021/22 campaign, underlining why they are favourites for the URC and will be among the contenders for the Champions Cup again.

The Leinster attack was full of variety and fluidity, showcasing some fresh thinking as many of their players delivered excellent individual showings.

The home team were ahead in the seventh minute as they struck clinically over two phases on kick return, with Johnny Sexton fielding the Bulls’ exiting box kick and feeding James Lowe for a strong carry.

Lowe

Lowe shows excellent footwork and power here after being aided by Michael Alaalatoa’s work ahead of the ball, creating something of an obstruction.

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Alaalatoa’s subtle effort, working his way in among the Bulls’ kick-chase line, means Lowe has an initial one-on-one situation rather than being double-tackled and he is able to beat the first defender to get Leinster going forward.

As Lowe is carrying, his team-mates are already finding their attacking shape, with Dan Sheehan, James Ryan, and Josh van der Flier forming a three-man pod [red below] as out-half Sexton [white] swings in behind them.

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Andrew Porter, Alaalatoa, and Ross Molony ensure a quick recycle at the breakdown and Leinster’s set-up allows them to attack instantly to the right, where they have held width.

Ryan is in the middle of the three-pod and delivers a smooth link pass to Sexton out the back in the ‘release’ position as van der Flier runs a convincing decoy line just to Ryan’s right.

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Van der Flier’s line [red below] forces Bulls number eight Elrigh Louw [blue] to respect the possibility of a short tip-on pass from Ryan. Louw initially bites in towards van der Flier.

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The leaves Louw then scrambling to recover back out as Ryan instead passes out to Sexton.

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Sexton does a typically excellent job of accentuating Louw’s stress by running at him and fully fixing him before passing to Garry Ringrose.

As the ball arrives into Ringrose’s hands, the opportunity is very clear.

Bulls centre Harold Vorster [light blue below] is extremely exposed in midfield as Ringrose looks to sit him down before passing to Hugo Keenan.

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Ringrose releases his pass a hint too early but it’s a fine reaction from Vorster to recover his feet and stretch out to scrag Keenan.

Keenan’s hands are beyond the tackle, however, and he’s able to keep the ball free for the offload up off the ground to van der Flier. 

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Van der Flier’s good support play after his initial decoy line is rewarded as the Bulls’ Johann Goosen and Madosh Tambwe [blue below] drift away from the ball, evidently both thinking that the other will close it down.

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That leaves van der Flier with huge space to run into as the Bulls’ catch-up defence from inside struggles to get across the pitch.

The openside surges forward, swerves outside the catch-up defenders, assesses his options and decides to use his power to beat the last defender, Bulls fullback David Kriel.

VDF

This incisive, clinical score from Leinster was a pleasing start to their season in attack, with Lancaster and Cullen sure to be satisfied with how the forwards and backs combined so smoothly.

They had their second try six minutes later after Molony won the race to the scraps on the ground following lineout pressure from Ryan forcing the ball loose from a Bulls throw.

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Number eight Caelan Doris follows up with a powerful carry off scrum-half Luke McGrath.

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Doris is skillful enough to be comfortable in more space but he also excels in these tight carries closer to the ruck, using his footwork and leg drive to eke his way over the gainline.

The Bulls have had to quickly switch into defence mode after losing their lineout here and they have left space in behind, with fullback Kriel wide out on the left and right wing Cornal Hendricks worried about a blindside attack.

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Leinster swiftly identify the space and Sexton opts to kick in behind as centre pairing Frawley and Ringrose give chase.

With the Bulls putting pressure on him, Sexton’s kick isn’t perfect and gives Hendricks a possible opportunity to claim the ball but Frawley leaps to bat it back and it ricochets into Ringrose’s hands, allowing him to send Porter over to score.

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Sexton kicked eight times in his 59 minutes on the pitch, showing variety here too.

Shortly after Porter’s try, Sexton rolled this delightful grubber kick in behind the Bulls to allow Doris to regather the ball.

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With the Bulls’ two backfield defenders positioned deep to cover a long kick or even a 50:22 attempt, Sexton and Leinster again identify the space in behind.

