Saturday 3 December 2016

George Hook: Irish provinces heading into an era of mediocrity

Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30

Munster’s Keith Earls stands dejected his side’s defeat to Leicester
Munster’s Keith Earls stands dejected his side’s defeat to Leicester

Another weekend of European rugby passes with the majority of the Irish provinces playing second fiddle to their French and European counterparts. Ulster's impressive win in Toulouse has kept their quarter-final ambitions alive, but Irish rugby fans are now facing into the prospect of a series of dead-rubber matches over the course of the final two rounds of the Champions Cup.

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More worrying than that, the performance levels of the provinces in Europe thus far offers little by way of optimism that things will improve anytime soon.

Munster's promising start at Welford Road last night yielded little meaningful return. Even with the majority of the early referee decisions going Munster's way, all they had to show for their frantic start was three points from the boot of Ian Keatley.

Munster's aggression and commitment in defence was a marked improvement on the no-show calamity at Thomond Park last weekend, but their bravery in securing possession in the contact area was undone by poor execution with ball in hand.

Keatley lacks the clinical attacking instinct necessary to exploit Munster's pace out wide and their lines of running in the back line are still all too predictable.

Denis Hurley's limitations in the centre continue to impede his outside backs. Keith Earls and Simon Zebo must be pulling their hair out on the wings, such is the sporadic and sloppy service they receive. Earls, in particular, had to come off his wing several times and go looking for possession in an attempt to make an impact.

Twenty-three minutes in, and despite Munster having the lion's share of possession and opportunities, Leicester pounced for a try that they scarcely deserved.

Struggled

Leicester's second try typified the gulf in class between the sides. Where Munster struggled to break the line, Leicester had a pace and purpose to their attack that Munster, in their current guise, seem incapable of. Conor Murray spurned two gilt-edged opportunities in the second half with successive forward passes, while Francis Saili failed to finish off an opportunistic break with the try line at his mercy.

Munster finished the game without a try, without a losing bonus point, and with their hopes of reaching the quarters in tatters.

On Saturday evening, in front of an impressive turn-out at the Aviva Stadium, Leinster flattered to deceive for 40 minutes, before eventually tamely heading to an unenviable record of consecutive losses in European competition.

Irish rugby at club and international level is heading for a difficult period of readjustment. As a great man once opined about the state of the game: "There is no shortage of talent, just a shortage of talent that can recognise talent."

Saturday's performance put to bed the notion that Isaac Boss is a first-class number 9. The first time he appeared in Ireland, his poor delivery was obvious. After 250 matches for Ulster, Leinster and Ireland, he has not got better, to the detriment of the players outside him. The difference was palpable with Eoin Reddan directing proceedings against Toulon.

And what about Luke Fitzgerald? Anybody that saw his precocious talent at school would have seen him as a future international centre. Now 28 years of age, we have not seen Fitzgerald get any sort of sustained run in an area where Ireland has little options.

His footwork on Saturday left Ma'a Nonu for dead on more than one occasion and his acceleration off the mark was a deadly weapon in the Leinster back line.

I find it incredible that none of the previous coaching tickets at Leinster saw fit to use Fitzgerald in midfield, instead had him languishing on the wing. Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt preferred to select two full-backs ahead of him at the World Cup.

The Ian Madigan situation does not bear repeating here but Leinster will lose him to France at their peril. Jonathan Sexton was manifestly better than a week ago but the young man is not himself. TV cameras have an unfortunate knack of getting inside their subject and I get no pleasure watching this great talent struggling bravely to overcome the pressures of top-level rugby.

Relaxation

If Schmidt wants a successful Six Nations, he needs his playmaker in form. Sexton should be rested indefinitely and allowed some rest and relaxation. Professional sport treats its players as machines with planned obsolescence, but sympathy and empathy should not be absent. Madigan is perfectly capable of guiding Leinster through the relatively unimportant period until the European championship starts.

It was difficult to know what to make of the first-half performance at the Aviva. Were Leinster good value for their lead? Or did Toulon have plenty of room to improve? We got an answer in the second half when the French side obliterated Leinster in a breathtaking display of physical strength.

The Leinster, and, by definition, Irish scrum is now in trouble. Cian Healy and Marty Moore are not able to sustain the pressure of the increasingly bigger and better scrummagers arriving in the game after the importance of the set-piece had been downgraded for over a decade.

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