He’s here, he’s finally here! Leinster’s marquee signing to replace BOD, everything is going to be ok and we’ll hear no more whinging about our style of play for the rest of the year!
Well no, not really, but the Te’o experiment has begun in earnest, and at the very least, it should be entertaining.
Leinster’s ‘backplay’ (I use inverted commas there for good reason) has been essentially non existent this season, despite having two 10s in the team for most of the games.
Bar flashes against a Scarlets team that were happy to allow quick ball and easy metres, the team has looked toothless. There are quite a number of reasons why.
Injuries to key carriers Healy and O’Brien and to our key ‘quick ball ensurer’ Jennings are certainly factors. Dominic Ryan may be a big hitter and serious athlete, but the inclination has always been that he’s more of a 6. Leinster’s lack of pressure on opposing ruck ball in the first two
Heineken European games has reinforced that point. Remove such experience, quality and ‘X Factor’ from any team and they’d struggle.
Further out, Gopperth has been a shadow of what he was last year. The default, and indeed only tactic in the arsenal is the dreaded inside ball to Fanning on the charge (resulting in a pick 7 against Wasps) and Gopperth’s breaks have more often resulted in a difficulty in getting the ball back, rather than a good platform.
Madigan, while playing in an unfamiliar position and kicking immaculately, simply isn’t a playmaker. There are varying types of ‘creativity’. Madigan has always been about creating for himself, rather than creating for others generally, and that flat, wristy pass has been sparingly used so far.
And the final piece in the jigsaw is, of course, the coach. Realistically, all unbiased opinion of O’Connor from fans is now a thing of the past. The majority of Leinster fans have turned on their coach, and despite two hard fought wins from two, seem to have written off the season. Indeed, some across fan sites are tacitly hinting at actively wanting Leinster to lose, so O’Connor will ‘bugger off back to Leicester’. But enough about that nonsense.
In reality, the drop in skillset and attack from Schmidt to O’Connor has been one of the main issues with a lack of buy in from fans. Though Leinster often played hard, attritional rugby under St. Joe (remember Montpellier, Glasgow, Bath away for example), this was always tempered by the feeling that at any second, the backline could conjure up something.
O’Connor would likely say that backplay is much easier when you’ve geniuses like Nacewa, Sexton and O’Driscoll in tow, but nonetheless, this is an area that needs work.
Against Castres on Sunday, Leinster had 63% possession. And yet never looked like scoring a try.
At one point, a lineout maul broke away. Leinster had the width of the field to play with, a backline full of talent and quick ball. Boss tosses to Gopperth. Gopperth immediately fires a lame duck pass to his inside centre partner. Madigan then throws a forward pass to an onrushing Darcy, and Leinster are back under the kosh in the scrum.
Indeed, one of the only bits of backline attacking play that looked structured was the usage of the old outside/inside move that Schmidt patented. The same one that bore fruit against Clermont in Bordeaux and England in Twickers last year.
A major part of this paucity of attack play is illustrated in the offloading game.
Here’s a pretty damning stat for all the MOC haterz out there.
In the first two rounds of Europe and including the Munster clash, Leinster made a total of 14 offloads in 240 minutes rugby. That’s despite having the majority (a vast majority in the case of Wasps and Castres) of possession in all games.
This works out as 8 against Munster, 5 against Castres and 1 against Wasps at home.
Whether a ploy, or simply poor skillset, that’s not going to win any trophies.
For context, Munster made 19 in the same period, despite a supposed ‘return to basics’. Toulon have made 27 in just their two European games so far.
The gif passage below illustrates three of Leinster’s top carriers taking contact on their own terms, offloading smartly and reaping the rewards. Despite two of these players not being available, it’s a template that Leinster can and will need to still employ at times.
On Friday night, Big Ben Te’o strides out at the RDS for the first time. Inclinations this week from inside the camp have been positive, with rucking an obvious sticking point.
Our new arrival’s physicality needs to, and will, be used.
If we’re to go by the stats on the Leinster website, Te’o is bigger and heavier than Shane Jennings. But he’ll have to do more than bosh it up from midfield.
Coming from NRL, the Samoan seemingly has a strong handling skillset, including, importantly, a good offload. (Gif from TheScore.ie)
In the guise of Jamie Roberts, Ma’a Nonu or indeed Casey Laulala, Leinster should be relying on their new signing to take the brunt of big defenders, pick up the carrying slack and look to free his arms in contact.
This subtle change to the backline structure, with a new physical presence, means Te’o can help to release outside back ‘trail runners’ on dummy pop passes and offloads in the tackle.
He also has the physicality, speed and step to bring momentum into the tackle, which makes the offload far more likely to be successful.
If Leinster’s patterns in backplay aren’t up to scratch, and we’re missing some of our key forward carriers, it becomes increasingly important that when metres are made, by Heaslip, Cronin, Ruddock or indeed our new #13 that players are on hand to receive. Toner too has some of the best hands in the game. O’Connor needs the likes of Madigan, Fitzgerald and Kirchner, all smart players, to come onto the these big guys at pace.
Sure, there will be some positional slip-ups from Te’o at the start, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Leinster’s back play needs to change.
Rightly or wrongly (and the latter in my view), Leinster fans sometimes value aesthetics of attacking play over the result. But in this case, there’s no reason why the two can’t be married a bit better.
Let’s hope O’Connor, Richie Murphy and co. are awaiting a special delivery from Oz to do just that, because a display like last weekend against a better team will result in elimination in 2015. It doesn’t need to be champagne stuff, but a little more diversity would be nice please.