George Hook: Full house for Irish sides can't paper over the cracks
It was a full house of victories for the Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup this weekend but nobody except those north of the border would be cock-a-hoop with optimism for the remaining matches in the respective groups.
Connacht predictably won against the hapless Zebre but will not make the knockout stages. However, Ulster were magnificent away to high-flying Montpellier and look, as they have done so far season, the outstanding Irish province. Meanwhile, Leinster and Munster had home victories but were largely unconvincing.
Castres came to the RDS as French champions and, with a full squad, seemed determined to change their awful away form in domestic and European competition. Instead they handed the match to an inferior team with a display of stupidity rarely seen in rugby.
The first yellow card came when centre Remi Lamerat delivered a needless dangerous tackle, but the piece de resistance came from scrum-half Julien Tomas who, after two crooked feeds to the scrum, was warned yet repeated the offence and got his marching orders. The transgressions handed Leinster a victory they scarcely deserved.
Coach Matt O'Connor employed a sterile kicking game which was compounded by sub-standard execution by Jimmy Gopperth and Isaac Boss. The half-backs kicked the ball monotonously into the hands of the defenders and invited the counter-attack. It beggared belief that a team would willingly offer a French side the freedom of the park. The Leinster out-half had a bad match and displayed none of the control we had seen just a week before. His selection as man of the match was a farce.
The praise heaped on Martin Moore last week was justified but unfair. Expectations were far too high this week but the young man escaped the expected test because the visitors brought the best scrummagers in France off the bench but the majority of Castres feeds ended in free-kicks, including the first three set-pieces of the match which set the tone.
French referees have a different view on what is a crooked feed because, even allowing for the stupidity of the scrum-half, he clearly never had his methods questioned in domestic competition. Once again, the IRB has failed to grasp the nettle and, as Jerome Garces demonstrated later in Thomond Park, his view of what is a legal scrum differs from most interpretations in these islands.
In Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, Leinster possess outstanding broken-field runners. Sadly, the hooker cannot do his basic job of striking for the ball or throwing to a line-out. Again he delivered a sub-standard display which, in a tighter game, could have cost his side. He cannot throw straight or accurately, which begs the question: why is he selected?
Leinster now are incredibly in pole position to qualify but are not the team built by Joe Schmidt.
The permanent loss of Johnny Sexton and the hopefully temporary loss of Brian O'Driscoll has neutralised the attacking options and surely they will not find opponents so generous later in the pool.
Munster made hard work of beating an average Gloucester side that made their own hopes more difficult by picking a second-team out-half that never looked in control.
Ian Keatley had a much better match because he kicked more often and used the elements in the second half. His cross-kick for Johne Murphy's try was a gem. The young man should take a leaf out of the history books and play like a Munster No 10 and husband his pack.
The ghosts of Dan Daly and Mick English would approve and Ralph Keyes, Moss Finn, Tony Ward and Barry McGann would watch and nod sagely.
Rob Penney has a real problem with his so-called 'Canterbury' wide game. It is rendered sterile at scrum-half. Conor Murray takes far too much out of the ball, often taking as many as six steps before delivering the pass. He is infernally slow to boot and was caught all too often in possession.
His biggest failing is his decision-making and seems to make one awful, near-fatal decision per match. Last week's kick at the death was mind-boggling and this week he left the blindside undefended for the visitors' try. It is the responsibility of the scrum-half to organise the defence. Murray has a lot of talent; it is time to start exercising his critical faculties.
Munster are suffering from trying to play a game to which they are manifestly unsuited, but the biggest loser is Keith Earls. His career has been blighted by the failure of successive coaches to see that he is a wing and an outstanding striker.
On Saturday, Penney's plan called for Donncha O'Callaghan to inhabit the wing and Earls was forced inside into traffic to seek the ball. The rapier that is Earls was faced by bludgeoning forwards and it was a battle he invariably lost. Is there a rugby-watcher in Ireland that considers O'Callaghan a better finisher than Earls?
The wing must hope and pray that he gets a call from Schmidt whose understanding and vision could resurrect his career and show the Irish public what they have missed.
On paper, it was a good weekend for Irish rugby but it may be papering over a lot of cracks.