Leinster’s European campaign gets underway this weekend when they face Wasps in the newly branded European Champions Cup.
News emerged this week from the Leinster camp that prop Martin Moore will be joining fellow forwards Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, as well as winger Fergus McFadden on the injured list for Leinster.
One can’t help but feel for Leinster coach Matt O’Connor. Last weekend’s win over Zebre provided much needed breathing space for the Leinster man and Moore’s untimely injury serves to remind us of the fickle nature of Leinster’s season so far. They simply can’t catch a break.
An unusually slow start to the season for last year’s Pro12 Champions has seen Leinster put to the sword by Glasgow, Connacht and Munster in recent weeks. This week’s Champions Cup game against London Wasps in the Aviva represents Leinster’s best chance of kicking their season into gear. Can last year’s Pro12 Winners beat Wasps?
Yes, but it won’t be easy.
The most worrying trend this season for Leinster has been their poor performances in the first half of matches. There’s been a tendency to try and coast through the first forty minutes. Contrast this with Wasps’ recent performances. Last weekend saw them tear in the opening half and go in at half time 12-0 up. Should Wasps go to the Aviva with the same intensity, there is little to suggest Leinster are capable of handling a first half onslaught.
One of the reasons for Leinster’s poor start to matches seems to come from their inability to spread the ball wide at the right moments. Play has become rushed and Leinster’s attacking play has become predictable. Isaac Boss’s dip in form has come at the worst possible time for Les Bleus and Luke McGrath’s lack of game time makes it inconceivable he’ll be given the nod for this Saturday. A shame considering the noticeable impact McGrath makes when he comes on.
Even when the backline has the ball, decision-making has been questionable at best. Kicking out of hand both in attack and defence has been uncharacteristically poor and needs to be overhauled. Wasting possession and misjudged decisions are not the Leinster way. Amongst the forwards, matters aren’t much better. Ball carrying this season for the Leinster pack has been almost non-existent. If Wasps want to beat Leinster, now represents their best chance.
Wasps go into the game after a strong first half performance against Bath. Particularly impressive was the London scrum that did a number on a quality Bath side. Wasps dominated Bath in the scrum until Cittadini, the Wasps tighthead, was substituted off with twenty minutes remaining. Cittadini’s substitution almost let Bath back into the match, as the Wasps’ scrum was noticeably weaker following his removal.
In the Back Row Haskell and Johnson proved themselves to be a menace throughout the game. Wasps have real pace at scrum half and on both wings. Indeed Wasps’ wingers proved themselves to be a nuisance with the ball against Bath throughout the match and were remarkably good defensively.
Couple this with an outside centre who can kick the ball precisely from long range and you have a real threat. Wasps are vulnerable in the centre, but the slowness and ineffectiveness of Leinster’s backline play at the moment leaves little to believe that holes will be punched in the Wasps centre. Wasps are no walkovers and with Leinster’s current injury list reading like a whose who of their best players, this game is very much up for grabs.
Leinster are heavy favourites to beat Wasps this Saturday in the betting shops and as a Leinster fan this writer hopes they are right. It’s difficult to look past Leinster’s injury list and Wasps strong first half against Bath. If everything goes to plan Leinster will come out on top but it won’t be easy.
Final prediction? A close-fought Leinster victory.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.