Jim Glennon: Plenty of cause for optimism as season draws to close
Irish professional rugby is in good shape despite Leinster's disappointing defeat, writes Jim Glennon
A defining week for Leinster then, or was it? Only time will tell. Having come agonisingly close to achieving one of the great upsets of European competition on Sunday, the massive effort took its toll in Belfast on Friday when Ulster recorded a comprehensive victory, bringing down the curtain on Leinster's season.
The structure of the European tournament's knockout stages stacks the odds firmly against the unfortunates drawn 'away' in the last four, particularly with a fortnight between the rounds; to push Toulon so close in Marseille was a highly commendable performance by Matt O'Connor and his team. I have been among those critical of the coach but his team were minutes away from a place in the Twickenham final.
Let's get a few points out of the way immediately. As expected, Toulon were well short of their best, and are a team in decline. The rain didn't help but, even allowing for the weather and the gargantuan Leinster effort, they never managed to fire on all cylinders; one would also have to question coach Bernard Laporte's selection of Freddie Michalak at outhalf and, particularly, his decision not to start the game-changing Steffon Armitage.
Referee Wayne Barnes too comes in for his now customary, and deserved, criticism. The cynical penalty conceded by Bakkies Botha in the opening minutes warranted a yellow card, and the choke-hold inflicted on Richardt Strauss by Jocelino Suta was worthy of more. In addition, Armitage's impact on the game, and at the breakdown in particular, was based on the referee's disinterest in facilitating the release of the tackled player, a mindset made all the more irritating for TV viewers by the fawning praise for Armitage's efforts from an awe-struck Stuart Barnes. While Leinster's attention immediately turned to their domestic campaign and Friday's trip to Ravenhill, debate abounds as to just where they stand. Was Sunday a turning point for the team or was it a close call in a one-off game against a great team in decline?
Firstly, the Leinster forwards from numbers one to eight, and indeed 16 to 20 when they entered the fray, were outstanding. The set-piece strength, particularly at the scrum, was impressive and the manner in which Jamie Heaslip and his forwards applied themselves throughout demonstrated the unit to be, on their day, among the best in Europe. In addition to the captain and his back-row colleagues Seán O'Brien and Jordi Murphy, there was input of real quality from Mike Ross at the scrum, Devin Toner at the lineout, and Mike McCarthy in defence.
Behind the scrum, however, there was again a marked lack of penetration. Not until very late on, in extra-time, did we see Leinster really threaten with ball in hand and there's no escaping the fact that the 10-12-13 axis, such a weapon in recent years, simply didn't function - nor was there any reason to expect it to, such have been its performance levels throughout the season. Matt O'Connor obviously saw value in the combination of Ian Madigan, Ben Te'o and Jimmy Gopperth. Friday's result in Belfast, however, ensures that it's all about next season now and the return of Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa give some cause for optimism. It's worth remembering though that international commitments will continue to pre-occupy a disproportionate number of Leinster's players until late autumn and it was during their absence this season that much of the damage was done. The problem is not with the 'front-liners'.
Nacewa was respected in the dressing room and his return will be a boost. Expectations should be tempered, however - he will not be the player he once was. On the other hand, the progress of Te'o gives further cause for optimism.
Despite the criticism, it will be a huge surprise if the coach doesn't remain in situ. As I've mentioned previously, the issue is less about any style or brand of rugby than whether he's extracting the best from his players, particularly his alternatives. Only the players themselves know if they have a case to answer on this but, even allowing for Sunday's performance, few, if any, could claim the team has performed as it should this season.
While Leinster's travails have been commanding the headlines, it shouldn't go unnoticed that, overall, things remain relatively healthy. The exits of Ulster and Munster at the pool stages of the Champions Cup were disappointing at the time, but the extra focus afforded to the Pro12 has both motoring well towards the play-offs.
Connacht, for long periods the story of the season, have been by a combination of injuries, a difficult run-in, and their relative lack of squad depth could combine against them but, regardless of the final outcome and particularly considering their early league standings, it has been a season of real and sustainable progress in the west.
Irish professional rugby is in a good place facing into the business end of the season. Yes, a presence in the Champions Cup final would be nice, and there are issues around various aspects of the provinces' performances, not to mention the player welfare programme, but Munster and Ulster carry on regardless with genuine Pro12 ambitions.
Sunday Indo Sport