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Half-term report: No papering over Leinster's 0% Champions Cup campaign

There were a few positives from the early portion of Leinster’s season.

AFTER A STUTTERING start caused by the welcome distraction of the World Cup, the rugby season reached full swing last weekend. Here’s how we’re grading the first low-swinging half(ish) of Leinster’s campaign.

Overall record: Won 7, lost 6.

There’s no nice way to dress it up for Leinster, the second quarter of the season has been a disaster.

Leo Culen Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In the opening few rounds of the Pro12 Leinster made it look like Leo Cullen had empowered his young guns to such an extent that they were tearing up the league like it was a summer blitz. Unfortunately for all of us who have had to watch the Blues since their large World Cup contingent returned, the balance was upset somewhere along the way and momentum was lost when the cornerstones of Cullen’s squad returned.

Even if you accept that Toulon ‘are playing by different rules,’ four defeats from four European games is a shocking return.

Their saving grace remains that early-season form that leaves them well in the hunt for the Pro12. All of Leinster’s resources will be geared towards that one trophy from now on.

Try of the season so far: Cathal Marsh v Dragons

If you’re one of the supporters who have mentally checked out of the Leo Cullen project to wistfully remember the glory days under Matt O’Connor, this try was an early signal that Leinster were attempting something fresh.

Source: PRO12 Rugby/YouTube

(Tune in after the one minute mark) Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath, Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier were all involved in the short side attack from their own 22, before Cathal Marsh’s second touch of the move took advantage of some lazy attempts at last-ditch tackling.

This is a low: Wasps

Three of Ireland’s provinces have had to swallow the bitter pill of losing a home European fixture, but the manner, margin and response to defeats are crucial.

In previous seasons, we’ve watched provinces (to put it in Eddie O’Sullivan terms) circle the wagons after international players return from a disappointing experience. Against Wasps, Leinster sleep-walked into the Champions Cup and were mercilessly and systematically dismantled by an outfit that was in rag order this time last year.

Source: Rugby XV ™/YouTube

We could point to the excellent performances of Charles Piutau and Joe Launchbury that made the 6-33 humbling possible, but Leinster have stars of their own that are expected to be the match of anyone on home turf. On 15 November, they didn’t show up and the damage was irreparable.

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As good as it gets: ….

Yes, we’re gonna scrape the barrel here instead of picking out that home bonus point win over the Dragons again. Toulon at home had the most encouraging signs that there is still a big performance within this Leinster squad. We could go on enthusiastically about 40 great minutes that night, but it wouldn’t be genuine.

Player of the Season so far: Josh van der Flier

An emphatic ball-carrier, a relentless tackler. The new kid round the rucks deserves more help from his seasoned team-mates.

Josh Van Der Flier Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Coach calls

The most heat Leo Cullen took all season was his decision not to replace Jonathan Sexton with Ian Madigan for the fourth quarter of the away clash against Toulon. Leinster supporters appear, probably with good reason, nervous that Madigan will pack his bags and leave D4 only to come back and haunt the RDS in the future.

That said, even in hindsight we tend to lean with Cullen’s call on the day, if only for one reason. After 60 minutes in Stade Mayol the scoreline was 16-9; that’s a seven-point gap. Even if Sexton was in the throes of as poor a day as he’s ever had, if Cullen doesn’t believe Sexton is the man to close a seven point-gap, then he shouldn’t be starting him in the first place.

The big question in 2016

The destination of Ian Madigan should be of secondary concern to whatever the hell the is going on with Jonathan Sexton?

Where once Leinster was built around an outside centre, the out-half is now the fulcrum for the fortunes of the entire province. Sexton has been a shadow of the game-breaking 10 that popped up sporadically in the Six Nations and against Canada in the World Cup.

Jonathan Sexton Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The question for the coming 12 months is three-fold. When will Sexton be back to his best to add a spark to Leinster? Could his severe dips in form be attributed to the pressure of being that focal point? Have two years in France and a 30th birthday just dimmed his athleticism and made him second guess his skill-set?

We sincerely hope that an answer to question one will come very soon to make queries two and three redundant.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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