Thursday 27 July 2017

George Hook: At times it was like watching an U-12s backline

Sean Cronin, Leinster, is tackled by Jonathan Joseph, left, and Paul James, Bath
Sean Cronin, Leinster, is tackled by Jonathan Joseph, left, and Paul James, Bath
George Hook

George Hook

In the end, Leinster did what they had to do to win. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't even particularly good, but by maintaining their discipline and erring on the side of caution in possession, Leinster were just too cute for their English opponents.

Bath will feel aggrieved at losing the match, despite playing all of the rugby and scoring two tries to Leinster's tally of zero. And but for a headless chicken act in the closing minutes, the visitors might well have stolen victory with a late try. Had they done so, there could have been little cause for complaint from the home support.

Leinster were always going to have to play rough and ugly to win, but it was still worrying to watch a home side littered with international players failing to make a single meaningful line-break over the course of the 80 minutes.

Bath were lauded for their defensive efforts in the immediate post-match analysis, but how difficult is it to drift across the pitch while Leinster shuffled the ball from one pair of hands to the next? Where was the invention and creativity from the Leinster backline? Where were the different angles of attack and variation in the calls?

But for the boot of Ian Madigan, Leinster would have struggled for points. Prior to the inside-centre's first shot at goal, Leinster were afforded 28 metres of advantage by referee Jerome Garces before being called back for a penalty. During that advantage period Leinster had two carries at the Bath try-line without success. Garces was more than liberal with his use of the advantage law and Leinster benefited with three points.

Ben Te'o looked lost at outside-centre, and his difficulty in adapting to the pace and intricacies of rugby union remain a problem. Is it sufficient that a player be allowed to learn his trade in the quarter-finals of a knockout competition? How have Leinster not been able to find a suitable replacement for Brian O'Driscoll, seven months into the season?

The Leinster backline read like a predictable, bland book. Jimmy Gopperth still takes the ball far too deep for the centres to be able to break the gainline, and any time the ball got wide to Luke Fitzgerald or Fergus McFadden on the wing, there was very little space for them to work with.

Te'o is a big, strong man, but not once did the wings come off their line to make themselves available for an inside pass. Gopperth has obviously never heard of the concept of a wrap-around or a loop run. It was like watching an U-12s backline at times.

Leinster's kicking game was also poor, with Gopperth and Rob Kearney the main offenders. Kearney's form has been average for both club and country this season and too many times on Saturday he kicked possession directly to the Bath back-three.

In counter-attack he was also guilty of losing possession. Whether through complacency or a slump in form, Kearney is just not delivering the goods at full-back. Is it time for a change?

Where Gopperth was inadequate and predictable, George Ford was Bath's star player. It is refreshing to see a young, pacey fly-half with the courage to take the ball flat and have a cut off either foot. His first try was a thing of beauty and he created Bath's second try with a sublime break and a beautiful pass to the supporting Stuart Hooper.

If Ford had brought his kicking boots, Bath would have won the game.

Still, England will go into the World Cup in September with a match-winner in the No 10 jersey. Ford just might prove to be the star of the show.

Plotting

Leinster will regroup over the next two weeks and begin plotting their next adventure in Europe. Toulon's victory over Wasps sets up a semi-final showdown against the two-time champions in Marseille.

But how many Leinster fans can honestly say, hand on heart, that this team has what it takes to win?

Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien have a long way to go to get to the level of match fitness required to compete at the highest level and one can only hope that Matt O'Connor gives them as much game-time as possible between now and the semi-final.

Healy, in particular, looks too light and he is less effective with ball in hand as a result. The prop needs game-time and plenty of it.

O'Connor doesn't have injuries as an excuse to fall back on over the next six weeks. The starting team that took to the pitch against Bath, Kane Douglas aside, is as strong as Leinster can put out. That they managed to win their quarter-final with only a few days' preparation together is a positive, but a huge improvement will be required to progress to the next level.

Saturday's performance was enough to dispose of an average-looking Bath, but Toulon are a different animal altogether.

On the basis of Leinster's current form, victory in France seems almost impossible.

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