An away trip to Leinster is probably the toughest fixture of any URC team's schedule. Anything other than a comfortable win for the home side would have been a hugely unexpected outcome. It did not help, either, that the Irish union was quite happy to release even some of its players involved in international match day 23's to help the cause of their provinces, whilst the WRU continues to take a far less helpful stance to our regions.
In these circumstances, this was a case where performance was more important than outcome, and the players on show need to be benchmarked on how close they are getting to one of the deepest squads in Europe.
The main positive was the sheer resilience of the team in repelling wave after wave of Leinster attacks. The defence against an outfit that dominates the breakdown, and overpowers teams through the midfield, and close to the breakdown, was outstanding. The body positions of defenders close to the line were technically excellent and prevented the home side from overwhelming us. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the defensive backfield. Yet again on the road they gave up soft scores and large chunks of yardage, when the players in front of them had done so much to blunt the Leinster attack. We seem to be deploying a defensive system that has the full back and outside half taking up unusual covering positions and allowing our wings to surrender the outside by stepping in, when they have no chance of stopping the ball getting there outside of making a deliberate knock on. As to whether it is an individual personnel problem, or a coaching system problem, is a matter for Toby Booth to figure out, but it is a huge weakness in our defensive game that undoes much of the excellent defensive work done elsewhere on the pitch. It seems to recur in virtually all of our road fixtures, where our defence, particularly down the left flank, is opened up with relative ease.
Outside of the very obvious issues in the backfield and wider channels, the defence went toe to toe with a very powerful outfit, and the breakdown work of Harry Deaves was quite outstanding again. It was also noticeable that, although the smallest player in our pack, he was the most effective carrier, continually fighting to stay on his feet to allow the supporting players the chance to secure a good phase ball from his carries. He was well supported by back row colleague Ethan Roots, who continues to improve with every game, and there was a welcome 30-minute cameo from Dan Lydiate, whose quality is bound to improve the squad for the run in, as we seek that vital top eight finish.
The set piece was a bit of a curate's egg. To the naked eye we appeared to have complete dominance at the scrums, but were not rewarded, thanks to some very strange decisions from Referee Brace. The line out was not good however, with too many of our throws lost, as yet again we struggle when teams aggressively target our line out with athletic jumpers.
The attack remained blunt, and other than two great moments of individual brilliance, when Rhys Webb turned the clock back a few years, we could not build much attacking momentum, let alone create further line breaks. The lack of any kind of foot speed at 10, 13 and 15 made it hard to see how our back line attack could threaten the pro standard defence Leinster possess.
There is no doubt Booth has made us into a team that is resilient, hard to beat, and does not throw in the towel. He must, however, very quickly sort out what is causing the defensive struggles in the back three, and find a remedy, if we are to have a realistic shot at a top eight position by the end of the season.
As for continuing to grow and improve next season, any potential recruitment, which we have already been forewarned of, through press conferences and releases, will by necessity be limited, surgical, and deliberate, must focus on giving our attack a more threatening edge. We cannot expect to be regularly on the winning side if our attack continues to fail to score much more than twenty points per game and relies heavily on penalty kicks to get that many. It is hard to see how the attack can be made threatening without further recruitment in the key halfbacks, full back and number 8 positions that are the spine of any side and key to directing any professional attacking system.