Saturday 17 March 2018

Neil Francis: Clever, brave and lucky too

It was the endgame to end all endgames and Leinster did well to keep their heads, says Neil Francis

'They also had a little bit of off field (barely) defensive coaching and direction from Joe Schmidt, who was closer to the action than he should have been.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy
'They also had a little bit of off field (barely) defensive coaching and direction from Joe Schmidt, who was closer to the action than he should have been.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

'Well m'lud, it was heading towards a scientifically detached and professional close-out with about five minutes left. There were only four points in it but they were spiritually empty and fully accepting of their fate. They had nothing left. We had kept the ball and pushed them deep into the left-hand corner".

"What happened?"

"Well, we thought we'd won it too so we took one hand away from their throat and lordy lordy we got a dénouement from Dante."

"Did you do it on purpose? Because it wasn't a really great game until the 75th minute. Did you mean to spice it up"

"Sometimes we do, just to see the faces on some of our supporters, give them a bit of cardiac for the last five."

"When did it start?"

"Well, we just got suckered at the last lineout . . ."

The oldest trick in the book. Jamie Cudmore calls the lineout. He says 'sept' which the Leinster players, dazzling urbanites that they are, understand means seven in French. It is, however, a lineout call for only six to enter the lineout. Leinster put their full complement of seven in.

Wayne Barnes, in fairness, called it out to them. "Leinster you're six" he says quite plainly. Chummy bunch that Leinster are, nobody really feels like leaving the lineout; they even win the ball. Barnes raises his eyes to heaven and awards a bent arm sanction against Leinster and we have helter-skelter for the next four-and-a-half minutes on the clock. In real time it was probably twice that.

I am always fascinated by how players react in a frenzy; who is doing what, how guys get to manage their emotions and instincts as they try and come to terms with what is going on in front of them. Where is the ball? Where is the defence line? Where should it be? Where are the opposition runners? How do they anticipate what is going to happen next and place themselves in the best position to be able to stop the next attack?

The defender vacillates, guestimating whether the first tackler will be able to stop the next carrier, wondering whether he will have one or two support ruckers with him. Should he go high or low? Should he go and tackle the ball?

There is nothing in sport as frantically pressurised and utterly compelling as a goal-line stand, particularly one that lasts as long as, say, a child being born.

Leinster were very lucky. In truth, they should be out of the competition, even though they were the better team on the day. Leinster have Lady Luck to thank. They also have to thank one or two players who have to be singled out for bravery under fire and grace under pressure.

Brad Thorn led the team in tackles, 13 with none missed. Once again it wasn't the quantity, it was the quality of the hit. Clermont players were stopped dead or robbed of the chance of quick ball.

But it was, more than anyone else, Seán O'Brien who kept Leinster's line intact. Leinster showed their mettle in a time of need but it was metal of another sort -- the posts -- namely the right hand upright which ultimately saved them.

They also had a little bit of off-field (barely) defensive coaching and direction from Joe Schmidt who was supposed to be in the stands, but was closer to the action than he should have been. Neither the match commissioner nor the Clermont management complained, but that was only because Schmidt had not made a tackle himself. I'd say he wasn't too far away from it though.

Some of the stuff that went on at the breakdown was outside the fundamental laws of the game. It was a bit like playing tennis with the net down, anything went. Either way, the French made it easy for Leinster to defend. Morgan Parra lost his head a bit and some of his passing was as poor as his decision-making close to the line was suspect. You felt that if Dimitri Yachvilli, his rival for the French scrumhalf position, was on the park, he would have thought it through with greater effect.

Some of their players who got onto the ball near the line were the wrong players. The first rule is never let the fatties near the ball when you are really close to the line. They have no football and they can't think clearly in a pressure situation. I read that a recent police study found that you are much more likely to get shot by a fat cop if you run. They are lazy too -- always the line of least resistance. Vincent Debaty, despite his enormous size, made it very easy for the determined Leinster defence to tackle him. They knew exactly what he was going to do.

From the second scrum on the five-metre line, where Mike Ross was penalised for coming across, Leo Cullen, Thorn and O'Brien barely stopped a Debaty truck and trailer with Lepandry in the rear. O'Brien held onto the ball on the ground (illegally) because if he hadn't Clermont would have scored with the next wave, who were coming from deep. Was it a yellow? No, but the next one would be. Barnes played advantage.

Julien Bardy went left, Cronin made first contact to slow him and Thorn came in and stopped it dead. Rob Kearney, who was never more than a few metres from any of the rucks, took an all-hands-to-the-pump approach, abandoned his post and made a cameo in nearly every one.

Leinster legally stopped that foray. No advantage. Parra tapped to Cudmore going left. Jonny Sexton was left isolated but the kid is far bigger than most outhalves and he did well to stop the axe murderer. However, Bardy and Lepandry rowed in and here the stupendous quality of the supporting O'Brien hit stops Cudmore, stands him up temporarily, grabs the ball, brings the Canadian to ground and falls on the Clermont side of the tackle zone in the one movement. It was the tackle of the season. Sexton gets put through the bark chipper like an extra from Fargo. At this stage there is a blitz of illegality. Bardy hits Cullen with a flying headbutt and also makes contact with his eye, while trying to throttle the polar bear.

Meanwhile, Julien Pierre is acting as a lead block and Ti'i Paulo has his hand on the ball and sets off through the ruck. Ross, who had made a few good tackles in the goal-line series to make up for his scrum penalty, is the only man between the South Sea Islander and glory. Ross gets hit and is knocked backwards and off balance into the post. If the post hadn't been there Ross would have been knocked over and Paulo would have got in.

The urgency increased as Leinster suddenly realised that the line was not the issue now but the posts. If Clermont touched the post with the ball it was a try. Kearney, Heinke van der Merwe and Cullen realised the danger and consolidated their position at the base. Ross had fallen on the Clermont reserve hooker. At this stage Kevin McLaughlin, who was also excellent defensively, came in and guarded the posts. Moving out and back sensing which way the next Clermont drive was to come. Great awareness under pressure.

Crucially, Van der Merwe had Parra trapped in the ruck and the dangerous Sitiveni Sivivatu was posturing over the ball about to try an electric eel movement to post. Amazingly, while he was still the subject of GBH, Cullen managed to reach in and grab the All Black winger and pull him into the ruck.

Clermont needed now to get someone else on the ball; wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, Debaty arrived and brought his new version of the game to the proceedings. Heads-down Rugby. He never looked at the post -- never saw what was on and just decided to go right.

Debaty at 22 stone in the van got Rougerie (17 stone) and Bonnaire (18 stone) in the rear, charging around the corner. Brad Thorn had been expecting them and he got that bulwark of an All Black low body position ready. The three of them (57 stone) were stopped dead in their tracks. It was like running into an anvil.

Rougerie and Bonnaire had poor support positions at the ruck and the quality of Thorn's tackle meant Debaty had a poor body position for the recycle. O'Brien was in like a limpet. Barnes let the non-releasing prop hang on for five seconds and three roared 'release' cries from McLaughlin before he pinged Debaty de Fatty. Game over.

Fair? If life was fair Elvis would be alive and all his impersonators would be dead. Leinster are in the final because of dedication to principle; the endgame was harsh for Clermont but they were not clever enough or good enough when the opportunities came around close to the line. If Leinster faff around like this against Ulster, they will be caught out.

PS: Congrats to Aer Lingus and Ryanair, the up-yours airlines who are charging €500 to €600 to get to London and back on the Heineken weekend.

PPS: Earth calling Scott Quinnell, who on Sky's Sunday night Heineken round-up stated that Wesley Fofana's try should have been awarded?

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