Wednesday 13 December 2017

Irish sides not far from top despite these losses

A disappointing weekend but plenty of positives offer hope of a bright future

Dan Leavy goes over to score a try for Leinster which was subsequently disallowed for an infringement. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dan Leavy goes over to score a try for Leinster which was subsequently disallowed for an infringement. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Talking point: Alan Quinlan

Based on their respective performances over the weekend, people will say that Leinster are closer to getting back to the top than Munster but there was a difference in the standard of opposition that both provinces faced and Saracens are certainly, in my opinion, stronger than Clermont.

Leinster are not too far off but Munster have a bit more work to do to get to the top. There are probably two or three teams at that peak level and I include Leinster in that so it is about right where Munster are now. On paper, they finished as the fourth-best side in Europe.

Leinster will take comfort from the fact that they went to France and weren't outplayed excluding the first 20 minutes as they were left to rue their slow start.

It will be a bit trickier for Munster to recover mentally because they might have some doubts about themselves. But they shouldn't because Saracens are an unbelievably powerful side.

I've lost semi-finals in my time and it does give you even more determination to get fitter, stronger and to improve your skills as you try to bounce back.

It won't come as much solace to the players when they are back in training this week but it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. You have to remember that, for a lot of these guys, this was their first time playing on this stage.

It's almost unheard of for a team to come out of nowhere and win a European Cup. It takes time and as painful as these sort of defeats are, you learn so much from them. Every sports person will tell you that.

Barometer

Both teams have improved drastically this year but they have to get better again to reach that next level. There are no prizes for making semi-finals but it is a barometer to measure your progress.

No matter how many tackle bags you hit in the warm-up, it can't fully prepare you for the kind of intensity Clermont brought in the opening stages yesterday.

Their second-half performance showed that Leinster can be as aggressive as Clermont but ultimately, going away to France, you cannot cough up a head start like that.

The disallowed try was a massive turning point. You get a lot of players nowadays diving into rucks and holding onto guys. If Dan Leavy gets away with that, you're saying it's a clever piece of play.

Clermont went down the other end of the field and kicked the penalty to make it 18-12 when it could have been 19-15 to Leinster. Even though Garry Ringrose came up with some magic later on, there is no doubt in my mind that the French side would really have believed in that moment that they could go on and win the game when it seemed as though it was slipping away from them.

I've played against Clermont and there is definitely that psychological weakness there. They went over 40 minutes without scoring as they took their foot off the pedal.

We've seen that before from them and you wondered if Leinster would capitalise on that and they did but they still left themselves with that bit too much to do and luck deserted them. Those three points just before the hour mark gave Clermont the lift they needed.

There was a lot of disappointment when Ringrose wasn't named in the Lions squad last week but I don't think it is the worst thing in the world that he is not going. He could end up there yet but I still think there is room for him to improve physically.

When you see someone score a try like that, everybody takes notice and the Lions selectors would undoubtedly have seen it which would have reiterated just how close he was to making the final cut.

It was an incredible try that summed up his talent. His progress has been rapid and even he if doesn't play for the Lions this summer, he definitely will in the future.

Munster could have done with a spark like that on Saturday. They played within themselves and looked nervy. They focused too much on Saracens and ended up kicking the ball way too often rather than trying to play with it.

They have shown at stages during the season how good they can be when they build through the phases but Munster haven't come up against a defence as good as Saracens and it unsettled them.

I know the thought process of a lot of supporters will be that Duncan Williams kicked the ball away too much but I think he only did what he was told to do.

They set themselves up for the kick chase and ended up not putting enough width on their play. Looking back on the game, there were some opportunities for Munster when Saracens were quite narrow around the ruck.

If Munster had looked to do something different, they might have unlocked the defence. You see it with Ireland when they use Joe Schmidt's 'power plays'. It makes the opposition think on their feet and that's when the gaps appear. Saracens expected everything Munster threw at them and coped comfortably. That's frustrating.

I was deflated leaving the Aviva on Saturday but considering where Munster have come from, it was a phenomenal achievement to get to the semi-final.

Rassie Erasmus said it himself, Munster are 15-20 points behind Saracens and even though it's still early days, like Leinster, they will have regrets about the way in which the game panned out.

The focus now shifts to the Guinness PRO12 and Leinster and Munster will be desperate to finish the season with some silverware.

While their defeats over the weekend will be tough to take, there were enough positives to suggest that they will be back at the top of Europe again before too long.

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