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Dublin: 11°C Thursday 15 April 2021

Selection calls, getting 'spooked', scrum woes - Leinster left with regrets

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will be self-critical in reviewing their side’s defeat to Saracens.

SUCH IS THE nature of rugby that Leinster could probably look at a few moments last Saturday and think, ‘If that had gone our way, the result would have been very different.’

Some referees might have shown Michael Rhodes a yellow card for his high tackle on Johnny Sexton, for example, and that would have meant the Saracens flanker wasn’t on the pitch to illegally enter a maul from the side later in the game, killing a Leinster opportunity in the English side’s 22.

Indeed, had Pascal Gaüzère or television match official Olly Hodges noticed the incident man of the match Rhodes has now been cited for – an alleged strike of the head against Robbie Henshaw – Saracens might have had to play 79 minutes of the game with only 14 players. 

saracens-mike-rhodes-is-tackled-by-leinsters-ed-byrne Michael Rhodes very much played on the edge. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There were plenty of moments that Leinster came out on the wrong side of over the course of the 80 minutes, but the simple reality is that they didn’t deserve to win after butchering the first half.

A jarring series of errors left them trailing 22-3 at the break and it would have taken something special to overhaul Saracens from there. Even in that second half, Leinster were short of what they are capable of.

And so, Leinster will examine every detail of this tie in a bid to understand what they got wrong. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster must learn why early errors like the failure to secure the kick-off left their team so “spooked“.

Cullen and Lancaster will look at themselves too. Was their team prepared to a sufficient standard? Did they handle their pre-match favouritism poorly? Was there a mental issue lingering from last season’s European final, the “seed of doubt” that Saracens had hoped might be present?

Should they have been more ready for the aerial onslaught Saracens launched? That tactical focus followed successes from Munster and Ulster in the same department.

Could Leinster have been defended better for the crucial Saracens try? It was a play of the kind we’ve seen Saracens cutting teams apart with before. Did scrum specialist Robin McBryde do enough work on that crucial set-piece in the build-up to this game? 

Could Leinster have better employed the attacking kicking game we had seen in recent weeks before this European quarter-final to prove Saracens’ backfield?

There will be many tactical questions, as well as mental ones, but Cullen and Lancaster will also focus on their own player selection calls.

leo-cullen-being-interviewed-before-the-match Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Leinster’s depth means these usually work out well for Leinster and coaching staff have drawn deserved praise for some of their calls in recent weeks, but things don’t go perfectly to plan against Saracens.

The decision to drop Ronan Kelleher as starting hooker was a surprise last week, given that he had clearly established himself as first-choice over the course of the 2019/20 campaign, earned his first Ireland caps as a result.

Kelleher is the most powerful hooker in Leinster’s squad and his physical quality was obvious when he came off the bench two minutes into the second half. Though he is young, Kelleher’s scrummaging is also well regarded, while former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt sometimes opted against selecting Cronin because of concerns about his scrummaging.

While Leinster had lineout issues two weekends ago in the Pro14 final win over Ulster, it was very clear that the problems were not all due to Kelleher’s throwing, rather a medley of issues in terms of timing, calling, and lifting.

34-year-old Cronin went from fighting with James Tracey – who was disappointed to miss out entirely – for Leinster’s bench slot behind Kelleher to the starting role for this quarter-final against Saracens.

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With Kelleher introduced just two minutes into the second half, one has to wonder if this decision will be among the regrets for Cullen and Lancaster, as well as why they didn’t just send on Kelleher and Ryan Baird at half-time.

In the second row, the Leinster bosses opted for the experience and lineout calling of Devin Toner, again seemingly in a bid to be solid at the set-piece and the restarts, both of which didn’t go well on the day against Saracens. 

leinsters-devin-toner-and-sean-cronin-are-substituted Devin Toner and Sean Cronin were replaced just after half time. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

34-year-old Toner was unable to make much of an impact around the pitch either with his one tackle and two carries, whereas 21-year-old Baird was explosive off the bench, albeit while making a couple of errors. Meanwhile, Scott Fardy was sitting in the stands.

36-year-old Fardy definitely hasn’t been at his best in recent weeks but, again, Cullen and Lancaster might wonder if Leinster needed his aggressive edge in this battle with Saracens.

Jordan Larmour endured a difficult day at fullback for Leinster, one that was underlined by his decision to mark a long Saracens kick into his 22 despite having plenty of time and space. Aerial losses cost Leinster throughout the game, with Larmour knocking-on a couple of them.

Larmour is just 23, has brilliant footwork, and is clearly still learning how to play fullback at the top level, which is why Cullen and Lancaster continued to back him even after his difficult night against Munster on the restart of rugby last month. 

Rather than bringing back the veteran Rob Kearney and his aerial skills after that narrow win over Munster – and with Dave Kearney injured – Cullen backed Larmour at 15 and picked Hugo Keenan on the right wing.

Keenan has been impressive for Leinster since and Larmour will have appreciated the faith shown in him, although that loyalty makes the dropping of Kelleher for this Saracens game all the more curious.

With the experienced Tadhg Furlong absent through injury, it was a tough shift for Andrew Porter at tighthead but 32-year-old loosehead Cian Healy had an extremely difficult afternoon against the outstanding Vincent Koch, who played the entire 80 minutes.

leinsters-assistant-coach-stuart-lancaster Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Leinster must have considered sending Ed Byrne on Healy’s place earlier than the 57th minute, with the scrum having such serious issues.

McBryde will endure a few miserable days reviewing those issues at scrum time, which weren’t helped by Leinster’s back row seemingly being more worried about Billy Vunipola breaking off the base of the set-piece than keeping their shoulders on to provide additional ballast for their tight five.

As for substitutions, it was confusing that Leinster didn’t send scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park into the fray earlier than the 62nd minute given that Luke McGrath was clearly struggling, firing some inaccurate passes that left Leinster under pressure. 

These are all ifs, buts, and maybes.

And yet, those are exactly the scenarios that the best teams – a category Leinster still belong in despite their bad day out against Saracens – consider and discuss after a defeat or underperformance.

While Saracens deserve praise for the accuracy, energy, aggression, and smarts of their performance in Dublin, Leinster will feel that their first-half failings were very much of their own making.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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