Thursday 18 July 2019

George Hook: Once kings of Europe, Munster and Leinster have faded into mediocrity

Van der Flier and Fitzgerald rare beacons of light on sobering day for Leinster

Toulon’s Duane Vermeulen and Mike McCarthy clash
Toulon’s Duane Vermeulen and Mike McCarthy clash

George Hook

There is an old golf expression that says there are no pictures on the scorecard. Leinster's result in Toulon suggests a close-fought encounter, but ultimately they ended the game with the same return as the opening two rounds.

A defeat is a defeat, no matter what way you dress it up. And now, with three successive losses in Europe, Leinster's hopes of a miraculous turnaround are done and dusted.

Yesterday's performance was a marked improvement on the opening two rounds. Leo Cullen's side defended heroically at times and but for sheer dogged determination, particularly inside their own 22, Toulon could have run riot.

But let's not oversell it. Giving credit to professional rugby players for commitment to their task is akin to clapping politicians on the back for shaking hands. This was an improvement, but when set against previous matches, it was the least Cullen could have expected.

Ultimately Leinster's discipline let them down - nine penalties conceded at the breakdown, 15 overall and three yellow cards?


Josh Van der Flier did his case for a regular starting berth no harm whatsoever with a Herculean effort against a monstrous Toulon pack. The openside must now come under serious consideration for Joe Schmidt's Six Nations squad.

Once again, the slow delivery of Isaac Boss cost Leinster valuable time in possession. With Luke McGrath ruled out because of injury, this game was tailor-made for Eoin Reddan to start. There was a notable improvement in the Leinster backline when Reddan was introduced in the second half.

Luke Fitzgerald was the stand-out player for the Irish side. His quick feet and acceleration off the mark were valuable assets when space was at a premium. One can only hope that Schmidt might consider a Fitzgerald/Robbie Henshaw combination in the centre in February, should Henshaw make a suitable recover from injury.

Toulon were full value for their 15-point victory. And it is difficult to make a reasonable case for Leinster overturning that result in Dublin on Saturday.

On Saturday night, at a once impenetrable fortress, Munster coughed up victory to an old rival. It wasn't so much the final score-line that stood out, rather the manner of Munster's defeat that was most alarming.

Few outside Munster's inner circle were surprised by the result, as this rotten run has been some time in the making. Very little in Munster's performances this season suggested they could cope with the demands of competing at Europe's top table.

When Paul O'Connell handed in his transfer request last season, the powers-that-be must have foreseen what their acquiescence would mean. For much of the last three years, O'Connell carried the province single-handedly on his broad shoulders. It was O'Connell's leadership, strength and passion that laid the foundation for Munster's smash-and-grab job at Harlequins in 2013.

Everything that O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara inspired on that day two years ago was missing from Munster on Saturday night. Leicester didn't play particularly well, but they still managed to account for their hosts relatively comfortably.

Anthony Foley's bemusement at the referee in his post-match interview was a lame attempt at deflecting away from the glaring shortcomings of his team.

Saturday's performance was a bungling mess of handling errors, indecision and abject defence. If this is Munster under Foley, his resignation cannot come soon enough.

The giants of the past decade, responsible for creating brand Munster; a force in European rugby, have gone and for whatever reason, they have not been replaced. In their stead, Munster have a group of players that are just not good enough to challenge for the highest honours.

Simon Zebo faces a decision in the coming weeks. Does he want to stay with a team on a downward curve and hope that his luck turns under Joe Schmidt? Or should he seek out the best financial deal available and go off and enjoy himself in another country for a few years?

Ian Madigan also has to consider his options. Why would he want to stay at Leinster and play second fiddle to Johnny Sexton? Surely, as has been suggested, he is not seriously considering a move to Munster?

And Robbie Henshaw would need his head examined to leave Connacht for Leinster.

Irish provinces, once kings of Europe, forces to be reckoned with, have faded into mediocrity. The Emperors have been disrobed and robbed of their finest garments. What remains looks vulnerable and lost.

The question now is, where do we go from here?

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