Friday 26 December 2014

George Hook: Outclassed Blues must splash cash to fill huge gaps

Published 07/04/2014 | 02:30

TOULON, FRANCE - APRIL 06:  Daniel Rossouw of Toulon moves past Shane Jennings during the Heineken Cup quarter final match between Toulon and Leinster at the Felix Mayol Stadium on April 6, 2014 in Toulon, France.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Daniel Rossouw of Toulon moves past Shane Jennings during the Heineken Cup quarter final match
Jonny Wilkiinson of Toulon passes the ball watched by Jamie Heaslip

Ireland were beaten by the Rest of the World in Toulon. It was a pulsating struggle, but Leinster were outmatched in too many areas and the problem was compounded by poor selection. The Irish success in this competition has been based on making few errors and belief in a game plan.

For Munster, that meant phenomenal physical commitment backed up by quality kicking at No 10. The Leinster game was predicated on the quality of the midfield and the genius of Brian O'Driscoll that inculcated confidence across the team.

Matt O'Connor, in deciding to go for Jimmy Gopperth despite Ian Madigan being his usual starting fly-half, clearly intended to use a kicking game backed up by a tight display of error-free rugby. The reality was a high-speed, mistake-ridden performance together with average kicking.

The centre partnership of O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy was always under pressure from the extraordinary running lines and off-loading of the home team. Toulon coach Bernard Laporte gave his national opposite number Philippe Saint-Andre a lesson on how to use Mathieu Bastareaud. The giant centre was outstanding and made life a misery for O'Driscoll and others.

Toulon, like Munster, laid down the early markers and could have had three tries in the first 15 minutes. Only incredible defending from Leinster and sloppy handling by Toulon allowed the match to be a contest for 40 minutes.

At that point there must have been some optimism in the visiting changing-room. This competition has proved that French teams are less fit and more prone to emotional reactions to refereeing decisions.

Toulon, however, were made of sterner stuff. Not only are they unbeaten at home in the Heineken Cup, but the fear some years ago that they would be simply mercenaries without loyalty was laid to rest by Laporte. Not for nothing is he known as 'The Kaiser'. Like France under him, his side are disciplined and organised and were simply superior in every facet of the game, set-pieces apart.

That said, the Leinster line-out was nothing to write home about and was never at ease, culminating in being responsible for a converted try. It was a throwing problem pure and simple and, once again, the poor technique of Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin let them down.

INFLUENTIAL

This was an area where Toulon were supposed to be vulnerable. However, the ultra-dynamic display of Danie Rossouw was probably more influential to the final result than if the first-choice locks had played.

The selection Shane Jennings over Jordi Murphy was also surprising and the Blues back-row was outplayed by barnstorming performances from Steffon Armitage and Juan Smith. The Englishman could be the difference between England winning and losing the World Cup. Jamie Heaslip was given a lesson in dynamism and ball carrying.

Only at the scrum did Leinster achieve something like parity and that was never going to be enough against a team of all stars playing to their full potential. Set-piece possession only works if the subsequent phases are efficient. That was hardly the case yesterday, as the visitors seemed incapable of keeping possession through the phases, a prerequisite of the modern game.

There seemed a real possibility of an upset when Jonny Wilkinson went off in the first half. At a stroke it seemed that Toulon had lost their place kicker, their general and their talisman. Sadly for Munster, things got better instead of worse. Matt Giteau slotted seamlessly in at out-half and by standing flatter, made the Toulon attack even more effective. An early poor strike at the posts was not a precursor to failure and to add insult to injury, Delon Armitage kicked a corker from long range to end Leinster's hopes.

With hindsight, Leinster were always unlikely to win this game given the decline in effectiveness at centre, the loss of Johnny Sexton and incalculable absence of Sean O'Brien. In all those positions, Leinster were deficient.

The Leinster back three never gave up and Zane Kirchner's performance off the bench made one wonder why he did not make the starting line-up. Despite some potent thrusts, one cannot remember one significant try-scoring possibility before the closing consolation try off the line-out.

Leo Cullen is looking at a coaching rather than a playing career, but as Mike McCarthy failed to deliver a performance of substance, perhaps the old dog for the hard road might have been a worthwhile selection gambit.

We woke up on Saturday morning with a realistic chance of seeing three Irish teams in the semi-finals and the unique possibility of two semi-finals in Dublin. Today, Munster, the weakest team, are through and the best team, Ulster, are out. The Leinster future is not bright, with a massive spending spree needed to import talent to fill the gaps. Even by the standard of Munster miracles, an away win at the penultimate stage is unlikely. Another all-French final is a probability.

The four quarter-finals delivered magnificent entertainment. Sadly, the game is now only for supermen and rugby union as we know it will be dead in a decade. We cannot subject men to punishment for our edification in a manner unthinkable even to Roman emperors.

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