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Neil Francis: Blues may regret it if they drop Lowe

On run: James Lowe makes headway against Toulouse in the pool stages
On run: James Lowe makes headway against Toulouse in the pool stages

By Neil Francis

I was out on my bike last week and had this strange feeling. I couldn't think of it straight away but then it came to me.

The road was different and as I looked further down the asphalt, I noticed that all of the potholes had been filled in and the road looked almost new.

And then I thought, 'Silly me, the local elections are on May 24 and this happens every four years'.

What intrigues me is how the council actually manage to fix the roads because it begs the question, what have they been doing for the last four years?

The Champions Cup semis come up this weekend and like the road's timely repairs, I often wonder how Leinster manage to put in strong performances months - and sometimes years - after their previous best display.

This season their campaign has been perforated by some pretty average performances and then the odd punctuation mark of something resembling the quality that we all know they have.

This season, Leinster have been shoddy against provincial rivals.

Yes, they have won, but they have been far from convincing and their two best performances this season, appropriately enough, have been against their opponents this Sunday, Toulouse.

You must discount that first Pool 1 game against Wasps at the RDS - the side now plying their trade out of Coventry were an embarrassment that day.

You do get the impression that Leinster have regressed a little bit but the stats suggest otherwise.

Leinster scored more tries in their pool games and conceded fewer than they did last year and although the PRO14 wouldn't be the most accurate barometer of how they are functioning, they have already well surpassed all their indices from last season with a game against Ulster to go.

The conventional wisdom is that Leinster were on fire last year and so if they are better on the scoreboard, in attack and defence, they should be primed for another successful season.

I think, though, that all of their opposition have caught up with them and the three sides left in the Champions Cup are in a far better condition to expose them.

I do think that Leinster will win on Sunday but it presupposes that mentally they are right from the very start and that their game plan is the correct one on the day.

What concerns me is how little game time Leinster's important players have played.

I do not quite understand how Leinster, or any Irish side, manage to bring their long-term injury players right back up to the pitch and intensity of a serious game when they may have been out for a month or two.

Toulouse's key players and leaders are in top form, they seem to have something special brewing and they come to the Aviva knowing they have a good chance of unseating Leinster.

There were 11 offloads from the Toulouse forwards in their win over Clermont last weekend.

They have found their traditional game again and the way their big men link up with their backs will cause Leinster no end of difficulty.

It was, as the French commentator said, 'la festival de la passe'.

It is the one area where Toulouse have a real edge over Leinster - having watched some of the Blues' laboured passing over the last few months, you would wonder whether the accuracy that they need to beat Toulouse can be switched on.

The relevance of last week's 24-39 loss to a fully-loaded Glasgow can be summed up in one sentence: 'Leinster can be bothered by well-organised, dynamic sides that can pass and exploit space'.

Leinster had only four or five starters who will play this weekend but they were embarrassed in the last 15 minutes.

The difference between the two sides will be demonstrated in the quality of Leinster's 10-12-13 axis.

Once again, the number of times that Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose have played together in blue or green has been strictly limited.

The hope is that the lack of time spent together will not be a major factor and that they sync.

Leinster's team selection will also play a key part in how the reigning champions perform.

In the away game against Toulouse in the pool, James Lowe and Scott Fardy were both involved but it looks as if Luke McGrath will start this weekend with Jamison Gibson-Park on the bench.

Nick McCarthy hasn't got any game time recently and I'm not sure Leinster will risk picking Hugh O'Sullivan on the bench.

On the basis Fardy has to be involved, it means Lowe will not see action which I think would be a dreadful mistake as he is such an effective player, a genuine game-changer.

It is important that Leinster don't get suckered into playing a fast-and-loose game. They must be hard-nosed and pragmatic, pin the French into their own half and turn it into a game of tactical kicking if they must.

This is not the Toulouse of old that might not be entrusted to last 80 minutes. This is not a side that you flop over the line against.

Leinster did just enough against Ulster but if they have any pretensions of retaining this title a show of strength and a demonstration that they can turn it on when it is required is the absolute minimum.

Belfast Telegraph


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