Leinster pay price in cohesion for squad depth

You may have heard by now that Leinster have used 56 players this season.

Leo Cullen is particularly fond of this line, or at least he was of the fact that they had made use of 55 for some time until Will Connors added one more to the tally when coming off the bench against Glasgow Warriors with six minutes to play last weekend.

It’s a mad number, no doubt about it, but more applicable to Sunday’s European date with Toulouse is the fact the reigning champions have given game time to 44 of those players inside the last three games alone; against Ulster, Benetton, and the Warriors.

It’s no wonder they’ve struggled to hit their straps of late. “There’s been a huge amount of changes in the teams so, from the cohesion point of view, it’s probably been lacking,” said scrum-half Luke McGrath.

“But, in saying that, we can’t use that excuse after Sunday. That’s why this week is huge on the pitch, to get that cohesion up to scratch.

“We watched Toulouse against Clermont (last Sunday), they’re absolutely lethal. It looked like Clermont had that game won, but they played right to the 80th minute and scored a great try. We’re under no illusions as to the challenge that awaits us.”

Toulouse’s form has been spectacular, home and away.

An understrength side did lose out to Toulon two weekends ago but the only other loss on the road has been in Dublin. Agen, Racing (twice), Stade Francais and La Rochelle have all had their homes raided by the red and black since the New Year.

There has been little choice but to put their best foot forward given Clermont have been so hot on their heels in the Top 14. Leinster’s motivation has been less pronounced given they secured a PRO14 home play-off berth some time ago and it has shown in selection and results.

The concern for them is how little time they have had to gel and how so many key players are so low on minutes. Jonathan Sexton, Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw are all dangerously close to undercooked and Sean O’Brien is still rediscovering his best.

That’s just for starters.

None of Jack Conan, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock or Garry Ringrose have played since Ulster three week ago. Sean Cronin and Cian Healy have played just half a game, Tadhg Furlong 25 minutes and they are without Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier who are long-term injury absentees.

The cliche goes that champions need to kick on to stay ahead of the chasing posse but this is a Leinster side operating in the wake of Isa Ncewa’s retirement and the migrations of Joey Carbery to Munster and Jordi Murphy to Ulster.

It’s no wonder they’re extolling the virtues of training this week.

“It just kinda gives you confidence. We’d have plays we want to try and implement at the weekend. It’s getting them up to scratch, running the right lines, not over-running it, things like that,” said McGrath.

“If there are a couple of tough pitch sessions during the week that build your fitness you feel much better for it, and that feeds into your mentality going in feeling confident and ready to go.”

Maybe so, but it’s difficult to argue that they are as good a side as the one that claimed the double 11 months ago, regardless of the fact that they were the Champions Cup’s highest try scorers in the pool table and utterly dominant in their league conference.


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