Monday 24 October 2016

Neil Francis: Leinster's narrow win is delaying the inevitable - this team is regressing under Matt O'Connor

Latest anarchic display shows extent of Leinster's decline, writes Neil Francis

Published 05/04/2015 | 17:47

Leinster's Jamie Heaslip applaudes the crowd following his side's victory over Bath in the Champions Cup quarter-final. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Leinster's Jamie Heaslip applaudes the crowd following his side's victory over Bath in the Champions Cup quarter-final. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

I have got some news for you. Some of you may already know this: Leinster are not going to win the Champions Cup.

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This knowledge is based on many factors, but the one that nailed it was the sight of Tom Denton coming on the field in the 71st minute, where he promptly missed his first tackle so badly that the Toulon video editing staff will almost certainly delete it from their video reviews for fear of contaminating the whole side with over-confidence.

Amid the simmering apathy and muffled mutterings of the chastened Leinster faithful you could barely get an audience for the old chestnut, a win is a win is a win. Add to this the fact that Bath got done on a number of fronts and have legitimate cause for a review of some of the decisions that went against them.

You almost felt if you were a Leinster fan that it would have been better to play like Bath and lose rather than stumble through another anarchic performance. As it is this just postpones the inevitable.

Before the match Leinster management said that they would have to bring their 'A game'. Where did they find it again, in Lost & Found? Buy & Sell? This was a defensive performance to make the Keystone Cops blush and if some of Leinster's forwards were embarrassed as they were caught up in tricky one-on-ones with even trickier players in Bath colours, what can we say about some of Leinster's outside players? Ian Madigan missed five of 12 tackles on his way to winning man of the match.

The truth is Leinster have lost their ability to do many things and foremost in this observation is they have lost the ability to pace a performance. They got worse as the match went on, and if you felt that they tightened up the match in the last 10 minutes, you would have to ask the question why were they doing this when the obvious thing was to try and power on. Attack being the best form of defence.

Anthony Watson, Bath, makes his way to the sin-bin after being shown a yellow card by match referee Jerome Garces
Anthony Watson, Bath, makes his way to the sin-bin after being shown a yellow card by match referee Jerome Garces

After this performance it is gone beyond a reasonable doubt that Leinster's identity and heritage have just ebbed away. The coach currently in charge has had a profoundly negative impact on Leinster's culture. It's time to look in the mirror, time to see how far this squad has regressed.

Yes there were good moments but they were fleeting and ephemeral and then they were gone. Did Leinster lower their expectations to meet their performance? They have not played well all season, and good teams replay victories over and over in their minds to improve next week's challenge. Leinster have to go a long way back to get a match that would leave any kind of favourable impression in their quest to pick up something from this season.

Read more: Five things we learned from Leinster's Champions Cup win over Bath

That said Bath were worthy opponents and played the game the way it should be played, and their aspirations deserved more as they chased the game. The rise in the Premiership has come about based on domination at scrum time. I have watched their scrum lay waste to Harlequins and Wasps - two teams that presented Leinster with problems in the pool section. Paul James, the Welsh loosehead, has always given Leinster scrum's problems and after the first scrum you thought Leinster would perish on this rock, but they looked at the percentages and decided that they would get some change out of Bath in this area so injuries and Lady Luck extended a favour here and they picked up half a dozen penalties at scrum time - something they won't be doing in Marseille.

The moment of the match came in the 33rd minute when Anthony Watson had been binned (yet again more inconsistencies from referee Jerome Garces, as if he had applied the same interpretation on the Jared Payne-Alex Goode tackle in the air then Watson should have been red-carded).

Leinster had a scrum in Bath's territory and the English side made Leinster's minds up for them in that they only stuck seven men into it and they put the outstanding Francois Louw in at out-half and Leinster were conflicted then in the sense that if they had brought in one of their wingers for a holding play in midfield they might have exposed Bath but then again maybe not. The choice was taken out of their hands and Leinster went to the scrum penalty which Garces duly awarded. Dems deh percentages folks!

Read more: 'It's called pressure, not milking' – Irish Twitter reaction to George Ford's 'bitter' post-match comments

At this stage Bath were making a lot of errors and giving away a lot of penalties. They had two outstanding leaders that kept them in the game. I'm not sure who made the man of the match award but Louw was the outstanding player on the park and he along with Carl Fearns and the athletic, dynamic and unheralded Leroy Houston dominated the Leinster back row. Sean O'Brien was playing second fiddle with ball in hand.

Leinster did dominate on the ground at the breakdown and they turned Bath over 18 times in contact. This fully reflects the difference in style between the Pro12 and Aviva sides. All of Leinster's pack were very good over the ball and the English side could neither get there quickly enough or with enough numbers to clear Leinster's scavengers out.

George Ford, for someone so young, showed great prescience tactically with some of his kicks and demonstrated some startling pace as he was able to think on his feet in traffic. Some of his kicks were astonishingly good, however he did kick the ball out on the full on a number of occasions too. Another year or two and he will eradicate that from his game. This boy is really sharp and he has the right stuff.

Bath too were confoundedly awkward in defence and some thundering hits emboldened all the men in the line. Leinster's passing was quick and reasonably accurate but Jesus, they just couldn't follow up any line break with a second decisive play and they lost their shape very quickly. All their later attempts became lateral and very predictable.

Leinster did have opportunities but when you miss those moments there is no guarantee they will come around again. They did show desire but this performance ranked desire first and performance after that.

Toulon were not at their best today in defeating Wasps I suspect it will be Leinster going to Marseille with very little momentum and only room to improve, which given their form this season you wouldn't be certain of.

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