Tuesday 16 January 2018

Neil Francis: Champs or Charlies? Stakes high for Leinster against Wasps

Sean Cronin goes over unopposed to score his side's fourth try against Castres whose tackle count was well short of what Leinster will experience against Wasps. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Sean Cronin goes over unopposed to score his side's fourth try against Castres whose tackle count was well short of what Leinster will experience against Wasps. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The week before last in an emotional encounter in Paris Castres shipped nearly 50 points from a strongly-motivated Stade Francais. 'Je Suis Charlie' was the clarion call.

A week later, the Charlies - of the Chaplin variety - arrived in Dublin for another 50-pointer. Castres are a disgrace. Whatever about bonus points there should be points for not taking the competition seriously. Castres should just be honest and say that they don't want to play in the Champions Cup.

If I was a coach in this competition, I would never allow a camera into my dressing room. The scene in Castres' changing room actually looked quite genuine. They were animated and there was embraces of good luck, re-affirmation of what was required in all the pods and units within the team, bit of shouting, bit of hand-clapping and knowing nods around the room. Touch or unopposed - what will it be? I think it was touch.

When Sean Cronin scored his side's fourth try for the bonus point just before half-time, demonstrating that trademark burst of dazzling pace it did look impressive!

However, the Castres tighthead Ramiro Herrera did stick his hand out and touched Cronin in the mid-riff.

In touch rugby, once you are touched, you have to stop immediately, place the ball down and let the dummy half feed the next player. Cronin cheated, he knew he had been touched but he kept going until he got over the line. That try shouldn't have counted!

17 January 2015; Tadhg Furlong, Leinster, goes over to score his side's fifth try of the game. European Rugby Champions Cup 2014/15, Pool 2, Round 5, Leinster v Castres, RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
17 January 2015; Tadhg Furlong, Leinster, goes over to score his side's fifth try of the game. European Rugby Champions Cup 2014/15, Pool 2, Round 5, Leinster v Castres, RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Cronin broke all the rules. Leinster won 16 lineouts out of 16 - 100pc. Somebody should lodge a complaint. Castres didn't get one free ball all afternoon. What sort of hosts are they?

Castres missed 20 tackles against Stade and 20 against Leinster - that is impressive consistency - on the way to shipping just less than 100 points in two games. The entire Castres pack made 56 tackles in the Leinster match. In the Harlequins versus Wasps game, one man, James Haskell, made 50pc of that total (28 tackles).

Nobody is kidding anyone here - the performance and the result in the RDS should be dispatched from memory with only two things retained. Leinster slowly got some of their tempo back through this engagement at the RDS. It might serve as an enema to get their natural flow back.

If you start to play football even against limited resistance you might discover that it is good to play that way and as a consequence your opposition might find it difficult to deal with you when you are in that sort of mood. Maybe play that style of rugby more often.

It will also give them confidence, however justifiable it may be given Castres' indifference to the fight. The transition from the turgid to the thrilling didn't come about without error.

Leinster's handling errors ended up in the late twenties and Castres' try through Romain Martial in the 69th minute came from careless loose ball.

In an unopposed training session or a captain's run, it is always deemed a good session and a sense that the team are primed if there is no ball down. Leinster were loose all over the 80 as they tried to play a brand of the game they haven't attempted all season.

Yes, there will be mistakes - but Wasps are a canny side and they got nourishment from Harlequins' attempts to break them down and subsequent mistakes.

Harlequins were flat on the line and lateral which did not help but their passing was poor and their offloading game predictable. They were loose too and they paid for that. That is the game they play all season - Leinster just remembered it last Saturday. The passes must stick at the Ricoh.

Dave Kearney is tackled by Richie Gray, left, and Rory Kockott
Dave Kearney is tackled by Richie Gray, left, and Rory Kockott

There is more encouragement from the evidence garnered from the last few competitive encounters.

It is a near certainty that Luke Fitzgerald will not collect €200 or pass 'Go' or have to play for the Wolfhounds against the Saxons next week.

He is Ireland's best outside centre and will start in Ireland's midfield outside Robbie Henshaw. What a relief it is to see dancing feet as opposed to centres bashing through concrete.

Fitzgerald has soft hands and sympathetic passing skills. We just forgot how good he could be back in his natural position and now looking to impose himself on weak inside shoulders. Fitzgerald needs ball and the hope is that Leinster can improve on their performance against Wasps in October at the RDS.

I said it here last week that I fancied Wasps to beat Harlequins with their powerhouse back-row and so it proved.

It was interesting to see how Matt Mullan yet again showed his quality at loosehead even though England's starter in the same position, Joe Marler, was only a metre away on the other side of the scrum. The English have loads of good scrummaging props.

Once again in literally every fixture last weekend, the scrum was a major factor. Munster, Ulster and Connacht can testify to that. We knew after two minutes that Castres were not up for it at scrum time.

An easy half-wheel and powerful shunt on Castres' first feed and they retreated without a struggle.

But Cian Healy and Jack McGrath are huge losses - if Leinster get through without their first-choice props starting, the Vatican will likely send over the Congregatio de Causis Sanctorum to verify the miracle.

Marty Moore, meanwhile, comes back to start. He only makes one tackle all afternoon but he scores a try and sticks the scrum on the tighthead side. That could be that for Mike Ross.

Ross has just signed a one-year contract. It is hard to see him play past the World Cup but I am sure his day is not done yet.

He has been a foundation for Leinster and Ireland; either way, if one of them can stick the scrum on the tighthead, Leinster will win this match.

Leinster have to choose their point of attack carefully. Wasps' back-row of Haskell, Ashley Johnson and Nathan Hughes vigorously mopped up anything that Harlequins threw at them 10 metres either side of the breakdown.

They were too muscular over the ball at the tackle zone and Harlequins got turned over 21 times. Leinster have to be clever - ball-carriers have to have close support and for the first half particularly Leinster need numbers into the breakdown to retain and protect - Jerome Garces is big on holding onto the ball in the tackle.

Leinster have never beaten Wasps in the Heineken Cup and the win over Harlequins will have fortified them.

That was a derby game and both clubs do not like each other and Wasps expended a huge amount of energy and enmity to get one over on their former London rivals.

Maybe they might not be as good next week. Either way, the stakes are huge - a home quarter-final for a four-point win and a chance of a run in the Cup, or a losing bonus point or a loss and the possibility of a best losing qualifier position - but a near certainty of a trip to France and an unwinnable match.

The stakes are huge. Win and they are champions - lose and they are Charlies.

Irish Independent

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