George Hook: Madigan key to Clermont leaving empty-handed
Published 15/12/2012 | 05:00
It may be a bit much to expect a repeat of the heroics displayed last weekend by Munster and Leinster. The southern province easily have the tougher task as it is hard to believe that Saracens will perform as poorly in the set-piece and Owen Farrell will kick as badly with the placed ball.
Meanwhile, Leinster must win at the Aviva and deny Clermont a bonus point. The extra point for the home team seems out of reach, based on the defensive capabilities of the French last week. If that clash confounded the pundits, then this week is more likely to be easier to predict.
Listening to Joe Schmidt's interview after the game last weekend, it was perfectly obvious that he was deeply disappointed to have lost the game. In fact, watching, one felt that a Munster of old might have created a drop goal opportunity. Jonny Sexton may well have had a last-minute kick in mind, but the failure at the line-out meant that the hard-gained territorial advantage was lost.
The drop goal may seem an unfair way to gain an advantage in a rugby match, but it requires huge organisation and control of the ball to set up a kicking position. Leinster have yet to create that level of control – like their colleagues in Munster – or simply want to win in style in the manner prescribed by the coach.
Sexton's decision to cross-kick rather than go for position at a crucial stage of the match demonstrated Leinster's desire to win, but surely pragmatism should also have been evident. At all times during the second half of the titanic struggle in the south of France one sensed that Leinster were trying to win the match and that a draw was simply not in their calculations.
One could not but be proud of their confidence and attitude, particularly shorn as they were of some of their top-line players, but a draw would have been a fantastic result in the impregnable fortress where Clermont had been undefeated for 50 games. A draw also would have crucially changed the mathematics of the table.
Leinster must now win their remaining three games with at least two bonus points and hope that their French opponents slip up.
The fixture list has a real banana skin in the final weekend as Exeter have proved how difficult a team they are at home. One would obviously fancy Leinster to win, but a bonus point might be less certain. It is indicative of Leinster's mindset that calculations are already being made of the points requirement for second and a place in the knockout stages.
The good news is that the Leinster scrum functioned so efficiently last weekend. I have no doubt that the line-out problems will be fixed and we can assume that Sexton will have an adequate supply of possession.
The problem for breaking down the Clermont defence will rest with young Ian Madigan. In modern rugby, the timing and angle of the entry of the full-back is one of the primary ways of scoring tries. Simon Zebo's pace makes him a real threat from No 15 whereas Madigan, the superior footballer, relies on technique.
Weather permitting, the Aviva should be a heaving cauldron, which used to be routine on Ireland days in the old Lansdowne Road stadium. Leinster will win, almost certainly without a bonus point, but denying their opponents that same privilege will make the final two weeks of this competition enthralling.
The Red Army will travel to London in their droves, supported by the diaspora in Britain. Munster have invariably done well in Englsih capital and I expect Saracens will experience the full might of one of the greatest teams ever to play in European competition. Sadly, the great story is coming to an end and this is not the Munster of old. One has to believe that Saracens cannot play as badly again and that Farrell will kick with his normal competence.
Perhaps we underestimated the effect of the victory over New Zealand on the English players and that their heads were not entirely focused on the visit to Limerick. They certainly played like a team that were in awe of their surroundings.
One shuddered to think what might have happened last week had Ronan O'Gara not been fit. His 100pc kicking performance was, of course, a vital component of the victory, but his control in a match that could have gone either way, was once again up to the highest standards. The news out of the Munster camp is that the fly-half will be fit this weekend. Munster's hopes now, and for the foreseeable future, rest on his slender shoulders.
Last week's victory was fashioned out of the old-fashioned characteristics of rugby. Character, commitment and courage abounded as Munster threw themselves into the fray, seemingly without a care for their own safety. It must have reminded older Munster fans of the extraordinary achievements of the past against touring sides when their team – clearly inferior in talent and fitness – frightened the life out of major rugby-playing nations.
The odds are against a Munster victory and, like Leinster, the last game may well be crucial. Everything may depend on the mindset of Racing Metro and defeat for the French by Saracens in the fifth round in January could do Munster a huge favour. One thing is certain, Munster will not bow the knee and, in that context, a losing bonus point may be their reward.
A degree in mathematics may be required to work out the limitations and possibilities for the future of Munster and Leinster in this great competition.