Tuesday 6 December 2016

Neil Francis: It's sad that Leinster v Connacht will be decided by who hits the hardest

Published 26/05/2016 | 02:30

Leinster’s Zane Kirchner is tackled by Eoin McKeon, Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion back in March – an encounter that Connacht won 7-6: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Leinster’s Zane Kirchner is tackled by Eoin McKeon, Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion back in March – an encounter that Connacht won 7-6: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

Maybe we should start this one off on a low note. The first minute in last Saturday's semi-final at the Sportsground brought one of those moments of chilling unease.

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Friendly fire is part of the gladiators' code and while Finn Russell's clash of heads with Zander Fagerson - his own team-mate - can be classed as an unfortunate accident, the speed that Bundee Aki cut towards the blue line and the two Glasgow players' reaction meant that the three bodies were moving in different directions at uncontrollable speeds. Well, accidents are things that are not expected or intended - what did we think would happen?

Russell was concussed in the Scotland versus France game on March 13 this year. He missed the Ireland game as a result of his injury but was then brought back for the Glasgow versus Ulster game on March 25.

Two weeks for any kind of concussion is too short a period of recuperation - it does not matter what the protocols demand.

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Glasgow's Finn Russell

The Glasgow management stated that his injury last Saturday was "a very serious injury". When other players get injured at any level in the professional game, everything seems to be mildly understated. A transfer to the neurological unit in Beaumont Hospital in Dublin tells you this was not by any means a 'standard' concussion.

A two-week break seems very short to me. A two-week break is fine though as long as you don't get concussed a short period after your original injury. A two-week break followed by a 'very serious injury' - well who would have bargained for that?

In the 160-odd minutes of sustained ferocity between the two teams, it is a miracle that there was not more damage done. None of the reports I read mentioned Russell's concussion in March when it was widely known. We are playing with people's lives here.

We wish Finn Russell a complete recovery and a safe return to the game and we remind ourselves that what we have seen from Connacht this season has drawn plaudits for a renaissance in skill levels - what has gone unnoticed is that Connacht have turned into a team in which their chief hallmark is their uncompromising brutality in contact.

If Leinster are to beat them this Saturday, the scale of endeavour in this area will have to rise to proportions that will incur more injuries of a serious nature. Both teams can throw the ball about in Murrayfield - but the game will be decided by which team can sustain the pace going into contact.

It is a sad fact of the professional game that if you want to win the big matches you simply have to hit harder and do it for longer.

This match is Leinster's to lose. It is they who have to make the adjustments to counter a very legitimate threat from Connacht. Is it too simplistic to suggest that if both teams arrive with their 'A' game that Leinster by dint of their winning experience over the last eight years may just come out ahead. There are many things that Leinster have to get right. Chief amongst them is that recognition that they play for a full 80 minutes - no tea breaks.

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Jamie Heaslip scores a try against Ulster

I found the plaudits that Leinster received after last Friday's beating a little bit unwarranted. Ulster just didn't turn up and yet again were passive at the breakdown. Ruan Pienaar did not show the usual influence and when he plays below himself so do Ulster.

Leinster's first quarter showed rejuvenation of sorts - but they sat back in the second quarter and admired themselves, their bench and their scrum were the difference in the second half. Give that type of uneven performance against Connacht and you are asking for trouble.

The key to the game I think is that Connacht dominate the ball for long periods of time - it can be very difficult to get it back from them. Nobody has played them well defensively this season and this is where Leinster must be clever and have the courage to change their defensive strategy.

Over the last decade Connacht have tried to play more expansively. When Eric Elwood was in charge they began to throw the ball around and tried to play football. Inevitably, their skills would break down - the penultimate or ultimate pass.

Usually the scoring pass would go astray at the wrong moment or they lacked the patience or intelligence to continue phase play and would put themselves rather than their opposition under pressure. The arrival of David Ellis and Andre Bell has seen a sea change in what Connacht can do with time in possession.

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Tiernan O'Halloran goes over against Glasgow

The disallowed try scored by Niyi Adeolokun midway through the second half last week told you about their ability to pass under pressure. Those little flick-passes with just a fingertip touch always seem to find a man. That pass from Tiernan O'Halloran to Adeolokun was about 13/14 metres at full pace off his left hand and put out right in front of his right winger. That sort of accuracy and certainty will trouble any side. In truth, Connacht should have shown Glasgow the door far earlier than they did - the absence of Russell? I don't think that made a huge difference.

I watched Leinster play drift against Ulster and I watched Ulster get right back to a scoreline of 13-11 on the back of it. Leinster's drift is the most accommodating defensive mechanism in the Pro12. It is true Leinster have conceded by far the lowest amount of tries (27) in the regular season and if their defensive strategy works why change it?

From watching the semi-final at the RDS, every time Ulster got to the wide outside they got about 20 metres over the gain line. Leinster were quite content to shepherd them to the touchline - there were few enough line breaks.

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The thing is, particularly in a final, if you show such passivity to a team that has gotten so good at holding onto the ball, a team that has real confidence in themselves and a team that can eke out space in the wide channels and you let them get there. If you do this you are letting Connacht dictate the pace of the game. A flat line and smashing them on the gain-line is an imperative. Defensive stats tell you how many tackles a team makes. But it never tells you about efficiency or how many metres the tackle is behind the gain line.

If Connacht are true to their word and they run the ball from everywhere - pragmatism must prevail. I think the defensive efforts from both teams are going to be pitched at a level where people of a nervous disposition will be forced to look away.

In what should be dry, sunny and windless conditions, I figure Leinster will kick rather than run and try to hem Connacht deep into their half. I think both packs will neutralise each other in every sector and so how the halves play will determine who wins. Connacht halves have mixed their game up nicely in the games that matter. Another factor will be the quality of the kick and the kick-chase.

This will be Leinster's toughest game since Toulon this time last year. I have a feeling that the fallible Nigel Owens will have a bearing in the game and I have a feeling this game won't be won until the last few minutes. I think a dour encounter this Saturday - but a sporting encounter for the ages. Who will win? The team that wants it most or the team that knows how to win.

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