Friday 13 December 2019

Neil Francis: If Sexton was selling hot dogs in the stand he'd have had more impact than Jackson or Madigan

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On a visit to a reservation, a white US government official asked the Native American chief Running Bear: “You have observed the white men for 90 years. You've seen his wars and his technological advances. You've seen the progress he has made and the damage he has done. In your opinion, where did the white man go wrong?”

The chief considered the question carefully before calmly replying: “When white man find America, Indians running it, no taxes, no debt, plenty buffalo, plenty beaver, clean water, medicine man free. Woman do all work. Indian man spend all day hunting and fishing, all night long having sex.”

The chief leaned back in his chair and smiled: “Only white man dumb enough to think he can improve system like that.”

When Matt O'Connor arrived at Leinster, you would have credited him with having enough smarts to realise that he just couldn't improve on the team that he inherited from Joe Schmidt.

Silverware was like low-hanging fruit and the team in blue were pretty much irresistible.

Some labelled them as the best team in Europe – ever.

We will leave the fruit metaphors behind us after this analogy. Leinster were like a good wine – the maturity of the team was key.

It is rare that you get players like O'Driscoll, D’Arcy, Cullen and Heaslip who have played together for so long – acquired the tactical acumen, spiritual resolve and front-line experience, a potent blend. They knew what to do on the field – that is what experience is about, the principle of doing the right thing at the right time. For European success, you either grow it or you buy it.

O'Connor has an unenviable task. For some of his troops, there is nothing left to learn the hard way.

What is the best O'Connor can do? It's obvious – don't let things disimprove too much. Even before you put your imprimatur on the team – continue to do the simple things well. I'm pretty certain Leinster have not managed to even achieve that.

The term we heard for the last three seasons was ‘clinical’. An emotional detachment in the way a job was done. There was almost a psychopathic quality to the way they treated opponents. No mercy, no pity, get the job done. Leinster have regressed a little and we know champions can lose their killer instinct or their touch or their nerve. The trick is to find it again.

The match last Friday in Ravenhill will have ramifications for quite a few players who underperformed. Joe Schmidt probably regrets telling Jonny Sexton that he could have the summer off. Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson had poor games.

Jackson got the man-of-the-match award, which was an indictment of the quality of the game. If Jonny Sexton had been selling hot dogs in the stand, he would have looked better than the two starting number 10s. No guarantees that both of them will be going to Argentina.

Their lack of quality will have brought Ian Keatley back into the equation. That isn't a back-handed compliment to Keatley.

We complimented Leinster on being the best passing team in Europe. That epithet based on their propensity for practice and more practice on the key principles of giving and receiving a pass.

In the 50th minute of that game, Leinster were repulsed close in on the Ulster line. A line-out maul and then a few individual forays had left Ulster long near the contact zone and short on the wide side.

The crowd knew it, Ulster knew it and your Granny watching it at home sensed it too. ‘Hands’ would make sure that Leinster would benefit from a big overlap. Isaac Boss, when he realised that it was on, took three steps out of the ruck and muscled a shot duck of a pass out left.

Leinster tried to skip pass it to the left wing. The quality of the passing was 3rd A's standard. All along the Leinster line it was awful – off the right hand passing left – all experienced internationals managed to take something out of the ball.

Gordon D’Arcy should have been arrested by the skills police for a crime against passing on the final pass to Dave Kearney. Kearney was so disgusted with the quality of the pass that he fell over two metres from the line in protest. Butchered? Jack the Ripper wouldn't have got a look in.

Ulster, down some of their quality players, were lucky to still be in the game at half-time.

Madigan's careless chip was just too casual, Jackson intercepted and scored and Ulster, despite being on the rack, were alive at only 9-8 down.

Leinster came out in the second half fairly certain that if they ramped it up and were a little more efficient in certain quarters, the game was

theirs. Ten minutes into the second half – deep in enemy territory – that is when Leinster take out their hunter's knife and cold-bloodedly slit the throat of their opponent. We know, in hindsight, that Shane Jennings would score 10 minutes later – but now is good. The 50th minute is a good time to put a nail in the coffin. Don't wait – do it now.

They fluffed it and fluffed it badly.

Leinster have become a little too casual, a little too sub-clinical in their approach – lazy almost! Shock horror… Frano calls the Leinster team lazy.

Let's face it – Leinster can sleepwalk their way through the Rabo and can win most of their matches with reserve-strength sides, but in their next three matches they need to show some ambition and some ruthlessness. That cold-blooded calm needs to be found again and pretty quickly.

Ulster – and it is subject to confirmation – will have Pienaar, Afoa et al available for the game in the RDS.

They will also have 15 men on the field.

After suffering repeated losses against Leinster for the last 10 years or so, Ulster will eventually figure out how to beat Leinster and the weekend of the 16/17 could be the day for some much-needed redress.

A gentle hint, then, that what Leinster have been producing just isn't good enough and they will get caught by Ulster or Glasgow if they do not up their performance levels.

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