Wednesday 7 December 2016

George Hook: Ian Madigan only lost the game because he tried to win it

Published 20/04/2015 | 02:30

Leinster fly-half Ian Madigan
Leinster fly-half Ian Madigan

Leinster will return home feeling that they have somehow restored their season after this extra-time defeat to Toulon, but in truth it was an average performance against a team that, apart from Leigh Halfpenny's boot, never fired a shot in anger.

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From the moment Jimmy Gopperth kicked the opening kick dead, the inability of highly-paid professionals to deliver on the basic skills was astonishing.

The game of rugby union is under threat on two fronts and the influential voices are strangely silent. The concussion debate is getting more heated as increasing numbers of young men are being damaged and the powers that be are playing with words and protocols which ignore the truth.

However, even if the injury crisis is solved, the game itself is heading for death by boredom. The premier competition in Europe this weekend had games which failed to deliver anything resembling a spectacle. Yesterday was pathetic on every front.

Players without ambition or skill spent 80 minutes playing a kicking contest of appalling ineptitude. The southern hemisphere which understands that the game must change to survive is fighting a minority battle against the conservatives north of the Equator.

Last November I was in Chicago's Soldier Field to watch the All Blacks play the USA Eagles. In the build-up to the game the Americans were full of vim and vigour and promised to give the world champions a run for their money. The result was a 74-6 defeat of the home team.

I was reminded of that optimism this week as Jamie Heaslip, Leo Cullen and others promised to play their very best to overturn the mighty Toulon. To be fair they did so, aided in no small measure by a dreadful display from the French team.

Toulon coach Bernard Laporte has always had inexplicable faith in Frederic Michalak's ability as a fly-half for club and country. For 46 minutes the Toulon number 10 delivered neither control nor imagination. His passing, kicking and decision-making took no advantage of his team's superior physical presence and territorial dominance.

Leinster's attacking frailties place an enormous strain on Ian Madigan. Today he may reflect and blame himself whereas in truth his pass to give Bryan Habana an intercept was predicated by an effort to win the game. His team had a three-on-one overlap and the receivers ran away from the ball rather than at it. Similarly, he displayed enormous courage under intolerable pressure when kicking off the tee.

Yesterday showed why Leinster cannot score tries. There is little or no innovation in midfield, no threat from the back and a complete inability to put wings in space. An outstanding player like Luke Fitzgerald was reduced to fetching and carrying.

Rob Kearney has never looked a class act going forward but he is now simply a catcher, kicker and chaser, albeit a very good one. What Johnny Sexton must make of it all is unknown but the Irish number 10 will want more than a big pay packet to satisfy his well-know demanding persona.

Wayne Barnes did not have the expected affect on the game but yet again penalties at the scrum had a disproportionate role.

The set-piece is now seen by teams as a way of scoring points rather than the primary purpose of restarting the game. One try in normal time in two showpiece semi-finals are far more indicative of the state of the game than the stirring but coincidental last day of the Six Nations Championship.

Survive

Matt O'Connor probably needed a win to survive, as Leinster's trip to Ravenhill will surely end their Pro12 hopes.

Laporte selected badly by leaving Steffon Armitage on the bench and having faith in Michalak. Meanwhile, O'Connor's showed high morale and dedication to the task in hand even if they played below even their low standards.

The problem for a game that wants a television audience and increasing number of young people to play, watch and admire will fail because a defensive oriented game can only be appreciated by nerds.

In the immortal words of Bill O'Herlihy, "75% of the people that watch sport do not understand it." The majority of watchers will have been bored by the weekend and go elsewhere for entertainment.

Fifty years ago the president of Terenure College RFC said he was proud that his club had lost a cup final by trying to win it.

Madigan tried to win the match and he remains for Leinster and Joe Schmidt an unappreciated player. Sexton and he could be the future.

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