Wednesday 7 December 2016

Neil Francis: Blunt Leinster are way off competing in the Champions Cup pool stages

Target for try-shy Blues this season should not be to win the Pro12 or get a good draw but to realise that mere qualification is a waste of time

Published 07/04/2016 | 02:30

Brian O'Driscoll scores a try for Leinster during their 2011 Heineken Cup semi-final win over Toulouse
Brian O'Driscoll scores a try for Leinster during their 2011 Heineken Cup semi-final win over Toulouse

In 2012 at Twickenham, Leinster won their third Heineken Cup final against a game but totally out-classed Ulster side. If truth be told it wasn't much of a game - 42-14 doesn't constitute a contest.

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Never mind - in that four-year period of dominance Leinster had played with such ease of expression and elegance that you felt that the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter would make an appearance at some stage.

Four matches stood out as this team in blue went to the summit.

The revenge semi-final against Munster in Croker (2009), the comeback final at the Millennium against Northampton (2011), the Alamo in Bordeaux against Clermont (2012), but the one that topped the pile for me was the 32-23 win at the Aviva in 2011 against Toulouse.

The team from the pink city had come to play and their roster was stacked with peerless quality. They played their very best game yet were still dispatched by a team in blue who played with the sort of invention and with only the All Blacks can aspire to.

That was Leinster's finest performance in the professional era, because they had to play the full 80 without any drop in efficiency: they were unable to take their traditional 20 minutes off a game in this one. The standard of the game dictated it. They were primed and cold-blooded in their execution.

I think it is necessary to remind ourselves that Leinster's decline has not been gradual and is no more pronounced than on the scoreboard. When Leinster won their pool section in 2011 they scored a total of 21 tries. This season they scored five. Whipping boys Benetton Treviso managed to score eight.

Crossroads

I make this point not to land another low blow at my home province - I do it because I am caught at a crossroads.

Here is the dilemma: do Leinster need to recognise the need for improvement, because the standard of rugby they have been playing is so hopelessly far removed from what is required to contend at not just the knockout stages of the Champions Cup but the pool stages too?

More realistically should Leinster devote all their energies just to stop dis-improving. There is a distinct difference.

Ten players who started in the 2011 and 2012 Cup finals are still in the Leinster squad - all available and all still good enough to play international rugby.

How is it that two-thirds of those Champions Cup winning sides are willing to submit to playing the way they did last Saturday and for most of this season and the previous season? Most of these players would be able to join any of the eight quarter-finalists who are playing this weekend and command a starting place.

Surely they cannot be enjoying playing the type of rugby they are playing? Nobody else is!

Leinster have moved to the top of the table by not losing their games. This pragmatic and cautionary version of the game may serve them well in terms of getting to the play-offs, and the winners of the final and the runner-up are the No 1 and 2 seeds for Champions Cup purposes.

Leinster have the weekend off and will be able to watch the standard required now at European knock-out level. You want to win - you have to score tries. I am sure that there will be some high scoring games on view, with the possible exception of the Racing versus Toulon game.

Leinster's goals for this season should not be to win the Pro12 or get a good draw, but to recognise that mere qualification is a waste of time. If you are not going to play the sort of rugby required to get you out of the pool stages, the easier draw isn't going to do it anymore for you.

Glasgow did not cover themselves in glory in this year's Champions Cup either despite securing the No 1 seeding last season. It might take another season or two before they crack it but I'd be reasonably certain that they will win the Pro12 again this year.

They were ninth in the table around Christmas time. When they bonus point Zebre in Parma tomorrow night they will be only two points behind Leinster and Connacht. Who amongst you will be betting that they don't get a home semi-final and a little bit more maybe in the final at Murrayfield?

The drier ground and the milder weather will suit Glasgow's type of game. A fluid game played by fluent minds. It is richly ironic, do you not think, that Gregor Townsend has based his coaching philosophy on Leinster's 2009-12 period of dominance. It is a pity the current Leinster side don't do the same.

Glasgow play Connacht in the last match of the season, with a home semi-final probably at stake.

Connacht must now on their journey of discovery, discover what it is like to wage war on two fronts. They have a very good chance against Grenoble. It will at the very least be a highly entertaining game; it's hard to gauge whether the energy-sapping games against Leinster and Ulster will help or hinder preparation and performance in Grenoble.

What I am certain of is that they will lose more players to injury; they will be tired when they get home on Monday and they will get no mercy or understanding from a desperate Munster side the following Saturday.

If Connacht can straddle their European adventure and go toe to toe with Munster - as they did with Leinster - then they deserve all the plaudits they are receiving.

What Leinster should recognise too is that Connacht have brought themselves into contention by playing proper rugby - goal-directed standards!

As for the main event I expect all the home teams to progress. Wasps, Saracens, Leicester and Racing all play a good brand of rugby - a sea change, particularly for Saracens.

It might affect my viewing of the Masters on Sunday but the Racing versus Toulon game is compelling. I detest everything about Toulon and their owner. They have not performed consistently this year but have an uncanny knack of timing their push and knowing how to win when required.

Jacky Lorenzetti and Mourad Boudjellal do not like each other at all and have had run-ins over the last three seasons. The continuous sniping will fester long past Sunday's result. Lorenzetti will probably have his players on huge win bonuses, and European rugby fans will hold their breath because if Toulon do prevail they will garner a home semi-final - probably against Leicester and then a final in Lyon.

You could not bet against four in a row. Racing are the best bet to beat them and if only for the Dan Carter-Matt Giteau (European Rugby?) match-up it is the pick of the quarters.

The Pro 12 look on and hopefully gauge what is required to get there and realise that they must doubt their own standards to go forward. Doubt, we are certain, is the essential preliminary of all improvement.

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