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'If it's on, we will play' - Leinster looking to find next gear against Wasps

Head coach Matt O’Connor is hopeful that his players hit the right emotional pitch at the RDS.

Leinster are hopeful of a winning evening at the RDS.
Leinster are hopeful of a winning evening at the RDS.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

WHATEVER ABOUT MATT O’Connor’s team selection – there appears to be discontent among a portion of the Leinster faithful – this evening’s clash with Wasps [KO 17.15] at the RDS is all about how the various pieces fit together.

“Rugby is a very, very simple game,” said captain Jamie Heaslip at the squad’s UCD training base this week.

“When you have the ball, get over the gainline. When you don’t, stop them getting over the gainline. That’s the battle that you’ve got to constantly win.”

Three wins out of six so far in this campaign suggest that Leinster have yet to find a consistent formula in emerging victorious from that essential fight.

The truth is that there are many ways of winning the gainline; Leinster’s blueprint has long been built around breakdown efficiency – something that has been present only intermittently in the early stages of the Pro12.

For forwards and backs, it’s all about breakdown,” says Heaslip. “Just providing quick ball for our backline. We know that with the type of ball carriers that we have and the backs we have that if we provide quick ball, we can break teams down.

“We have to be confident that we can hold onto the ball for three or four-minute periods and get something off the back of that pressure, be it three points or a try.”

What goes into winning the breakdown? Technical skills are obviously of major importance, but if a team is not mentally in the right place to be aggressive in their rucking, no amount of technique will save the situation.

Jamie Heaslip Heaslip is as focused on the breakdown as ever. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Against Munster two weekends ago, Leinster were lacking in the emotional intensity they needed at crucial times, and O’Connor has pointed to that element as a crucial factor for the Wasps fixture.

European competition is likely to push Leinster to a higher fever pitch, but O’Connor says a coach can never be fully certain that his team are in the right place mentally.

“It’s about the messages that you send, it’s about how you structure the week to make sure that the key things are being ticked off. You never really know – it’s pretty hard to work out at stages whether guys are in the right frame of mind.

But you put the systems in place to make sure that guys are delivering on what they need to deliver on and that, as a group, we’ve got clarity on the key things that make us really good.”

One of the systems O’Connor places great store in is playing the game inside the opposition half. Much to the dismay of some Leinster purists, that often involves kicking out of their own portion of the pitch.

However, Heaslip denies that his side have become too focused on territory and says they will still take opportunities to strike from deep.

“If it’s on, we will play. If a defensive team puts three in the backfield and we’ve got an edge, we’ll take those metres on the sideline. They’re as good as the metres up the middle of the field, to be honest, and you still get to keep the ball.

Jimmy Gopperth Gopperth has been asked to kick the ball out of Leinster's half repeatedly. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think we have done that over the last couple of seasons and teams are probably respecting that and closing down that option for us. It means that it’s not always on, so we play the territory and we will have to kick it.

“If you employ a good chase line then you’ll win that gainline battle if they start playing a bit of kick tennis. We’ll still play if teams show us that space, we’ll play. I think that’s always been the motto here.”

It would be encouraging to see Leinster take more risks in their use of the ball, although Heaslip believes that creating try-scoring chances has not been an issue, more so the finishing of those opportunities.

I think throughout the year, we’ve been quite innovative in how we’ve created our plays,” says Heaslip. “We’ve actually created quite a few linebreaks, but we haven’t finished them and been as clinical as we want to be.”

Finding that edge will be important against a Wasps side that arrives with an identical winning record to Leinster, three from six. They will have viewed the form of O’Connor’s side as a chance to claim an away scalp.

“They’ve got some huge threats on the field,” says O’Connor of Wasps. “They’ve some unbelievable finishers, a strong back row. [Joe] Simpson’s good on the ball, [Andy] Goode kicks all his goals and puts them in the right areas. They’re pretty well balanced to be fair.

“From that end, we’re going to be reliant on making sure that we react to it. You can’t afford to kick poorly, you can’t afford to turn over ball and give them unstructured opportunities. If you do, they’re very, very dangerous.”

Leinster: Ian Madigan; Zane Kirchner, Gordon D’Arcy, Noel Reid, Darragh Fanning; Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan; Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Michael Bent; Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy; Rhys Ruddock, Dominic Ryan; Jamie Heaslip (capt.).

Replacements: Richardt Strauss, Ed Byrne, Tadhg Furlong, Kane Douglas, Jack Conan, Isaac Boss, Mick McGrath, Luke Fitzgerald.

Wasps: Andrea Masi; Christian Wade, Elliott Daly, Alapati Leiua, Sailosi Tagicakibau; Andy Goode, Joe Simpson; Matt Mullan (capt.), Carlo Festuccia, Lorenzo Cittadini; Joe Launchbury, Bradley Davies; Ashley Johnson, Guy Thompson, Nathan Hughes.

Replacements: Tom Lindsay, Simon McIntyre, Jake Cooper-Woolley, James Gaskell, Sam Jones, Charlie Davies, Rob Miller, Chris Bell.

Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales).

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Murray Kinsella

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