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Leinster's 'brothers' look to dig in for each other without the ball

Leo Cullen’s side have produced several compelling defensive passages in recent times.

JOSH VAN DER Flier deservedly stole the limelight with his record-breaking 34 tackles against Connacht last weekend, but the entire Leinster squad took heart from their late defensive grandstand to seal the inter-provincial derby win.

Leo Cullen’s side have won plaudits for the quality of their attacking play in recent times, with Stuart Lancaster’s influence important in that regard, but the province’s players are building great pride in their defence too.

The Connacht clash was not the only time we have seen Leinster go through lengthy defensive sets and hold firm this season, with the 22-phase effort just before half-time in their Champions Cup win away to Exeter among the standout examples.

Attacking play gives us insight into so many things about a team, but defence is often the best barometer of the quality of its culture.

How willing are players to hammer into opposition ball carriers? How quickly are they getting back to their feet and into the defensive line? How keen are they to smash into tackle after tackle? How sharp is their focus on technique when under fatigue?

In all of these aspects, Leinster are looking increasingly impressive in defence.

“It shows we’ve got a lot of confidence in each other as players,” says lock Devin Toner, one of several Ireland internationals returning to Leinster’s XV for today’s Guinness Pro14 clash with Ulster [KO 5.35pm, TG4/Sky Sports].

“If you look at the stats coming out of that Connacht game, it was ridiculous. Obviously you’ve seen Josh’s – but then Ross Molony was on 29 tackles.

“With that last five minutes of the game, just putting that huge defensive shift in shows we have confidence in each other and we want to dig in for each other, and it shows where we are as a team.”

There is a very cohesive feel to this Leinster squad, even accounting for the heat that fierce competition for places creates.

Fergus McFadden and Ross Molony celebrate at the final whistle Leinster celebrate their win over Connacht last time out. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Toner points out that there has been a renewed focus on this off-the-field culture within the province’s set-up in recent times.

“We’re always trying to build the squad and how we get on,” says Toner. “We always try and do stuff off the pitch together, we try to have that ‘brothers’ mentality and work together as a squad.

“It’s pulled together more this year, we’re more close-knit. Everyone gets on together and we have more of a team mentality.”

Of course, Leinster’s defence is not perfect and they have missed many tackles this season – with the raw statistics causing concern for some supporters, particularly early in the campaign.

However, only Glasgow and Scarlets have conceded fewer tries in the Pro14 this season and head coach Cullen recognises the fact that Leinster’s intense focus on oppressive linespeed will often lead to higher missed tackles stats.

There remains a focus on sticking as many of the first-up tackles as possible but Cullen and Lancaster are content as long as Leinster are winning the gainline collectively more often than not.

“There is always a bit of risk-reward when a team goes hard off the line,” explains Cullen. “If someone misses the first tackle, you are always hopeful that someone else will tidy that up.

“But the contacts are made on the side of the advantage line you want to be playing the game which is, obviously, the opposition’s side. There’s always a bit of risk-reward.”

Jacob Stockdale Jacob Stockdale will be a threat to Leinster today. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

While Ulster have had their well-documented travails this season, their New Year’s Day comeback win over Munster showed again that they are very capable of breaking a defence down with ball in hand.

Les Kiss’ side are also joint top of the clean breaks list in the Champions Cup with 49, and with the likes of Jacob Stockdale, Jean Deysel and Charles Piutau looking to cause havoc today, Leinster will be keen to underline their defensive strength again.

Leinster:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Barry Daly
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Jack McGrath (captain)
2. James Tracy
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Scott Fardy
6. Josh Murphy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. Seán Cronin
17. Ed Byrne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Mick Kearney
20. Max Deegan
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Johnny Sexton
23. Noel Reid

Ulster:

15. Charles Piutau
14. Andrew Trimble
13. Darren Cave
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Christian Lealiifano
9. Johnny Stewart

1. Callum Black
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Rodney Ah You
4. Pete Browne
5. Iain Henderson
6. Matty Rea
7. Sean Reidy
8. Jean Deysel

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Kyle McCall
18. Wiehahn Herbst
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Nick Timoney
21. John Cooney
22. Johnny McPhillips
23. Tommy Bowe

Referee: George Clancy [IRFU].

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