George Hook: End of the road for Munster and beginning of the end for Leinster
Blues lack coherent game-plan, while Reds backline is both toothless and vulnerable
One has to be in receipt of the old age pension to remember when Cardiff was a force in European rugby.
Last week, Leinster made incredibly heavy weather of winning away against a team at one point down to 13 men. Not since Brian Ashton was in charge of Ireland have I seen such a lack of a discernible game plan.
As a spectacle, the game is on its last legs. One wonders how long people are going to pay to watch ruck after interminable ruck, as bigger and bigger men simply crash in to the nearest player.
The problem is that there is nobody now playing the game that remembers when there was space on the pitch. The result is that a line-break is the product of the defender leaving the door open rather than the attacker cracking it with a key.
Last week if the Leinster back line had read, Gareth Edwards, Barry John; David Duckham, Mike Gibson, John Dawes, Gerald Davies; and JPR Williams, the spectacle might have been just as boring.
Leinster will undoubtedly target a bonus point at the RDS against a wholly disinterested Castres. It was embarrassing this week to hear the home club talking of taking the French side on their merit.
Anything less than a bonus point haul should set alarm bells ringing in the Clonskeagh headquarters.
It may not be all Matt O'Connor's fault. Since Jimmy Gopperth made the decision to fly the nest, he has started to attack the gain-line and add some thrust to what has been a feeble Blues backline.
Sadly Ian Madigan has never demonstrated an ability to control the game in the manner of Ronan O'Gara or Johnny Sexton. In short he will never be an international No 10. Yet at a different club and under a sympathetic coach, he just might carve out a worthwhile career in the centre. I wonder has his agent talked to Conor O'Shea?
The issue of JJ Hanrahan is instructive for Madigan. I suspect filthy lucre was not at the root of his move to Northampton. Anthony Foley has many qualities as a coach but understanding the midfield is not one of them. Hanrahan has gone to better himself and good luck to him. Madigan could do no worse.
O'Connor's decision to start Madigan at centre must be a source of frustration for the Ireland coaching staff. With Sexton unavailable for the opening Six Nations game in Rome, Joe Schmidt would have been hoping for more game time for his understudy at fly-half. Schmidt's coaching talents are well documented, but he cannot compensate for lack of experience.
The exclusion of Mike Ross from Leinster's match-day 23 could signal the end of his international career. Ross has failed to adjust to the new scrum engagement laws and his unwillingness to carry the ball in open play has seen him slip down the pecking order.
At this point, the national side is a mess and it would take a fortune teller to name the team for Rome. The coach is now planning for being without his first-choice No 10 for the opening two games. Thus expect no victories based on flair. It will be trench warfare.
Meanwhile, even the most optimistic Munster supporter would have circled this afternoon's match against Saracens as a crucial, must-win game.
That the southern province are still in the reckoning for a quarter final spot is difficult to fathom, given their desperate start in the opening game at Sale and back-to-back defeats to Clermont in December.
Yet, here we are, in January, with just two rounds remaining and Munster still in the hunt for the knock-out stages, their destiny within their own control.
The build-up to this afternoon's match has been far from ideal. Defeat to Connacht in the Sportsground over Christmas highlighted worrying deficiencies in the centre, where Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki were allowed to break the line at will.
When Munster did manage to strangle possession of their own, the backs looked decidedly disjointed and uncertain in their roles.
This lack of creativity and penetration out wide has been a problem for Munster all season, where the majority of their 33 tries (18, or 55pc) have come from the forwards.
If Munster meet the Saracens backline with the same haphazard approach this afternoon, they leave themselves vulnerable to conceding tries.
The first 15 minutes will set the tone for this game.
Munster are mentally stronger than their flighty English opponents and if the Paul O'Connell can inspire his side to cast the seed of doubt early on, Saracens are likely to capitulate.
The English side have struggled in the past under the heavy weight of expectation. Last year they crumpled against Toulon in the final of the European Cup and went on to lose to Northampton in the Aviva Premiership decider.
Mark McCall's decision to persist with the inconsistent Owen Farrell ahead of Charlie Hodgson at fly-half plays right into Munster's hands. The Irish side know how to get at Farrell. The back-row of Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and CJ Stander must target the fly-half at every opportunity.
Munster's away form in the Pro12 gives cause for concern, with just one win on the road since November 21 before last weekend's victory over bottom side Zebre. This afternoon, they simply must get it right from the opening whistle.
The absence of Conor Murray at scrum half is unquantifiable and while Munster have been in this position before, one wonders if they have the sufficient man power to derail a Saracens side with a formidable home record at the Allianz Arena.
Today marks the end of the trail for Munster and the beginning of the end for Leinster.