The weight on Sexton’s kick is perfect, with Doris gathering it on the bounce before offloading inside to Molony. Unfortunately for Leinster, the lock is offside having started ahead of Sexton’s kick and continued upfield after his decoy line close to the ruck.

But Leinster continued to show invention with their attack in the first half.

An intelligent play off a midfield scrum 35 metres from their own tryline was a prime example as McGrath combined with Lowe.

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Bulls scrum-half Zak Burger [red below] is working away from his starting position alongside the scrum to get to Lowe in this instance.

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That means Burger needs flanker Marcell Coetzee [white below] to work hard breaking off the scrum on his inside, plugging the space the scrum-half is vacating.

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But McGrath has obviously had a headstart and is quicker than Coetzee, while Lowe does an excellent job of squaring up his running line to fix Burger and then slip the return pass back inside to McGrath.

The Leinster scrum-half’s pace takes him well clear of Coetzee and he slaloms all the way into the Bulls’ 22 before offloading to Doris, who in turn finds van der Flier.

Forward

Sadly for Leinster, van der Flier’s pass to Keenan is deemed forward and the thrilling move comes to a halt.

We saw another clever one-two from Leinster before half time, with this example coming on third phase of a lineout attack just after a nice offload from the impressive Dan Sheehan allowed Max Deegan to carry.

Louw [white below] is the player Leinster pick on close to the ruck.

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Already, we can see that Louw has quite a bit of space to cover close to the ruck and might have benefitted from another team-mate folding around the corner.

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Sexton runs an unders line directly at Louw as he receives McGrath’s pass, luring the Bulls number eight onto him.

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Sexton then slips the ball back inside to McGrath, who is on the same wavelength as his out-half.

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The pass appears to go forward out of Sexton’s hands but isn’t called as such, allowing McGrath to surge up into the Bulls’ 22 again, but Leinster left empty-handed again after a loose offload from Sheehan.

This kind of one-two is something we have seen from Leinster before.

The Irish province continued to show variety with their attack in the second half and it was very pleasing for the forward pack to produce a maul try against their South African opposition, as well as defending superbly against the Bulls’ lineout and maul.

There was more sharp thinking on set-piece attack, as with this play on second phase from a right-hand-side lineout.

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Ringrose [white below] gets flat off McGrath’s initial pass and the scrum-half [red] immediately takes off on a loop line around his centre.

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Sheehan [light blue above] offers an inside pass option for Ringrose, fixing the Bulls defenders inside the Leinster centre before he instead drops the ball out the back for McGrath.

With Vorster [white below] having turned his shoulders out early, McGrath then has the possibility of hitting Sexton on a short pass off his left shoulder for what might have been a clean break.

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But McGrath instead flashes the ball wider to Rory O’Loughlin, who gets his hands free to offload to Keenan, with the fullback making it all the way up towards the Bulls’ 10-metre line.

Leinster used this same shape later in the game directly from a scrum to once again make big inroads into the Bulls defence.

The variety in their attack included an incisive tapped free-kick from Deegan later too, with the replacement number eight showing his excellent footwork to beat the first defender and then passing to Rhys Ruddock in space.

Their attacking display concluded with another sharp try finished by sub out-half Ross Byrne, who featured earlier in the build-up.

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Scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park does an important job here in scooting away from the breakdown to fix the first Bulls defender before Byrne runs square up the pitch to fix the second, preserving the space on the edge for O’Loughlin.

Note above how van der Flier is part of the breakdown and Ringrose is on the ground after carrying – they will work upfield to be involved in this scoring phase.

O’Louglin flicks a clever overhead pass back inside to Ryan Baird and though the Leinster lock’s offload is stymied by Louw, it falls for Gibson-Park to regather after he has continued upfield too.

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Gibson-Park gets a call from van der Flier to flick the ball up and the openside carries before finding Ringrose surging forward on his right shoulder calling for the offload.

Ringrose slaloms back to the left where he has Byrne and Baird to pick from, offloading to the out-half for the bonus-point try.

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The manner in which numbers on backs went out the window here will have pleased Leinster’s coaching staff in what was another example of fluid interplay.

There are, of course, much tougher days ahead for Leinster this season but this was a fine start.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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