Saturday 16 December 2017

Neil Francis: Leinster get the better of a slightly phoney war

Both sides kept a little in reserve for big battles ahead, writes Neil Francis

Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip is tackled by Dave Foley and Dave Kilcoyne at Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: Brendan Moran
Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip is tackled by Dave Foley and Dave Kilcoyne at Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: Brendan Moran
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Stalemates sometimes can be intriguing, there can be interest value and there can be suspense even though there is no separation.

There was a four- point margin at the end, but really Leinster should have been in Kielys with 20 minutes to go. It was a poor game and you suspected that for once, just for once, something was being kept in reserve. Skill levels were poor and the amount of ball that went to the floor was just as frustrating for the viewer as it was for the combatants.

Leinster dominated the game by simply holding on to the ball and their canny kick-chase and greater savvy in the back three meant that they always won the battle of the ping-pong. But four points?

There is a term in the English language called onomatopoeia – it is used to describe a word which phonetically imitates or resembles the sound that it describes. In the animal world oink, miaow, moo or croak are words that imitate sounds.

The word flop is also onomatopoeic, as is whoosh – this is the sound that Michael Bent made in the first scrum of the match in the third minute. The scrum went back at such a rate of knots that whoosh is the only word I can use to describe it. It flopped down into the soil and even Munster, though they knew they would be up against it, knew they had a toe hold in this game.

Michael Bent had a horror first 55 minutes. It is an unfortunate name for a prop, a bit like Doctor Death or Professor Crackpot. I do not understand why the player is still in the Leinster ranks. He was brought in by Declan Kidney to shore up our tight head stock which had become dangerously low. The first couple of games were not promising and he disappeared into the ranks of the B&I League, quite often not even good enough to get on the bench. Time and patience in the Leinster factory, you might have thought, whould bring him up to pace physiologically and mentally, but on last night's performance that is not the case.

Munster fashioned two easy scrum penalties out of Leinster's loose head and at one stage they were 9-0 up and feeding on the nourishment provided by the knowledge that Leinster's scrum had a terminal weakness.

The scrum became a mess and referee Alain Rolland became a factor in this area. As a former scrum half he actually knows quite a bit about the scrum – he would have fed thousands – and he would know pretty much everything about the set: who was under pressure and what illegalities were being conducted in that phase.

Quite often teams are happy to concede penalties rather than have a side exploit a weakness and make capital on that. On the other side of the scrum Mike Ross and David Kilcoyne got into a situation of interminable jockeying to get an inch of advantage on each other. Rolland, like everybody else, got sick of it and started awarding penalties which was the correct thing to do.

This took the pressure off Leinster's loose head side where Bent was quietly being put into a mangle by BJ Botha. Leinster had no platform, Munster were in the game and if they kept on making their tackles and they continued to be as aggressive into contact as they were in the first 20, then it would not be long before it was scrum-time again and this suited Munster down to the ground, which is where Bent spent most of his night.

It was only a matter of time though before Leinster would get into their groove and Munster struggled to put a stop to it at source. For a side that prides itself on street wisdom and nous, some of the penalties that they gave away were very amateurish and it was amazing that only one Munster player was yellow carded – ironically Kilcoyne.

In the last minute of the firdt half, with the score at 12-6 and Munster under pressure, Hurley gave away a really stupid penalty on his 22. One metre on the other side of the ball, on the Leinster side of the ruck, Hurley was attempting to play the ball with three or four players in the ruck. It was so poorly conceived that it would have been unfair to give him a yellow card. Munster escaped as Madigan missed the simple penalty, but the tide had already turned as they went in for the break.

Reddan, who was Leinster's most important player, made a beautiful break up the blind on the left hand side and rather than reversing back into company, he kept going and took the tackle. Tommy O'Donnell got pinged for not rolling away – a faux attempt to try and get out of the way did not convince many and he should have been binned after the 40 metre break with Leinster's backs massing on the wide outside ready for some quick ball.

It was unfortunate that Munster lost O'Mahony, who would have given far more resistance in the area of the breakdown, and Munster's back row was over-powered and under-manned as Jennings and Heaslip enjoyed big games all over the park.

Jennings made a great outside break and again Leinster were finding holes on the outside. Kilcoyne knowingly took his time trying to delay fast Leinster ball and at last Rolland issued a yellow card.

The moment of the game came not long after. O'Driscoll, who is living the fairytale, got onto some good ball and took enough time on the pill before off-loading to Jennings who would have been significantly less of a threat as far as Munster were concerned. He made a good straight line before realising that his centre had trailed in behind him and for once one of Leinster's off-loads went to hand and O'Driscoll got in for the decisive score.

Munster got on the ball a little bit more and went through the phases, but they were toothless and rarely provided any kind of meaningful sustained pressure, although Zebo and Earls looked dangerous. The close-out was handled efficiently and Leinster hardly broke sweat.

I must say this was an under-performance by both teams and I am certain there will be a significant jump in efficiency levels if they are to beat Toulon and Toulouse. From yesterday's evidence there is still plenty in the tank and for the first of three potential meetings in the close-out of the season, the beer will taste a little sweeter tonight for Leinster.

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