Thursday 29 September 2016

Neil Francis: Predictable, pedantic and pathetic - an unacceptable Leinster performance

Published 01/05/2016 | 16:45

It is the 77th minute of the match at the Kingspan. The moving targets in blue are shuffling the ball laterally and a season’s worth of frustration is about to be expunged in a single moment for Paddy Jackson.

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Ian Madigan gets the ball into his paws off a fairly mundane recycle. I suppose Leinster felt they had to run with the ball to be seen to be chasing the game. Jackson lined him up and executed a perfect tackle. Normally it is just good enough to put the player to ground, at best put him on his arse. There was a bit more in this one and Jackson took the opportunity to knock his rival back more than was required — more venom from somebody who regularly has doubts cast upon his tackling ability.

There was nine months of frustration in that tackle and he made it count. Bon voyage a Bordeaux mon ami!

Moments later Leinster are still engaged in a futile chase and Eoin Reddan, not for the first time in his career, gives an intercept away cheaply to Jackson on the 22. The blue line was caught square but Jackson would not be able to out-run the Leinster chase, they would eventually run him down. Surely?

The Ulster man had no outriders with pace to help him either. There was no question he would be caught by the time he got to the 22 if indeed he got that far. However, there was no certainty in the chase and Jackson showed admirable pace and composure to just keep going, recognising that Leinster had long since given up.

There was no time to celebrate. Luke Marshall, who gave a thoughtful and compelling performance throughout, grabbed the ball to attempt a quick conversion. There were still about 90 seconds left. His urgency was about the bonus point and to, I suppose, turn the spit roast on their foes in blue. The conversion went over and then we had the unedifying spectacle of Leinster trying to take more seconds out of the clock hoping the match would end quicker than it did, trying to deny Ulster a try bonus by walking at a snail’s pace to the kick-off. How did it come to this? An avoidable humiliation made possible by an apathetic performance by the men in blue — they were predictable, pedantic and pathetic.

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A performance of blame-worthy indifference, this was coming all season and their win ratio comes down to the fact that no matter how bad Leinster perform, they seem to be competent enough to get over the line against the sort of mind-numbing mediocrity on show in this league, particularly by the bottom six teams.

We can imagine what was in their minds. Ulster had to win this game and Leinster took a jaunt up the road to Belfast knowing that it made no difference because Connacht had lost the night before. They knew that they had a guaranteed four-pointer in the bag next Saturday against Treviso and so they will finish second and have a home semi-final, most likely against Connacht.

The fall from grace has hit terminal velocity and Leinster have become so predictable and so clichéd that it is embarrassing to watch quality players perform so far below themselves. You almost feel that they would have to go to night school to learn how to play that badly.

What compounds it is that there doesn’t seem to be any outward sense of despair and humiliation in the Leinster ranks and that final torment of utter despair which is poisoned still further by a little ray of hope. The ray of hope is that they are still very much alive, have a home semi-final and there is a forlorn possibility that they could unsettle Glasgow, if indeed they do reach the final.

Two penalties in 34 minutes and nothing to show for the 46 minutes after that shows how much Leinster have lost their edge and have become utterly predictable in what they are trying to do. Yes, familiarity is one excuse you can offer, but Ulster read with ease everything Leinster attempted to do. I counted north of 15 balls on the ground from simple passing plays and the amount of handling errors told you everything about where Leinster are at the moment. When the chill of consciousness returns, the question is can they recover themselves? The graph tells you no.

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Ulster put in a provocative performance and they attacked Leinster’s inside shoulders all day. Their pack struggled at tight and there was an understated performance from Iain Henderson, who isn’t quite sharp enough or as far along in his recovery to be played at six yet. Stuart McCloskey and Marshall outplayed their more vaunted Leinster rivals and in the back three, Ulster were simply sharper and far hungrier in every physical engagement. You would wonder why Ulster are letting Rory Scholes go to Edinburgh. It was, though, at half-back where the winning and losing of this game took place. Ruan Pienaar, a pale shadow of his former self for most of this season, roused himself at the sight of the blue dandies and his competitive juices propelled him to do the six or seven things in this match that made a difference.

Johnny Sexton tried to inject a little bit of pace into proceedings, but nobody took his cue and there was lethargy and apathy inside and outside of him as Leinster could not hold on to the ball without making mistakes. Purely a mental process. What were they doing in the two weeks leading up to this game? We have not heard any word from south of the equator as to whether Jamison Gibson-Park is coming to the RDS. Leinster need a strong number nine if they are to go anywhere. As for the coaching ticket, they have seen what has happened in Munster and if the team does not improve on every front then the same will happen to them at the end of next season. That was an unacceptable performance.

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