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Gordon D’Arcy: Leinster come up agonisingly short in game of inches

Leo Cullen’s side’s attack just lacked that clinical edge that was required to nudge them over the line

I’ve a confession to make. In another life, on big match days when time allowed, I often watched the same movie – Any Given Sunday. It had a triggering effect in getting me into the right frame of mind to play a game.

Al Pacino’s character Tony D’Amato, head coach of the fictional Miami Sharks American football team, hits the right notes in a speech that galvanises his team to deliver a winning performance. In the film it is one of the first times that D’Amato is honest with himself and his players and comes up with the theory that “life is a game of inches”.

He says to his players: “So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small, I mean one half a-step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it, one half a second too slow, or too fast, you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us.”

I can pretty much recall that monologue verbatim.

It sprang to mind while watching Toulouse and Leinster play out one of the tensest finals I have ever witnessed, a battle of inches. There is no shame in losing a match of that ilk. Leinster left everything on the field, the margins in real time were absolutely minuscule but have grown to epic proportions in the aftermath, based on the absolutism of hindsight.

The Champions Cup final was played on the margins in every sense, the offside line, the touchline where a stud mark on the whitewash denied a couple of tries, and also a drop goal that needed to be checked; a true game of inches.

There was very little separating these teams in the build-up to the final, the stats suggested Leinster and Toulouse presented a mirror image, albeit with some slight imperfections in the reflection. There were plenty of similarities: rucks won, ruck speed, number of passes made, right down to the age profile of the players.

One area in which the French club outshone their rivals was in tries scored; 47 across the tournament compared to Leinster’s 31. That discrepancy in an attacking end product was highlighted from the get-go as Toulouse looked more threatening with the ball in hand, with Juan Cruz Mallía and Antoine Dupont almost combining for an explosive opening salvo.

However, Leinster stayed in the fight, and relied on their main area of focus over the last 12 months, defence. Big players made big plays. Jamison Gibson-Park and Jordan Larmour scrambled superbly to pull off important try-saving tackles, as the Irish province managed to keep Toulouse at arm’s length in try scoring terms until extra time.

The desire to address the ‘La Rochelle’ dilemma, whereby Leinster were continually reeled in by the power of a bigger French outfit, regardless of how much a head start they managed to give themselves, had been more or less resolved as was evidenced in their two victories over Ronan O’Gara’s team this season.

Toulouse were ultra physical, a king-size pain at the breakdown, won crucial turnovers and managed to successfully defend the Leinster maul but they did not overpower Leo Cullen’s side. Leinster were able to absorb almost everything thrown at them and will, no doubt, feel a bit more accuracy might have rescued the victory that was within touching distance throughout the contest.

In a broader context, now that the retrospection has begun, did this preoccupation with defence come at a cost to the Leinster attack? Often when a team has a different focus, standards in other areas of their game may drop, even marginally.

The Leinster attack has struggled to maintain a high level consistently this season and that was reflected in the match at the weekend. The couple of chances or half chances that came Leinster’s way were rushed, passes missed their targets and running lines were a step off what was required at the time.

I wrote last week that Leinster’s defence needed to feed into the attack and in truth that never really materialised. Leinster’s attack in the final was too often predictable and, as the match progressed, Toulouse looked the more dangerous in the try-scoring stakes.

Contrast the effectiveness of the respective attacks: Leinster relied heavily on structure and shape while Toulouse entrusted calls to individuals willing to add a personal twist to team patterns. Most teams will have an attack shape that players look to build into but there should be a balance between the structure and allowing players to use instinct on occasion.

If a team doesn’t have that variety or spark, then they quickly become predictable. I feel that the Toulouse attack shape has less structure than most teams, they rely much more on the instincts of the individuals, a point of difference.

When Irish teams have been successful in Europe, they have always had high-quality overseas players to complement the ‘locals’. Leinster’s four triumphs have been underpinned by pivotal contributions from players like Rocky Elsom, Isa Nacewa, Nathan Hines, and Brad Thorn; they came with big reputations and delivered, spectacularly.

Over the last couple of seasons, Leinster have not been as prescient or opportunistic in gathering marquee talent that adds significantly to the collective and offers points of difference to the home-grown talent. One of the French papers suggested that the Leinster bench was “more understudies than finishers”, a damning criticism.

The signing of RG Snyman and Jordie Barrett suggests a return to what has worked well in the past, but the rest of the group will have to kick on again with that laser focus and belief if they are to contest another European final next season.

In my experience management is about coping with complexity and leadership in dealing with change. Leinster need a bit of both this week, as they welcome Connacht to the RDS. In the desire to try to fix what went wrong against Toulouse, making good decisions in selection terms is crucial; so too, players taking ownership of mistakes.

The reality is that Leinster’s approach at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was almost enough. As I’ve said before, history doesn’t care about performances, only results. I would be surprised if Leo and his coaches deviate too far away from last week’s plan and team.

A knee-jerk reaction to outside scrutiny at this stage in the season would be out of character. The message will stay the same, but the performance cannot. Leinster must attack this week with a singular focus. Nothing else will suffice or, to be honest, matters. Every week from now on, if they can keep winning, will test the character of the group.

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