Sleepwalking Leinster are keeping plenty in reserve for bigger days
Leinster still have the gears but we won't get to see them in full flow again until April, writes Neil Francis
A negligently imprecise performance on Friday didn't stop Leinster from qualifying easily for the quarter-finals. They even managed to bonus-point the Ospreys -- something they haven't done for a whole nine months. It was quite an achievement to post a scoreline of 36-3 and still be mightily unimpressive.
The first five minutes told you that although the Ospreys had impressive pedigree from 1 to 10 on their teamsheet, they were shopping at a 99-cent shop for their three-quarter line. Ashley Beck and Andrew Bishop were huge losses and nitro winger Eli Walker is also still out. Dan Biggar knew it was useless throwing ball wide as Leinster would just shadow, and then close them down, and they would eventually run out of carriers and get turned over because they didn't have the pace or the wit to get across the gain line.
Inside, though, Ospreys were gamey. We never got a fair fight though because Ian Evans got a red card for stamping on Mike McCarthy's head. I am not quite sure what McCarthy was doing for the previous 19 minutes -- the lineout maul at the end of the first quarter was the first time I had seen him in play.
The head is sacrosanct in rugby union but all the other stamps that Leinster's lock got on the floor he deserved. Hibbard found Ryan Jones at the front of the lineout. McCarthy had his hands on him on the way up and the way down. As Jones was coming to terra firma McCarthy dragged him down -- a penalty. McCarthy held onto Jones on the ground which precipitated a punch to guarantee his release -- a penalty. McCarthy stayed on the ground and tried to pull the Osprey maul down from the floor -- a penalty.
The disciplinary committee which will sanction Ian Evans have no truck with unwritten rules or the law of the jungle but if you try and pull down a maul on top of yourself you had better be able to front up to the consequences. More often than not you will get a good kicking, intentional or not.
As far as I see it Evans' first stamp didn't connect, to me the video shows that he looked down and the second stamp did some damage. It was Evans' boot, no question, and the camera angle was conclusive -- Evans had to walk. This left the Ospreys in an inequitable position and the result was never really going to be in doubt. The delivery of that result though was as foggy as a November Sunday in San Francisco Bay.
Leinster's imperative came in the following order:
1: Get a win;
2: Get the bonus point;
3: Score as many tries as you possibly can.
Leinster managed to not score four tries as Gopperth, Dave Kearney, Reddan and O'Driscoll all got over either with the ball in their hands or in a position to touch it down. The task eluded all four. Their wastefulness was an extravagance that might just cost them. There were another six to seven chances which were frittered away with spectacular indifference.
The amount of incomplete passes told you that collectively their eye was not fully on the ball. The mind controls the eye. This was a match where they played at a substandard level from the off and let it slide further when Evans left the field. Sometimes you like to see a team click so that you know they have the ability to click. Franklin's Gardens told us that they still have gears -- that glimpse is all we will get until April.
Leinster's prowess at tight was a false positive with Evans gone and they were guilty of not protecting their ball at the breakdown. If Leinster do pick up a French team this won't be a factor -- the French don't really bustle you at the breakdown but if they were worried about Leinster, which they should be, a perfunctory video analysis would tell you that the reason Ospreys beat Leinster regularly is because they really hassle Leinster at the breakdown. Every time Reddan put his mitts into the ruck he got handcuffed. Leinster will get their clearout right and nobody will fancy playing them.
The Sean O'Brien saga came to a happy conclusion last week. It was like Dallas without the oil. His absence on Friday night gave away a snippet of his true worth to any team. That shoulder injury that he picked up against Ulster was certainly fortuitous from the IRFU's perspective. In addition to O'Brien, it is simply bizarre how many players who featured in the final Test game for the Lions against Australia in Sydney have had their current season severely curtailed by serious injury or their form has gone out the window.
Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, Alex Corbisiero, Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and Conor Murray -- the curse of Wazza. Cian Healy would have been part of the head count if he hadn't got injured in Perth. How much are Lions players worth after a tour? You wouldn't want to snap them up and find they collapse as the next season starts.
Maybe this injury was a natural mechanism after a gnawingly consistent run of them. Leinster and Ireland will rehab him with TLC. It is one of the prime KPIs when it comes to selling a contract to stay in Ireland. Just ask Stephen Ferris. Though given Richardt Strauss' Lazarene recovery, what price O'Brien's reintroduction before the end of the season? If not the beginning of April, then certainly the end of that month is attainable given the miracles that happen in the Leinster/IRFU medical sphere. Nobody believes their recovery schedules anymore.
O'Brien too would have taken a look at Johnny Sexton's plight after his big-money signing and consider adroitly that money is not everything. Sexton's team are currently lying eighth in the Top 14 with Begles Bordeaux and Perpignan snapping at their pedicured heels. After watching Racing Metro for over half a season you quickly reach the conclusion that these Parisian invertebrates have the constitution of belly button fluff and they will run out the gate at Clermont today with most likely an embarrassing drubbing behind them. They can contemplate finishing last in the pool with red figures all over their points differential and not a trace of Gallic chagrin about their predicament.
For somebody whose heritage is defined by the Heineken Cup it must be galling to quite literally make up the numbers. Sexton and Mike Phillips don't even make the match-day squad. For people who know Sexton it is unimaginable that he could countenance this mediocrity, walking into a den of indifference being greeted by 'quoi' from a multitude of blank visages after another spiritually inept performance.
Whether he likes it or not, Sexton will probably have to take up the option of that extra year, depending on Jackie Lorenzetti's humour. This is when his agent Fintan Drury will really earn his corn. The prospects of coming back aged 30 to a Leinster side that has two established outhalves is not good. He just couldn't bring himself to play for Munster.
Whatever about the money and the lifestyle, to see such a talented player who can brilliantly orchestrate a backline be told to just kick the ball in the air must be soul destroying. Racing haven't the first clue how to maximise his undoubted quality. There is the other aspect that might be lost in the transfer -- that of satisfaction from playing. Playing a shit brand of rugby for a shit team will only sit with Sexton for so long. If you are going for the money chose your team and sugar daddy carefully.
I'm pretty sure Toulon, if they had signed Sean O'Brien, would have recognised that they had a very special talent. Just not sure if Bernie Laporte would have known how to use him properly. That is of course if he is still there next year.