Friday 20 September 2019

Neil Francis: It was a phenomenal Leinster display when they never dominated and played below their best

Leinster's Dan Leavy. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster's Dan Leavy. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A truly dreadful game of rugby and a match where the many neutrals, and particularly the Spanish, will be scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss was about. This game wasn't even one for the purists but who cares?

Leinster found a way; they have been the dominant force in Europe this season and managed to win while playing many leagues below what they are capable of.

I guess the habit of winning counts when it comes to arm wrestles. Leinster would have wished to play a flowing brand of the game but Racing were successful in bringing this one down to a game of the lowest denomination. You can't blame them for that, and in the end they just weren't slick enough or sharp enough or fit enough to take advantage of a Leinster side who were playing well within themselves. It was as introverted a performance as I have seen from Leinster in many a season.

There were so many superstars on the field, so many with what we like to call 'X-factor' but none of these players managed to get a sniff of some space or even a half-chance. Electricity? It was like organised lightning. X-factor? Flair and individual brilliance were trumped by structure, patience and organisation.

The difference between the sides was that Leinster just about had the sang froid, the ennui and the remnants of match-winning nous which they held over from their wins in the pool section and the quarters and semis.

Leinster under-performed; a lot of what their pack did lacked the cleverness and sharpness of prior games this season. Dan Leavy did not have the star game we thought he would: he gave away too many penalties and was well marshalled, both on the park and beforehand in the video booth.

Scott Fardy was the plastic bit that kept the six-pack together. His presence in the back row was vital as Jordi Murphy's influence did not mirror what he had done over the last couple of months.

A key factor was James Ryan, who was sublime in everything he did. His quality shone through when Leinster needed him most. He will lose a game some day but yesterday he made sure that it wasn't that day. He can retire now and live off his achievements thus far but I suspect he has another dozen years of work ahead of him.

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In the press room of this magnificent stadium, a call came out an hour before kick-off that the inestimable Dan Carter had cried off with a hamstring injury. It was like that scene in the bar in Star Wars when the alien has his arm chopped off by the light saber. Two seconds after the action was over, the chat and the hubbub resumed.

Carter's demise did not elicit any kind of response worthy of one of the greatest players of all time. Would it have had any effect on the game if he had come on in the last 20? Carter, even on one leg, would have guided Racing through when the match was in the mix in the last 25 minutes.

Remi Tales, even though he has 24 caps for France, just did not have the cojones to impose any of his personality on proceedings, and at the death, as Racing went side to side with their aggressive three-man pods you wondered at what stage he would decide to actually take the drop goal. It came quickly in the end and he snatched at it and the ball went tamely to the left.

You can be certain that Pat Lambie would not have done any better. Lambie went off in the third minute. He cut back inside and you could see him grimace before he went into contact. His thigh was heavily strapped before he went on the park. There was no question he was not right for a match of that intensity.

The Racing pack gave a strong account of themselves. The biggest problem Leinster had, especially in the first half, was that every time they tried to build momentum and tempo, Racing managed to halt it, legally or illegally. Leinster's flat passing was well read by Racing but how long would it be before Wayne Barnes issued a yellow card? In the end, there were no cards.

Racing coach Laurent Labit had done his homework and knew that if Leinster got on a roll his team were in trouble. They were far more aggressive at the breakdown, where Yannick Nyanga and Camille Chat were particularly good.

As soon as Leinster's runners went to ground, Racing had all manner of diversionary tactics, a compendium of lazy runners and tacklers or players in the ruck who were trying desperately hard to get back onside; quick ball was at a premium. Every time Leinster got three or four phases they had to start again as slow ball robbed them of an opportunity to get forward.

Racing were very good in the tackle; they guessed and second-guessed Leinster's lines of running, and every deep blue runner was met with a solid welcoming party. Leinster quite often had to get around a corner that wasn't very big. Necessity dispensed with decorum as they looked for ways to advance. The box-kick looked like it would yield some rewards but quite often it was in Leinster's own half and any ball that they regathered Racing were waiting for them.

Discipline would be the bridge between goals and accomplishment and Leinster's patience and supposedly superior fitness would be the key in turning the game around in the second half. Joe Schmidt, who was in the crowd, would have known what to do. The same question that was asked last season of Leo Cullen (and now Stuart Lancaster as well) was being asked again: would they have the smarts to make minor alterations in the way Leinster were playing to figure out how to get in behind a fairly obdurate Racing first line?

At this stage Leinster were the far smarter team and the one carrying the more danger but the longer that the game went on the more difficult it would be to press home the slight advantage.

Tactically Leinster really did not play their hand to the best of their ability. Racing once again had done all their work in the video sessions and they were more concerned about stopping Leinster on the gain-line: there were at least a dozen thunderous hits in midfield where Leinster runners were simply stopped dead. How they got up I do not know.

Johnny Sexton needed to think outside the box. He was happy to play the swift-passing Leinster game, and at times Isa Nacewa got away and Garry Ringrose got three or four half-breaks but Racing scrambled and closed him down quickly.

Racing were so intent on keeping massed ranks on their defensive line that they were quite prepared to only leave one man in the back-field. Sexton may have spotted this and chose to ignore it or preferred to concentrate on playing the game plan as had been prepared.

Leinster didn't bottle this. The strength of the challenge from Racing was far stronger than anyone could have predicted and they stayed in the game for 80 minutes when most expected them to fall off. Racing's inferior discipline and a small degree of looseness in their play eventually told, and maybe that is why Leinster decided to grind it out.

All told it was a phenomenal performance to win without actually dominating the game and being far from their best, yet they had enough to deal with Racing and the experience to see it out.

Four stars sounds fantastic - even if the match was more like two star- and they have become Ireland's standard-bearers in this competition.

Congratulations to all.

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