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Five takeaways from Leinster's reality check loss to the Bulls

By Ian Cameron
Caelan Doris of Leinster, centre, and teammates after their side's defeat in the United Rugby Championship semi-final match between Vodacom Bulls and Leinster at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo By Shaun Roy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Another weekend, another Leinster loss in a big knockout match. Three seasons now Leinster have been the best team in the URC and arguably Europe, before dropping the metaphorical ball when it mattered most.

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Huge credit must go to Jake White’s Bulls, who outfoxed Leo Cullen and Jacques Nienaber’s men in the strategy department and who deserve all the plaudits in the world for a gutsy and well-deserved win over the perennial URC top dogs.

Yet Leinster’s Gordian knot must also be tackled. This well-resourced team – with some of the best players in the world to call upon – has once again fluffed their lines.

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Jake White talks about what the semifinal victory means to him

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Jake White talks about what the semifinal victory means to him

Here we look at five Leinster takeaways following their 25-20 loss to Bulls in Pretoria.

Lack of South African experience
The RTE panel pulled up a remarkable stat prior to kick-off in Pretoria on Saturday. Just two of Leinster’s starting 15 had prior experience of playing URC matches in South Africa.

Leinster have been sending their B team south over the last few seasons and the lack of experience among the front-liners on the road may have come back to bite them on the arse here.

Often treated to knockout to matches at the Aviva Stadium – a so-called neutral venue for much of their European assignments – Cullen’s A-listers are light on experience when it comes to winning on the road against serious operators like the Bulls, and that’s before you consider altitude. As the infamous sign at Loftus attests: ‘Altitude. 1350m. It matters.’

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Head-to-Head

Last 5 Meetings

Wins
3
Draws
0
Wins
2
Average Points scored
26
26
First try wins
60%
Home team wins
80%

Simply put, the IRFU’s new Performance Director David Humphries needs to address the ‘cotton-wooling’ of players at provincial level. Player welfare is all well and good but Leinster must strike a balance with their Test players. The risk is they become more mollycoddled than battle-hardened at the sharp end of the season.

Missing Hugo
While Leinster certainly knew that they would miss Hugo Keenan when it was announced that he was going to join the Ireland Sevens team in time for the Olympics, they can’t possibly have imagined how much the absence of the fullback would hamper them over the last two weekends.

Leinster’s back three is a very different proposition without Keenan and the Bulls ruthlessly exploited this at Loftus, peppering Jimmy O’Brien, James Lowe and Jordan Larmour with kicks all afternoon. The tactic worked, with Leinster effectively pinned back for much for the 80 minutes and left trying to kick their way out of trouble.

Leinster Champions Cup final team
Hugo Keenan will start for Leinster versus Toulouse (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
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O’Brien is a fine utility player who can cover a multitude of positions, but he’s not at Keenan’s level, and the backfield looks unsettled as a result. O’Brien was ultimately eclipsed by Springboks’ fullback Willie Le Roux on Saturday, who was superb before being taken off.

Scrum reality check
Maybe the biggest concern for Leinster and therefore Ireland going forward are the glaring cracks that are starting to appear in the scrum.

The Bulls obliterated Ireland’s front row on Saturday in a manner that hasn’t been seen since England’s 2012 Six Nations dismantling of Tom Court and co at Twickenham. Wilco Louw bullied Andrew Porter – normally an immovable force on the loosehead side of the scrum and certainly Leinster’s best scrummager – repeatedly splitting his and Sheehan’s bind down the middle.

Meanwhile, Tadhg Furlong’s scrummaging malaise can no longer be ignored.

Tadhg Furlong
NANTES, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 16: Tadhg Furlong of Ireland looks on at full-time following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Ireland and Tonga at Stade de la Beaujoire on September 16, 2023 in Nantes, France. (Photo by David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The 31-year-old may be the finest tighthead Ireland have ever produced but there’s no getting away from the decline in this area of his game over the last two seasons. When Ireland’s scrum has been dominant, it’s almost always on Porter’s side. While Furlong’s carrying is one of the great sights in rugby union, his scrummaging is starting to bear more resemblance to former Ireland tighthead John Hayes, where parity at setpiece was the best-case scenario.

There are no clear alternatives to Porter and Furlong for Leinster or Ireland, who are among the first names on the teamsheet when fit. The rather obvious question is if the Bulls could do this to the Leinster scrum, what will the Boks do to Ireland’s next month?

Attacking bluntness
The acquisition of defensive mastermind Jacques Nienaber was rightly celebrated last year, but Leinster are keenly feeling the loss of Stuart Lancaster in attack.

The Irish province’s famous attack has looked decidedly blunt this season. With Nienaber charged with shoring up the blue wall in defence, the attack has become more reliant on the odd moment of individual brilliance for results rather than any apparent grand plan from management.

