Ireland's big two progress more by luck than talent
Munster and Leinster don't look like winning the Heineken Cup, writes George Hook
Published 24/01/2010 | 05:00
This weekend was supposed to be a continuation of the triumphal march by Munster and Leinster. Luck rather than talent was the crucial quality to success. The Irish teams were also helped massively by the appalling performance of their opponents' out-halves. It seems incomprehensible that international players can fail with the simplest tasks. If replicated across England, Martin Johnson faces an uphill task in restoring English rugby.
In contrast, Ronan O'Gara and Jonny Sexton displayed courage and character to lead their teams to survival and, more importantly, home draws in the quarter-finals.
However, there is now a real concern that we are no longer in pole position to win the tournament this season. Munster's top seeding owes a lot to having had an Italian side in their group and some of the team's problems are beyond fixing.
Meanwhile, Leinster's problems are not endemic, rather psychological. This team has always had a flaky side and it would appear not to have gone away with the famous victory of last year.
Ulster went down bravely in a predictable runners-up spot, but their first win in England and some good back play orchestrated by out-half Niall O'Connor, who fully justified his selection ahead of Ian Humphreys, means that they could be a dark horse in the Amlin Cup, should they qualify.
But the bad news was in Limerick, where Munster were humiliated by Northampton, and not just in the scrum. However, it was the set-piece that has cost them two Heineken Cup finals and a great home record.
Leicester and Northampton have now twice embarrassed the men in red and no amount of bleating about illegal scrummaging will cover up a deficiency of monumental proportions. Munster were reduced to wheeling and collapsing to save their reputation.
Bleating was also part and parcel of Paul O'Connell's game and the captain has become increasingly vocal with referees since the Lions tour -- and it has been counter-productive. On Friday night he clearly upset the French referee and his yellow card was as much for chat as for hands in the ruck.
Northampton resembled the soldiers of World War I -- "lions led by donkeys". A callow game-plan and a conservative selection by coach Jim Mallinder was implemented by Shane Geraghty, who seemed bereft of moral fibre. They cost their team a famous victory.
The game at Twickenham was no classic, but it had to be put in context. Leinster were happy to soak up the pressure in the first quarter. They conceded possession and territory to London Irish but the Premiership side, like Northampton, lacked the confidence to hold possession and instead twice went for miracle drop-goals.
They also kicked badly for goal. Staggeringly, they also went for the conservative option at out-half by selecting a kicker like Chris Malone in front of the more inventive Ryan Lamb.
Having been picked to kick, Malone failed to deliver with the placed ball. Such was Malone's lack of confidence that he turned down a certain three points with a drop-goal opportunity with six minutes to go.
Unlike Munster, the Leinster scrum can compete at the set-piece and their try came from a powerful scrum close to their opponents' line.
Nevertheless, Michael Cheika will not be totally happy with two consecutive sub-par performances. A home quarter-final, which had seemed so certain, hung by a fingernail. Leinster lacked invention and ambition. This was not what was expected from a team of all talents. The bulk of the squad
will head off on international duty and on their return the coach will have little time to get the team up to full speed.
There was some good news in the outstanding performance of Gordon D'Arcy. The centre looks to have nailed down the position as Brian O'Driscoll's partner and Declan Kidney will be confident that he has the firepower to test the French in Paris.
That was the sum total of the good news but by 5.0 tonight the news could get a lot worse, as Munster look like facing Northampton again in Thomond Park. It is a match neither they nor their supporters will face with any confidence. Leinster will also be at home, but probably against poor travellers like Stade Francais.
There will be four French teams in the quarter-finals and with the final in Paris the odds now favour a French victory. Clermont and Toulouse have impressed and unlike some other French sides they may be taking the competition seriously.
One thing is certain, the previously-confident Irish provinces have had a strong wake-up call.