Thursday 19 October 2017

Tony Ward: Leinster lacked leaders and are still suffering from a mental frailty

 

Leo Cullen knows his team will be judged on what they did on the ‘big days’, but his decision to bench Devin Toner was baffling. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leo Cullen knows his team will be judged on what they did on the ‘big days’, but his decision to bench Devin Toner was baffling. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Since 2010 when the Guinness PRO12/Celtic League returned to the knockout format fo the season finale, Leinster had (prior to last weekend) made it through to six of the seven finals. That is some record of consistency... and yet.

Bear in mind that over the same period, Munster, Ulster and Connacht have been to four finals between them.

I say "and yet" because they have come out on top in only two and, as articulated by Leo Cullen, "you get remembered by what happens on big days".

That is the ultimate judgement and while Friday night's defeat to Scarlets wasn't a final, it was a knockout performance to rank with their very worst ever. To lose to Clermont in the manner they did was frustrating in the extreme but, despite pressing the self-destruct button in the opening quarter of the Champions Cup semi-final, at least they turned up in Lyon. Against the fired-up, ultra-prepared Scarlets in the RDS, they weren't mapped.

While the 'ladyboy' tag has been buried, there continues to be a mental, call it psychological, frailty still to be addressed, one dogging Leinster Rugby to this day. Here, again, I'll leave it to Cullen: "We need to be better at dealing with expectation. That if we are expected to win a game, we actually go out and win a game."

Where I disagree with the head coach is when he refutes the suggestion of a lack of leadership.

Leinster's Devin Toner. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Leinster's Devin Toner. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

He is right when he says that "no player had taken their eye off the ball with a Lions tour looming" but wrong when attempting to deflect culpability from the recognised leaders through the generalisation of "being gutted at the way we reacted and couldn't dig ourselves out of that hole".

Shirked

For a coach to defend his players is admirable and fully understandable but as an on-field leader for Leicester and Leinster in his playing days, he knows that in saying that they had "a tonne of experience in that team, and not lacking leadership but calmness" he is being economical with the truth.

Real leaders are players who display the calmness to which he refers in adversity and specifically when the tide is flowing the other way. For the life of me - with the exception of Garry Ringrose, a relatively rookie - there were few if any leaders in evidence although Robbie Henshaw, despite having a relatively quiet game, never shirked responsibility.

It says it all when the best efforts of both Ringrose and Henshaw were outshone and outsmarted by Jonathan Davies on the night. That they will be stronger as a group for Friday's defeat I have no doubt, as it is a young squad learning as it goes. However rich the potential minus the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Devin Toner, they did struggle when the going got tough.

That is no slight on Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier or Ross Molony but you cannot put a value on experience in a crisis. Conan will replace Heaslip for Leinster and Ireland in time but the much-maligned No 8 is of the Paul O'Connell/Brian O'Driscoll ilk in that aforesaid crisis.

There are also lessons to be learnt by management. Obviously I am not privy to what goes on in training but the omission of Toner when the team was announced and his demotion to the bench baffled me. Unless he has been badly out of kilter on the training paddock it handed the Scarlets a psychological initiative.

We'll give them the benefit of the judgement on the O'Brien call but can't help wondering what if it had been Munster in the final at the Aviva and not the Scarlets around the corner in a 'mere' semi.

Either way it was a hugely disappointing end to a season that had promised so much and a squad that is still in strength, depth and potential way ahead of the other Irish three at this point in time. By contrast, to be in Thomond on Saturday and watch Munster deliver on the big occasion was again a pleasure.

They did have the psychological advantage of dwelling overnight on Leinster's undoing but equally when push comes to shove you know they will not fold. They were well beaten by a better Saracens' side in the European semi but at least they gave it their best shot. Let's put it this way: when Munster are bad they are beaten, when Leinster are bad they are generally beaten badly.

It is a young Leinster squad which can only learn as it goes but there was a sense of expectation, without foundation, governing selection and performance last Friday. Over the course of the season they deserve to be in the PRO12 Grand Final but sport like life doesn't work like that.

Even with 14 men the Scarlets won every bit as convincingly as the scoreline suggests and given the way they were playing up to the break, allied to a full compliment, you could have seen them adding to that three-try tally in the second 40.

One thing we do not have any right to as a relatively small rugby-playing nation is thinking above our station and we were all guilty of that last weekend. Munster know the extent of the challenge they face in four days' time.

This Scarlets squad is the real deal, particularly strong at the breakdown through John Barclay and James Davies. Like most I cannot believe that flanker Davies is not already central to the Welsh national squad. They too are spoilt for back-row choice.

But the moral of the Leinster defeat and the manner of it comes back to pre-match hype and the inability to deal with that off-field factor so central to on-field performance. Despite suggestions to the contrary there are no other external factors involved but equally no second chance at this stage in the season.

Irish Independent

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