Tuesday 20 November 2018

Neil Francis: Leinster are in a great position with their squad but one key position still needs to be looked at

Leinster used scrum-halves Luke McGrath and Nick McCarthy vs Saracens, but don't have a huge amount of depth at the position. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster used scrum-halves Luke McGrath and Nick McCarthy vs Saracens, but don't have a huge amount of depth at the position. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A vintage weekend of European rugby - we could decant all four quality matches they were that good. Yet we have barely the time to mask our complacency when we realise the tenuous hold on reality that some of our opposition have been engaged in.

Johann Ruperts Remgro PLC has written off €29m of debt from their investment in Saracens. The English outfit has lost in excess of €60m since the South African investors came on board and, after a poor set of results, announced to South Africa's stock exchange that the party is up.

Saracens chairman Nigel Wray seems to think that there will be a queue of people looking to buy a 50pc shareholding in the company. Oh, click your heels together three times Dorothy and it will be so.

If the RFU had any balls they would approach Wray and take the lot and then buy the other 11 Premiership clubs and be done with it. It is only a matter of time before Saracens go bust.

Although it nearly kills me to say it, the IRFU has shown commendable financial prudence and fiscal governance when it has to managing its financial affairs.

The Grand Slam, a possible all-Ireland European Cup final and all the financial rewards associated with that, the trickle-down benefits of success on the field and, a cul-de-sac for Saracens, who have flouted the salary cap in the Premiership for years.

At the weekend Leinster and Munster were impressive for various reasons but Leinster in particular were very clever and are in a great position with the quality of their roster. It is not an accident.

Leinster spent a lot of time attacking the short side during the game. It is obvious how to beat the suffocating blanket defences of Premiership sides. They don't get into rucks and you can expend a lot of energy trying to get around the corner where there are serious numbers waiting for you.

Pick a 15-metre blind-side and attack it at pace. There are three club sides in Europe who can do this properly - Leinster, Glasgow and Scarlets. You get frustrated if you don't know what you are doing there as you have to be able to pass the ball quickly and accurately under pressure.

Leinster have rediscovered themselves as a passing side and Garry Ringrose's try and James Lowe's try came from beautifully-constructed blind-side breaks where the passing was so simple, it was sublime.

Sarries tried the blind side too but didn't have the skill-set and they put too much ball down trying to emulate their slicker opponents.

Isa Nacewa was a revelation on Sunday. At 35, to be doing what he is doing, is surreal. His hands and his mind still belong to an instinctive genius. Those long, cut-out passes directly to him from tight play were highly effective. The freedom of the city of Dublin when he retires?

I think it is fair and appropriate to pick out individuals when most of the team perform as well as they did. Tadhg Furlong had a sensational afternoon on the other side of the ball. The Wexford man made 17 tackles in 65 minutes which is a heavy shift.

The value in his performance is not that he tackles someone to the ground or stops them stone dead - it is that he dispenses such jaw-shuddering physical punishment with it that it discourages teams from running down his channel.

Our friends in the San Andreas seismic institute recorded some activity in Dublin last Sunday.

Saracens' heavy runners were made to pay heavily for every inch of gainline. Having Furlong on the gainline as a dissuader sends a negative signal to his opponents and a positive one to all his team-mates.

James Ryan also made 17 tackles, except he did not miss a single one. Jamie Heaslip - introduced to the crowd before the game - rarely missed a tackle. It is a rare skill in this game where men are so big, fast and powerful.

On the debit side, Leinster may need to focus on certain positions and take some remedial action or accelerate some players through.

Luke McGrath has become a very important player for club and country. He was cruelly unlucky with injury during the Grand Slam campaign and, even though he played well on Sunday, I'm not sure how fit he was. His ankle did not look great.

McGrath had a disappointing season the year before last but his bona fides are now undoubted. However, his replacement Nick McCarthy had a undistinguished game when he came on as a closer.

McCarthy is a decent scrum-half but is not yet Champions Cup standard.

His passing and general play was good but his box-kicking was very poor.

McCarthy box-kicked the ball six times between the 65th and 78th minutes. They were, in effect, turnovers. Only one was properly contestable by his side.

Alex Goode got free ball unchallenged when Saracens were chasing the game. A good box-kick is one that travels 25m to 30m and gives the chasers ample time to challenge. If the game had been closer, the concession of possession could have been fatal.

In the 70th minute Dan Leavy worked a brilliant counter-ruck in Leinster's half - even Joey Carbery got in on the act.

Box-kicking turnover ball is the wrong option even if there is no one in the opponents' backfield - which there was.

There was a seven-against-four overlap if the ball had gone left but McCarthy kicked the ball directly into touch - well into the stands.

Scrum-halves must practice box-kicking hundreds of times a week. This was McCarthy's chance to showcase his ability at a high level. He is a decent player but, when you are given your chance with the match won, you have to take it.

He will recover. Full match time against both Zebre and Benetton for McCarthy while McGrath recovers may be in order. It may have to be pointed out later that Leinster's scrum-half and, indeed, hooker stocks are not exactly overflowing with world-class players.

A fast pass for Ireland's U-20 and recent Belvedere schoolboy champion Hugh O'Sullivan may keep the show on the road.

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