United Rugby Championship: Five takeaways from Leinster v Sharks as the hosts emphatically end the Durbanites’ season

Planet Rugby

2R03EJ2 Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Ireland. 6th May, 2023. United Rugby Championship Rugby, Leinster versus Cell C Sharks: Michael Milne of Leinster celebratres after scoring a try for 12 - 5 Credit: Action Plus Sports/Alamy Live News

Following Leinster’s comprehensive 35-5 victory over the Sharks in the United Rugby Championship (URC) quarter-final, here’s our five takeaways from the clash at the Aviva Stadium.

Mass changes, same old Leinster

When there is an opportunity to punish a side, you can bet that they will take it. The Sharks started the game well and crucially denied Leo Cullen’s side from scoring early on in the fixture, and Grant Williams’ sublime solo score gave them the upper hand.

Leinster wrestled their way back into the game, and after forming a maul inside the Sharks‘ 22, Caelan Doris charged off the back and flattened Makazole Mapimpi to score. The attempted tackle earned Mapimpi 10 minutes in the sin bin, giving Leinster the slightest upper hand, which they exploited.

While Mapimpi was off the pitch, Michael Milne and Jordan Larmour scored, with the conversions from Harry Byrne pushing Leinster into a 16-point lead. The shift in momentum floored the Sharks, and they were never able to recover.

Again in the second half, after coming under the pump at the scrum, Leinster conceded a penalty, but it did not take long for Max Deegan to stride over the try line as the Irish province pounced on the ball after a sloppy Sharks pass and took it through the phases to set the blindside free.

With half an eye on the Champions Cup final, Cullen made nine changes to the side that defeated Toulouse, resting his star players, but it mattered little. The names weren’t the same as those who comprehensively beat the French outfit, but the result was the same. A ruthless edge remains with a wonderfully drilled attack and a defence that bends but does not easily break.

John Plumtree’s tenure can’t come soon enough

It was announced during the week that the former Sharks player and coach is to return to the franchise to take the reins ahead of next season, and boy do they need him. Director of rugby Neil Powell took the role on an interim basis following the departure of Sean Everitt but has been unable to alter their fortunes.

Powell initially had a positive impact but, as his time has gone on, they have slipped into some bad habits, once again looking disjoined as they were eliminated by Leinster. Most of the time, despite being filled with outstanding individual talent – even accounting for their injuries on Saturday – you often question what their game plan is.

At the Aviva Stadium, it seemed to be to ‘scrum and hope’ as they failed to create anything of note in attack. Their try came from Williams’ individual brilliance, combined with a bad defensive read from the hosts, and there was simply not much else from the disappointing South African side.

Plumtree has a big job on his hands, but the ability is there, the head coach just needs to give the team a clear identity. With the players they have, the Sharks can play a number of ways, but it is about getting those structures in place which they currently lack.

Majestic Caelan Doris

He is simply in another stratosphere to every other back-row in the world right now. Doris was incredible for Ireland in the Six Nations and elevated his game to another level during that tournament so, when the number eight is playing in the URC, it almost looks easy for the 25-year-old.

The back-row is playing the type of rugby where you wonder whether it is possible for him to play poorly, with everything he does on the pitch resulting in a positive impact. His carrying game is elite, with his power, combined with athleticism and the outstanding lines he takes, making him incredibly difficult to stop. However, he is also outstanding defensively.

Doris is not a primary breakdown threat, even if his technique is very good, but he does some superb work in the counter-ruck. Few teams can rest when piles into the contact area. The Sharks may have lacked direction, but Leinster’s back rower made it almost for them to garner momentum. When you add all that to his immense skill set, he is some player.

Scrum concerns for Leinster

The replacements did well against Ntuthuko Mchunu and Kerron van Vuuren, but the Irish province were annihilated by Ox Nche and co. for an hour. Andrew Porter, who did well when he came on in the second period, will likely start ahead of Milne in the semi-final, but it was still a strong unit that took to the field.

Nche enjoyed his time against Tadhg Furlong while Thomas du Toit and then Carlu Sadie, who arrived on the field after 23 minutes, took Milne to the cleaners. There are very few weaknesses in this Leinster side, but Cullen will want a better platform in their next couple of knockout matches.

It may not matter in the URC semi-final but, when it comes to facing the fearsome La Rochelle front-row in the Champions Cup final, then that will be an altogether different challenge. They need to get it resolved, or else the French outfit could once again upset the Irishmen in the European showpiece.

The URC-Champions Cup double is still alive

The blue machine powered on as they booked their place in the final four of the URC, where they will face Munster. If they are to reach the final of the URC, they have the luxury of playing their remaining three fixtures at the Aviva Stadium, their second home. This provides them with the ideal opportunity to repeat their success of 2017/18 by winning both competitions.

While it was a gamble to rest some of their international stars against the Sharks, it has paid off well and will pay further dividends in the remaining fixtures, as their opponents will not be able to do the same. The Dubliners can start to believe now that they can add that elusive fifth star and grab another double.

Meanwhile, the Sharks’ season has come to an end in disappointing fashion. The team with arguably the biggest budget of the South African teams will not be playing in the Champions Cup next season. They had the slimmest chance to still secure a place by defeating Leinster and winning the competition, but they hardly landed a blow against the Irish province.

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