Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# big issues
World Cup hangovers linger and more talking points from Leinster's defeat
It was another disappointing day for Leo Cullen’s men in Europe.

LEINSTER WERE BEATEN 19-16 by Bath at the Rec today to leave their hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup in deep doubt. 

Read our match report here.

Set-piece failings

No scrum, no win. So goes the saying in France and it has rarely rung so true for Leinster as it did today. A scrum penalty try in the second half was extremely damaging for Leo Cullen’s men, but this set-piece went backwards for the majority of the game.

A view of the record setting crowd at the game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Bath were the superior set-piece team. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

There were two penalties awarded to Leinster at scrum time but they were the exception to the rule as Nick Auterac and Henry Thomas dominated their more decorated opponents.

Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Marty Moore and Jack McGrath will take the brunt of the criticism but this was a collective failing from Leinster. Is the front row getting enough from their locks? Are the back row scrummaging hard enough? Have training-ground standards been high enough?

Not that the props are absolved; this simply wasn’t good enough for a team with Leinster’s aspirations for trophy success.

The lineout wasn’t much better. The stats say the eastern province lost three on their own throw, each of them momentum-sapping, but there was sloppy possession on the retained lineouts too.

Leinster were run ragged by Bath at the Aviva Stadium at times in last season’s quarter-final, but their set-piece (scrum, lineout, restarts) was dominant and they won. Today, Bath showed how much they learned in that defeat and took Leinster apart.

World Cup hangovers

It’s easy to dismiss the talk of World Cup ‘hangovers’ among Ireland’s players, but the evidence of this performance was that they are very real.

Jonathan Sexton dejected Dan Sheridan / INPHO Sexton was left dejected at the Rec. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The likes of Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Devin Toner, Ross, Healy, Dave Kearney and Jordi Murphy did many good things at the Rec, as in any game, but their overall contributions lacked energy and incision.

There appears to be a mental malaise resting over many of Ireland’s World Cup squad, meaning top-quality players are failing to deliver the performance levels they are capable of.

The World Cup is obviously a major focus in the career of all of the men mentioned above, it’s natural that huge amounts of mental energy would be invested in it. Coming out of that bubble and re-focusing and re-generating hunger is clearly not easy.

Rugby is a job like any other – meaning it’s not fun all the time – but several of Ireland’s World Cup squad look like they are sick of rugby right now.

Bright sparks from the bench

The obvious hunger of Leinster’s replacements – Luke McGrath, Josh van der Flier, James Tracy and Dominic Ryan – was eye opening in the final quarter.

Josh Van Der Flier runs in for a try Dan Sheridan / INPHO Van der Flier is in superb form. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

These young men are clearly desperate to be on the pitch, as are the likes of Garry Ringrose and so many others back home in Ireland.

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As Cullen looks towards an important Pro12 meeting with Ulster on Friday in Dublin, he will have to consider form and mental vitality just as much as reputation and experience in selecting his side.

There is naturally a balance to be struck here, and changes to the side were always a certainty after two bruising weekends of European action, but there is a longer-term consideration for Cullen here too.

He will back the likes of Sexton, Heaslip and Healy to regain their best form over the coming months, but there is also value in handing more responsibility to Leinster’s future stars as they thirst to be unleashed.

Miracles required

Two defeats from two games, a single match point. Leinster are all but out of the running for the Champions Cup quarter-finals. To revive their hopes in the December double header against Toulon will require a miraculous turnaround.

Cian Healy with Stuart Hooper and Chris Cook Dan Sheridan / INPHO Healy and Leinster have a difficult task ahead in December. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Cullen’s mindset will be that his international players will have another fortnight of Leinster training under their belts before the trip to Stade Mayol on 13 December, two weeks of working on their calling system and structures.

Even still, for Leinster to reach the knock-out stages from this point, with a trip to Wasps and a home fixture against Bath also still to come, would be truly sensational. All the evidence is that they will not feature beyond the pool stages.

With Ulster already on the back foot after their home defeat to Saracens last night, Munster look the best hope for the Irish provinces and the quarter-finals right now. For Leinster, bouncing back in the Pro12 in the coming weeks is vital if their season is not to descend into nightmare territory.

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