Leinster’s offence lacks the cutting edge that Andy Farrell’s Ireland so effortlessly conjures from the same set of players. Admittedly, the absence of Garry Ringrose for much of the season with injury and Test duty hasn’t helped matters. The regular midfield of Robbie Henshaw and rookie Jamie Osborne – while physically imposing – feels a little one-note.

Tyler Bleyendaal
Tyler Bleyendaal during Munster Rugby Squad Training at University of Limerick in Limerick. (Photo By Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The addition of attack coach Tyler Bleyendaal and All Blacks superstar Jordie Barrett next season couldn’t come sooner, as a step change in attack is badly needed.

The search for Johnny Sexton’s heir goes on
Leinster have circled the wagons all season around the oft-criticised Ross Byrne, their increasingly embattled flyhalf.

You can’t help but feel for Byrne. Johnny Sexton’s boots were always going to be a struggle to fill and no Leinster fan was expecting miracles. Yet, Byrne, a competent standoff with a reliable boot, just isn’t cutting the mustard. He lacks the presence that makes great tens stand out and the 29-year-old possesses next to no threat when bringing the ball to the line.

Leinster with Byrne at the wheel too often feel plodding and predictable.

Leinster
Ross Byrne of Leinster, bottom, looks on during the Investec Champions Cup final between Leinster and Toulouse at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, England. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The broad consensus among Leinster fans is that one of either Ciaran Frawley or Sam Prendergast need to be fast-tracked at 10, yet Cullen and co haven’t got the memo. Both need more playing time but Cullen – in an apparent bid to keep all four of his flyhalves (let us not forget Harry Byrne) happy – has been left doling out scraps of game time to the understudies, while preferring Ross Byrne in the big games.

Cullen must now give someone else a meaningful run at ten, even if that means hurting players’ feelings.

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Comments

7 Comments
C
Craig 30 days ago

It’s all good for rugby guys.
That's why there is so much more interest now.
Fans enjoy it so much when it’s so competitive in a tournament

S
Simon 31 days ago

Porter scrummages illegally and against weaker tight heads, gets away with the illusion of being dominant. In reality he turns in immediately after contact and therefore does not give the tighthead a shoulder to scrummage against. The result is either a penalty for a collapse or the scrum moves forward and another penalty advantage is gained. Lowe is a beast and did not allow Porter to turn in on contact and when this happens we all can see how ineffective the Irish scrum is with Furlong no longer able to perform at this level.
Hopefully other coaches will see this and get their tightheads to dominate the hit against Porter and thereby nullify the Irish scrum as a tactic for gaining penalties.
And we have seen in the last 3 years that when opposition forwards get physical with Leinster, they cannot cope and resort to giving away penalties and losing breakdown after breakdown.
The blueprint for coaches is there on how to beat Leinster and Ireland.

L
Liam 31 days ago

I genuinely thought a lot of irelands choking was down to jonny, but seems it's wider than his petulance and entitlement.

S
Steve 31 days ago

And not (really!) wishing to put the boot in, Leinster were actually lucky to get away with just a five-point loss, when it should probably have been fifteen or twenty, thanks to one of the worst reffing (including the apparently non-existent TMO) displays I've seen since Bryce Lawrence disgracefully non-whistled the Boks out of the 2011 RWC in order to let the very unsuccessful ABs finally win one after 20 years. Grove-White was absolutely and utterly useless (or corrupt!!) and should never be allowed to ref another major game like Saturday's until he's been through a re-education course (like those silly speed awareness ones they have in the UK) and learn, for example, that if you allow advantage for a penalty, you go back for the thing if the resulting move breaks down!

F
Frank 31 days ago

Keenan is possibly the best fullback in the world and would be a massive loss to any side. Porter being found out is no real surprise. He's all brawn and little brain. Furlong has been a dwindling force, but thought a huge game like this would have brought out a better performance. Being a bedrock of pack dominance for some time, it may well be time for a rethink.

J
John 31 days ago

Certainly some of what is listed here is true. Cracks have not started to appear in the scrum though. They have been wide open for quite a while. One immediate improvement that can be made is to replace Ross Byrne at OH in big games. He isn’t quite good enough and is a bit of a weak link in those games. Sam Prendergast will hopefully provide the answer but if not quite yet it should be Frawley. There also needs to be a fresh influx of players and the Irish U20 team of the past 3 seasons has been dominant. Some of those players need to start filtering through now as there a number of players who have had their chances and not been able to get the team over the line and the lineup is now a bit stale. And lastly Leinster player much better rugby under Lancaster. I was a bit worried when Nienebar came in not because I doubted his ability as a coach but because he would make the team more defensive in their play. Some would have said that’s what was needed to get over the line but it got them no closer this season just with less tries scored. Snyman and Barrett come in next season but there are further shakeups required and Leo will have ask himself if he feels he is genuinely the one to take the team to silverware.

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