Tuesday 25 April 2017

Neil Francis: When Leinster play like this, nobody will beat them

Leinster’s Fergus McFadden celebrates with team-mates Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw and Josh van der Flier. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster’s Fergus McFadden celebrates with team-mates Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw and Josh van der Flier. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

And so the final score read Ireland 32 Wasps 17. The green-print put into practice by Leinster's Ireland players and executed for 55 minutes. The fact that Wasps had a chance midway through the second half was down to some of Leinster's failings, mental failings which will not be tolerated in a semi-final. For a club with such pedigree, Wasps looked like they were overawed by the occasion and when they couldn't hold on to the ball for any more than three phases at a time in the first half, their fate was sealed.

Joe Schmidt, watching on television in Thomond Park, will have been delighted but surprised by the result and the performance. In a Six Nations where Ireland averaged two-and-a-half offloads per match, Schmidt will look at the 15 offloads that Leinster enjoyed and his mind will be whizzing as he gets a fitful purchase on sleep. Fifteen offloads? Das ist verboten.

In the Heineken Cup we all know the stats for home quarter-finals. Wasps would know that this was no land of second chances and with two former Leinster players in the side, you would have reckoned that they would do their homework but theirs was such an under-performance and a ragged attitude that this looked like their preparation had come out of the school of 'the dog ate my homework'.

Wasps simply could not live at the breakdown with Leinster nor could they do anything even with James Haskell on board to do some damage to the ball presentation Leinster enjoyed. Luke McGrath and Jamison Gibson-Park literally ran into the ball as it was presented almost too correctly to them.

Leinster's back-row was sensational and their athleticism and togetherness and ability to get past the first tackle was the difference in the first half. Wasps tightened up in the second half and got more numbers into the breakdown. When Leinster play like this nobody will beat them and when their back-line receives such good quality ball, they will score. The only puzzling thing with this unavoidable mandate was that Leinster had only scored three tries in the first half. If they had taken all of their chances in the first 40, the lights would have been out.

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It was refreshing for once that an Irish side would target a perceived weakness in English ranks and Leinster went after Danny Cipriani. Wasps had talked up his resurgent defence but the wide boy missed four or five tackles as Leinster sought him out and every time they got past him Wasps were in trouble. This inability to deal with Leinster's runners filtered into other parts of his game and his passing was poor and his game management non-existent and Dai Young took him off after 54 minutes. Open season on Johnny Sexton? Let's see how their out-halves take it - except this was all done within the law of the game.

There were many superlative performances. In this type of possession game, Robbie Henshaw was highly effective. His ability to eke out more yards than he should ever gain is very important. On 19 carries he got across the mythical line every time. The way Leinster use him is unpredictable and it means you can't get a read on his line or where he is going. He is a priceless addition to Leinster's strategic make-up.

They say in youth we learn, in age we understand - this does not apply to Joey Carbery or Dan Leavy. In 12 to 18 months' time, Leavy will be much better than Sam Warburton or Justin Tipuric who are favourites to start at openside in June. Seán O'Brien has a good chance too but his attention will probably be more concentrated on trying to keep Leavy out of his starting position.

I believe Leavy will be an 80-plus-cap superstar if he can stay uninjured; he is that good. Joey Carbery shipped a couple of hits yesterday - this was important because on some of his interventions he just seemed to ghost past players. Comforting to know that there is flesh and blood in the 15 shirt. Whose decision was it to start him at fullback? Was it Joe or Leo?

Leo Cullen was impressed by Blues’ composure. Photo: Sportsfile
Leo Cullen was impressed by Blues’ composure. Photo: Sportsfile

All great players seem to have time on the ball and as Carbery brought the ball back to the tackle line, his confidence was unnerving for any of the Wasps chase and the way that he set up Jack Conan's try down the right-hand side with a simple change of direction and then a jump in pace left the Wasps cover grasping at shadows. He is not a greedy player, he makes space for all those around him and a bit like Leavy is unfortunate that the Lions have come a year too early. His flat pass to Nacewa at full pace right to the touchline was world-class.

If Leinster can get rid of these 20-minute phases where their concentration dips, they are pretty much the best team in the competition and the only team left in the competition that can beat them is Leinster.

Munster too had a little bit of a speed wobble in their less-than-clinical disposal of a toothless Toulouse side. When Yohan Maestri put Paul Perez in for a disputed try down the left-hand side, it really did take the wind out of Munster's sails and it took them quite a while to reassert themselves. The 41-16 scoreline might not suggest that but a match lasts for 80 minutes and Munster are far fitter and far hungrier than Toulouse. And so like a patient wolf they bided their time and when they sensed weakness they took advantage of it.

Toulouse are a pale imitation of the side that they once were. The age profile of the team is well gone the wrong side of 30, and their coaching staff, while they were great players, have a long way to go before they become good coaches. Munster would have had far more difficulty with Treviso or the Dragons in a Pro12 game yesterday.

As Connacht so ably demonstrated, once you play a high-intensity game and move them around the park and recycle the ball quickly, the French will eventually run out of puff and ideas. The difference between the sides apart from ascendancy in their back-row was at half-back. Jean Marc Doussain and Sebastien Bezy are a pretty dull pair of half-backs and they did nothing to help Toulouse's cause.

Tyler Bleyendaal showed great maturity with all of Munster's leaders off the park - Murray before the game and O'Mahony and Stander during it. He is not the most talented out-half in the world but his command of the fundamentals is very good and if he and Murray stay uninjured Munster have a real chance of getting to the final.

The only thing they are deficient in is the ability to score tries through their back line. They might not need to do that if the rest of their game is as good in other areas as it has been. The moment of the game was the lead-up to Munster's third try scored by Darren Sweetman. Piula Faasalele threw a lamentable lobbed pass out to a stationary Doussain. There was almost a bounty on the pass. Jaco Taute nailed the French out-half, Sweetman picked up the loose ball and nonchalantly dotted it down.

The passage of play served to illustrate how far the French game has regressed. The skill, ingenuity and inventiveness they once had is gone. Toulouse are due a huge clean-out. The fact that they were close going in to the fourth quarter was more down to Munster's failings and having their key men off the park. I suspect Saracens will beat Glasgow and Munster will take over Dublin en route to another final.

Fergus McFadden of Leinster, left, celebrates with team-mate Joey Carbery after scoring his side's fourth try during the European Rugby Champions Cup Quarter-Final match between Leinster and Wasps at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Fergus McFadden of Leinster, left, celebrates with team-mate Joey Carbery after scoring his side's fourth try during the European Rugby Champions Cup Quarter-Final match between Leinster and Wasps at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

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