Jim Glennon: Leinster players are not being given chance to prosper
It's a results-driven business but winning ugly will only take you so far, says Jim Glennon
The intensity and intrigue surrounding the back-to-back European pool games is now a big part of the pre-Christmas rugby calendar. Sadly, though, this year's renewal yielded just one Irish win, from Leinster on Saturday night in a cold and subdued Aviva Stadium.
With Ulster and Munster both losing on the road, it would be reasonable to expect supporters of the eastern province to bask in a warm seasonal glow of anticipation of the Christmas Pro12 interpros. However, with Ulster's European hopes dead in the water and Munster salvaging a losing bonus point in Clermont to keep their heads just above the surface, the focus has remained on Leinster's struggles and perceived shortcomings, and on those of their coach Matt O'Connor.
Having led 11-0 at half-time after a fitful opening period, a still misfiring Leinster, combined with a dominant Quins pack and a Mike Brown try, conceded an 11-13 lead, before Eoin Reddan lit the spark and Ian Madigan saved the game with a winning penalty.
Not surprisingly, the criticism of Leinster and O'Connor has continued, while some have turned their attention on the increasingly impatient supporters too. I'm with the former camp in my belief that the focus should be on those within the set-up whose job it is to deliver winning performances of a quality which gives confidence to the fans in terms of end-of-season success.
Winning ugly has been a consistent theme and while the coach has continually extolled the virtues of this methodology, I made the point weeks ago that winning ugly against a severely-depleted Ospreys in the Pro12 at the RDS didn't bode well for European prospects.
Likewise with last week's performance against Harlequins who aren't remotely in the European top drawer. Yes, the team have been bedevilled by injury with the likes of Healy, Strauss, Moore, O'Brien, D'Arcy and Dave Kearney absent but it appears that, between selection decisions and game plan, the players simply aren't being given the best chance to prosper, as evidenced by the error-prone nature of their play and difficulties in try-scoring. This all comes in the context of having played against relatively average opposition.
Still the impatience of a section of the Leinster fan base doesn't sit altogether comfortably with me either. Supporters at this level are, by their very nature, somewhat fickle, regardless of the team or the sport. They are by no means duty-bound to part with their euros and turn up to shout for the team. Nor are they obliged to roar their heads off either. The simple fact is that they are paying customers, and their 'support' must be constantly cultivated and developed, something which Leinster have managed very effectively in recent years.
From a business perspective, keeping the fan base is extremely important and regular success on the pitch, through methods ugly or otherwise, is essential. Some might wish to be entertained, but ultimately this is top-level professional sport and it is therefore all about winning, 'ugly' or otherwise. The commercial success of the franchise is dependent on both.
Leinster have a real chance to progress from the pool and with most of the injured players on the mend, the team's performances can be expected to improve significantly. It's always worth casting our minds back to this time five years ago to the back-to-back games with Castres in 2009 when Leinster appeared to be at something of a nadir. Their glorious competition victory a mere five months later is ample evidence of how things can be turned around.
Munster, for their part, managed something on Sunday which is beyond the capacity of most teams in Europe. Ian Keatley held his nerve magnificently at the death and snatched a potentially priceless losing bonus point.
If their route to a quarter-final remains a treacherous one, requiring a win in Saracens followed by a home win, most likely with a bonus point, over Sale, only a fool would bet against them. Their trip to Saracens' artificial surface in Barnet is the major challenge; a win there and the stage is set for what is now the almost traditional final-day cliffhanger in Thomond.
It was difficult after the home defeat to Clermont to see how Anthony Foley could devise a game plan to give them a chance in Clermont but in the opening 15-20 minutes, the body language and physicality shown by Munster, in tandem with the creativity of JJ Hanrahan, instilled real confidence and they were unfortunate not to register more points in that spell.
A disappointing debut campaign for coach Neil Doak deteriorated further when Scarlets reversed the previous week's outcome, leaving Ulster anchored at the bottom of their pool, with the daunting prospect of a trip to Toulon followed by a visit from Leicester to the Kingspan Stadium. Finishing the campaign with a semblance of pride is now the imperative. Their focus will shift towards mounting a sufficiently strong Pro12 campaign to ensure qualification for next season.
Finally, mention must be made of Connacht's win in Bayonne in the maligned Challenge Cup. With no automatic qualification into the Champions Cup for the winners, French interest in the competition is 'nul'. Nonetheless, this win by a coltish Connacht, inspired by a brace of tries by young Caolan Blade from Pádraig McGann's nursery in Monivea, can only augment their momentum, at a time when we're hearing that Pat Lam is about to sign on for three further seasons.
Sunday Indo Sport