Friday 13 December 2019

George Hook: Schmidt must carry blame for failure to fix broken line-out

George Hook

The dust has settled and two Irish teams are in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup. The champions and probably the best team in Ireland, Leinster, are out but can have little complaint. In the end they did not even make it difficult for Munster to qualify.

The visit to Exeter was always going to be difficult but the callow French in Limerick also put up a fight. Leinster had the bonus point in the bag after 54 minutes but knew that would not set a target for Munster, who would only have to score four tries to qualify. Munster duly did more than that to send the fans home happy and probably save Rob Penney's job, but progress is unlikely.

Leinster's problem is that the departures of Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn were not addressed – the arrival of Mike McCarthy will come a season too late. Exeter offered serious if largely illegal resistance at the breakdown but were allowed to remain in the match in the final quarter, which forced Jonathan Sexton to kick for goal rather than look for tries.

Incredibly, Joe Schmidt still has not fixed the line-out and it cost him dearly again on Saturday when vital positions and possession were lost by poor throws from Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin.


It seems the response to the problem is typically Irish – it will be all right on the night. Ireland have now fallen from one of the best line-outs in the world to an object of derision, without any obvious efforts being made to correct the problem, which lies with the throwing rather than the catching.

Leinster are now like Ireland. Opponents know that they can be bullied up front and the backline skills stunted as a result.

Once Racing Metro announced their team of no-hopers to travel to Limerick, Leinster knew they needed at least six tries to set Munster a meaningful target. Despite the encouragement of an early try, they never looked to be in that destructive frame of mind, despite having their best talents on view.

Would they have been criticised had they lost while trying to win big? I think not. A week ago Munster were roundly and rightly criticised for repeated attempts at goal rather than going for tries. The repeated mantra that the match must first be won is a cop out. Irish teams invariably give too much credit to inferior opponents and allow them to remain in contention.

Exeter, for all their pride and fortitude, had been twice overwhelmed by Clermont and hammered at home by a very average Northampton side two weeks ago. What was there to fear except as Roosevelt put it, fear itself? Leinster have only themselves to blame.

So yesterday in Limerick, the place of rugby miracles, the home team were required to do the minimum to qualify and they duly succeeded helped by a poor refereeing decision by Wayne Barnes. After five minutes he red-carded Racing flanker Antoine Battut for a knee in the head which deserved at best a yellow, because serious intent was not evident. It made the result and the four tries a foregone conclusion.

However, faced by 14 decidedly average players for 75 minutes, Munster made hard work of the task. It was 25 minutes before Conor Murray got over from close range. It is hard to believe that this team possesses the guile to upset Conor O'Shea's Harlequins at The Stoop in the quarter-finals.

The best news of the day came from Simon Zebo, who demonstrated what a rare talent he has for scoring tries. That, coupled with his fielding and kicking, make him a near-certainty for a Six Nations start.

However, Munster's players are just not good enough to carry out the coach's plan. The pack is average and the backline is below attacking par, especially Keith Earls in the centre, who looks glaringly like a wing playing in midfield.

Yesterday morning, O'Shea had three possible opponents in the next round, Leinster, Munster and Toulouse. He must be thrilled at how the results have panned out.

Had Racing remained at full strength, would there have been the desired result? The French teams have been maddeningly inconsistent. The Parisians should have beaten Saracens last week. Meanwhile, the outstanding Toulon did not turn up at Montpellier on Saturday.

Ulster look to have the best shot at progress in the competition. They showed outstanding spirit in Castres, and travelling to London to face the pedestrian and unimaginative Saracens will not faze them.

All in all, this was not a weekend to set the pulses racing for the Six Nations. Ireland will struggle with a dodgy line-out and a suspect scrum. So what else is new?

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