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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
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Leinster march on but they must be mindful that scrum frailties still linger

Cian Healy holds off the challenge of Gael Fickou of Racing 92. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

On the face of it, things couldn’t be going much better for Leinster: 16/16 wins this season; 12 bonus points; 568 points and 82 tries scored. Add the all-important Champions Cup top seed spot that means Leinster won’t have to play outside Dublin in their quest to win that elusive fifth star, and Leo Cullen must be feeling pretty good about life.

Scratch beneath the surface and beyond the impressive numbers, however, and a 36-10 win on Saturday,  the warning signs are glaring.

For the third game running, Leinster’s scrum was under huge pressure, their defensive maul creaked, and their discipline was poor.

They got away with it again at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, but Racing 92 exposed the same old frailties that will prove very costly unless Leinster eradicate them come the latter stages.

The most frustrating thing is that Leinster spent much of last week working hard on solidifying the set-piece, yet despite knowing what Racing were going to throw at them, they still struggled to contain the French side at different stages.

​Leinster’s fitness and potency in attack ultimately told in the end, yet it would be naive to overlook the deficiencies within their performance.

By half-time, Cullen’s side had conceded 10 penalties and although they did tidy up their discipline after the break by only giving away another four, 14 penalties is unacceptable for a team like Leinster – particularly when their penalty count in the previous two games read: Gloucester (17), Ospreys (13).

Pointing the finger at fussy officiating would be a cop-out, and to be fair no one within the Leinster set-up did so. Instead, they recognised the need to improve.

The reliance on Tadhg Furlong remains as strong as ever, though, which will have Andy Farrell just as concerned as Cullen must be.

Leinster’s creaking scrum is a major cause for concern and whenever Furlong isn’t fit, it makes for nervy times for both club and country, as opposition teams are now viewing the set-piece as a rare chance to get after Leinster.

Scrum coach Robin McBryde, whose role sees him work closely with the pack in general, has a big job on his hands to get things right.

“We conceded maul tries last week, we conceded a maul try this week as well,” back-row Josh van der Flier pointed out. “I think it comes with playing those big (teams) like Gloucester, Racing, with a big pack, real physical, some really good athletes, very well prepared, they do their homework in everything.

“You’re bound to get challenged in a lot of ways and I think the maul is certainly something. It’s been a positive for us in terms of attack and in terms of defending, it’s one of the access points in general. Definitely stopping the threat of opposition is (important).”

Ulster lie in wait in the round of 16, and with even more powerful teams likely to be coming down the line, Leinster received enough of a scare at the weekend to know that improvements are required if they are to avoid a second successive trophy-less season.

Getting a wake-up call and still managing to come away with a bonus-point win is a good position to be in, as Cullen welcomed Racing asking his side plenty of questions.

“Yeah, exactly, you’re looking to learn from the games all the time,” Cullen said.

“To get that reminder, it’s like ‘oof’. It’s about making sure we’re clear on things and how we get ourselves into the game, and if we get ourselves in trouble, how do we get ourselves out of trouble? Not compounding errors etc, understanding the referee.

“We gave away a lot of penalties, so we need to be better or have a better understanding of the interpretations on any given day.

“There are definitely some good reminders for us. The pool stages are about getting through and trying to get yourself into the best possible shape.

“You’re never quite sure what happens during the Six Nations. We will plan and obviously watch the games play out, but it’s a nice place to be, as in already through, and have a decent seeding as well.”

With 20 of his players joining the Ireland squad, Cullen will be hoping they all come back in one piece, especially Furlong.

Having breezed through the pool stages with maximum points and minimum fuss, Leinster have signalled their intent, and while it will take a top team to beat them at home, they may not be the immovable force many people think. 

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