Thursday 29 September 2016

'It is getting harder for us to compete' - Leinster cry foul as Toulon set new rules

Irish rugby at crossroads after disappointing European exit for Cullen's former kingpins

Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30

A gloom Leinster bench watch the final minutes of the game. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
A gloom Leinster bench watch the final minutes of the game. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Isa Nacewa and Sean Cronin combine to stop Drew Mitchell scoring a try for Toulon. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Leo Cullen has some ‘soul-searching’ to do. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The best way to respond to a red-letter day is to deliver a message of your own.

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After Leinster got beaten for the fifth successive time in European competition - not even in the darkest, shambling days of the post-amateur game has there been such a run - it was time to deliver this particular message.

Pride had been restored but this had still been a chastening evening.

And so head coach Leo Cullen, in trying to make sense of a European exit confirmed before Christmas, evoked the word "re-assess" on five ­separate occasions in two media ­briefings.

If you include synonyms - "assessment", "soul-searching", "look at" - it soared beyond double figures.

Oh, Leinster were on message alright.

The missal was, presumably, directed at the smart suits in IRFU HQ but Leinster wanted everyone to be present at the opening of the envelope.

Smothered

Leinster's message was as fundamentally basic as the manner in which they had the life slowly and inevitably smothered out of them in the final quarter of this game.

Help!

Toulon have rewritten the rules. Toulon can bring in 16 overseas players. Toulon are so powerful. Toulon have so many reinforcements on the bench. And so forth.

"It's not something we had to deal with it in the past, if you go back five or six years ago," said Cullen, unique in European history as the only man to lift the trophy three times during that unprecedented Irish run.

"It's a very different challenge now. We need to re-assess where we go in the tournament next year. I'm not sure what way it is going to go. It is getting more and more difficult for us to compete."

These are, indeed, unique circumstances. But the wheel turns. History is always written by the winners.

If the rest of Europe had a message to deliver in return to their Irish competitors, it would be applied with equal simplicity.

TOUGH!

When Leinster followed in Munster's footsteps by themselves strangling the life out of their European competitors with five wins in six years - their run ended in 2012, just three years ago! - there were plenty of voices from overseas complaining about how Paddy was breaking all the rules.

We didn't hear many complaints here when the IRFU were picking up the tab for the O'Connells and the O'Garas and the O'Driscolls - who were allowed a week off when they felt like it - and when you could pick up a Rocky Elsom for the price of a semi-detached in Rathgar.

Now that the Irish players are just not as good as their predecessors, the standards applied to overseas recruitment have startlingly reduced while the two leading provinces are coached by veritable greenhorns.

And it is proving tough for some in Irish rugby to take; Cullen's is not a lone voice but he may as well whistle into the wind for all it's worth.

"There was no Toulon in the early days, they were second division," says the man who once captained a squad containing as many internationals as Toulon's current squad. Leinster, lest we forget, contributed 20 players to Ireland's World Cup squad.

"Even in France now, they're proving difficult to beat."

Which should be precisely the point; the danger for Irish rugby is that it begins to measure itself in terms of the type of 'freakonomics' applied by Toulon. They are a special case, not a test case. "Where do we get the bodies?" asks Cullen later.

It is almost as if Leinster had been able to repel the inevitability of the Toulon scrum and maul with a half-dozen Samoans just off the boat, the 44,000 Christmas shoppers would have gone home with a skip in the heart.

Easy to forget that were it not for this team's inability to perform the basic levels of rugby skills, they would have won in Toulon seven days earlier.

There are some of us who prefer striking a balance, who would rather, given Cullen's side were already a dead duck in Europe, have seen Garry Ringrose, the future of Leinster rugby, given vital experience rather than Zane Kirchner, who represents its past.

"We need to be smarter at how we do it," says Cullen. "We have a lot of good young players, we need to bring them through the right way and be patient. There are some really encouraging signs, some of them have a taste of European rugby this year and they will be better next year. So between the cycles you need to be patient."

Do Irish supporters really want to ape Toulon, to beat them at their own game? On recent form, if Irish provinces were allowed 16 overseas signings like Toulon, there would be four times as many turkeys driving sponsored cars around Ireland.

Somewhere there needs to be a balance. Toulon, who deploy one of the greatest wingers at vast expense and then deny him a pass for 80 minutes, do not represent that balance either.

But they are now serial winners. Strange to think that, only weeks after a World Cup when it seemed as if "big as beautiful" had become a discredited maxim, Toulon can apply the maul to such desensitising effect.

Perhaps as well as playing a different sport, they are playing by different rules. Irish rugby needs to re-open the play-book, not the cheque book.

"It's the way we play, not just recruitment," concedes Cullen. "We're out of the competition early, we've never lost four games in a row like this and you soul-search when things like this happens."

And carefully. Instead of moaning about what everyone else may be doing, Leinster - and Ireland - should instead concentrate on what they have always been good at.

Leinster care about their own country; Toulon do not care about theirs. Do we really want to follow their example?

If so, maybe we should all "re-assess" exactly what Irish rugby wants to be good at in the future.

Leinster - R Kearney; D Kearney, B Te'o (I Madigan 39), L Fitzgerald, I Nacewa (c); J Sexton (,Z Kirchner 67), E Reddan; J McGrath (C Healy 47), R Strauss (S Cronin 47), M Ross (M Moore 25), D Toner, M McCarthy (T Denton 64), R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Heaslip (J Murphy 70).

Toulon - D Armitage (T Taylor 47); B Habana, M Bastareaud, M Nonu, D Mitchell; M Giteau (c), E Escande (S Tillous-Borde 47); F Fresia (X Chiocci 48), G Guirado (A Etrillard 50), M Stevens (L Chilachava 48), J Suta (M Gorgodze 67), R Taofifenua (K Mikautadze 13-18/51), J Smith (J Fernandez Lobbe 58), S Armitage, D Vermeulen.

Ref - W Barnes (England)

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