Saturday 20 January 2018

Ireland's Cup runneth over

The four provinces sit at rugby's top table with Leinster leading the chase for glory, says Brendan Fanning

Paul O'Connell was hustled out of the interview room in Lansdowne Road on Friday night faster than a convicted man being taken down below. And maybe that's how he felt, for a week out from their Heineken Cup opener, against the Saints, this was hard labour for Munster.

Having lost Keith Earls in the first minute with a medial ligament injury which will be a minimum four weeks to heal, what unfolded thereafter was a familiar experience for them in this fixture -- being outplayed by a Leinster team who are simply better than them because they have more quality players.

At least O'Connell, who did well to keep his emotions in check, had the good grace not to describe it as a wake-up call. Munster had enough of them last season, to the point that they are afraid to doze off in any circumstances.

What's good about their game? Lifeimi Mafi is back on form, and when he gets the ball in space he can cause real trouble for any defence. And on the subject of defence, his hit on Mike Ross was awesome. Indeed overall their defence was good. And their scrum was a source of go-forward, unlike their lineout which typically lost two on the trot -- over the top -- in the endgame when they were desperately trying to get back on terms.

So one half of their setpiece is dodgy, their breakdown work is not good enough, and Northampton will come to Limerick believing they have enough experience of the venue for it to be less of an issue, and that each time they go there Munster are further and further removed from the side that would have a head start in some games just on reputation. The absence of Jerry Flannery, David Wallace and Felix Jones makes them easier now to knock off.

"In the past we never sailed through a group," O'Connell says. "We rarely, if ever from my recollection, sailed through a group. We always had bad defeats but we just had to make sure we rallied and we came back. There were ups and downs in every group stage and that's what we've got to realise this year, there's going to be ups and downs and it is a bit of a dogfight to get out of the pool, particularly when you are in a very strong pool like we are and you need to fight for every single point. That's what we will be doing this year."

The fight might well be enough to get them through to the far side, but it's hard to see this group of players finding any extra gears to get up to the speed required if they get that far. They were given a penalty try on Friday night which was fair enough, but Tony McGahan would be so much happier if the pressure his team occasionally exert was enough to produce touchdowns.

Leinster didn't need tries to win on Friday, and it was significant that all but one of Jonny Sexton's shots on goal were handy. That's where the penalties usually come when you are well on top -- and usually they come with yellow cards attached, certainly a lot earlier than the one shown to Denis Leamy.

They are as well positioned as anyone else in the tournament to win it, and blessed with a pool draw that should get them to the quarter-final with a home fixture. And they are prepared for a whole heap of pressure to make a decent fist of retaining the trophy.

"The great teams -- the Leicesters and Toulouses -- they can do it year in, year out and if we want to be the best then that's what we have to do," says Rob Kearney. "We have to live with that [pressure] to back it up year in, year out."

It's remarkable how quickly and completely professional sportsmen move on to the next challenge. Joe Schmidt for example was back in New Zealand on holidays during the summer before the Heineken Cup final win over Northampton came back across his bows. There he was in his brother's house, having a beer and watching his nephew coming off the bench to make his debut for the New Zealand soccer team, against Australia, and when the match was over what came up next on the sports channel? Why, the Cardiff final. And at half-time on the look-back he had to remind himself that this was a game they had won.

"But that was the first time I really looked back at it and was able to relax a little bit watching it," he says. "We celebrated with a couple of drinks with my nephew doing that, so we were warmed up and decided to continue the warm up into a full-scale attack."

It will be a more sustained assault if they can, as they say in the southern hemisphere, back it up. Consider they still have Stephen Sykes to come back into the side, if he's up to it, and the prospect of Kevin McLaughlin at second-row, which is definitely where his future lies. On the fitness front they won't see Mat Berquist until Christmas, and as for Brian O'Driscoll's diminishing future, he looks like a man who is postponing an overhaul until after the breakdown. It seems now a decision on that is imminent.

At least in his absence it was encouraging to see Fergus McFadden get more game time in the 13 jersey, and using it well. He provided good go-forward all night by the simple expedient of good footwork and two big passes from quickly-delivered possession off the front of the lineout. Simple when it works, though against better defenders than Will Chambers it mightn't be so easy to effect.

Despite their superiority the Leinster dressing room was subdued on Friday night, a healthy sign from a group who are chasing perfection.

"We've set ourselves some standards, your non-negotiables that you have throughout the year -- your discipline, ruck ball and a few handling errors," Kearney added. "And they're things that you can control and they shouldn't really be happening in big games. Maybe we let ourselves down a little bit in terms of these aspects, and I think that's why the boys are a little bit quiet."

The Ulster changing room wasn't exactly cock-a-hoop either when they saw their cup draw. It's a beast of a thing, and while Johann Muller is concerned about the fact that a lot of Ulster's frontliners haven't played much rugby over the last few months, his coach has real concerns about developing players to compete at all in a pool like this.

"It's very difficult for them to learn," Brian McLaughlin says. "The structure is not quite right. Our Ravens don't get to play often enough. We have to look at that second tier, there's no doubt about that. Certainly from an Ulster perspective and certainly as far as the IRFU are concerned it's very difficult now with having only two allowed to play in the AIL. From a professional point of view for us to keep guys ticking over with match-time it's really difficult."

He has a point. For the first time ever Ireland have four provinces sitting at the top table (Connacht being the other). Keeping them there will involve some fundamental changes in how the IRFU structure the game here.

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