Wednesday 11 December 2019

Neil Francis: 'Leinster were so far from perfect that you have to complain - because Lyon were absolutely atrocious'

Leinster edged Lyon 13-6 in France in a tight affair. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster edged Lyon 13-6 in France in a tight affair. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I had the privilege of meeting Peter O’Toole for about 10 minutes prior to the Munster v Toulouse Heineken Cup final in 2008.

The match was dreadful, but the result was all that mattered. I think Peter went home happy.

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I recently saw an interview he gave to David Letterman on the Late Show which aired a couple of years before his death. At the end of an hilarious interview, Letterman asked him what his epitaph would be. O’Toole told him about his favourite leather jacket which needed to be cleaned and he said he sent it along to the cleaners and there was Guinness, whiskey, blood and all sorts of other things fused into the jacket.

The jacket came back and there was a note from Sycamore Cleaners attached to it which read, 'It distresses us to return work which is not absolutely perfect.' "I’m going to put that on my tombstone."

Can you complain when you travel to the French league leaders in this competition and come away with a win? Is this one of those occasions when the result is everything and the manner in which it is achieved is nothing? Leinster were so far from perfect that you have to complain. Yet again, when a much easier route to victory is there, why do Leinster choose to play the way they do?

A good start is everything and Leinster looked competent and composed as they got themselves into a 10-0 lead after 24 minutes. However, the amount of time they go without scoring is bewildering. Leinster did not manage to score again until the 77th minute. It begs the question, what on earth were they doing for the intervening 53 minutes?

It is a tough test trying to deal with yourself and that is exactly what this contest was about because Lyon were absolutely shite. If they are the best team in the Top 14 then that says much about the lack of quality in that competition.

They say the scoreboard and the league table don’t lie, but it is easy to figure out how Lyon managed to find themselves at the top of the table since August — easy wins against teams that populate the lower half of the Top 14, the perennial strugglers, and home games against the traditional powerhouses shorn of their World Cup contingent.

Lyon are a team of Sunday drivers playing a brand of rugby which is 15 years old, and once Leinster realised how limited they are, and how they lacked a game plan to unseat their guests, the visitors settled to win this game in second gear.

It was almost as if they had said 'go on, see if you can land a punch and then we will see what our response will be'. It is true that if you don’t have a big pack you won’t win the Top 14. Lyon have a big pack, but their skill set is that of an average AIL side. Every time they got close to Leinster’s line, the inability of their forwards to retain, control or pass after only two or three phases became evident and they made mistake after mistake so the Leinster fringe were able to mop them up. It would have been interesting to see the Leinster players' attitude if it had been one of the powerhouse French sides they were playing against.

Lyon’s pack were unable to dominate in any sphere and like a Sunday driver, tootled along down the motorway at a steady 50kph. Leinster can operate upwards of 100kph when they need to and that was the difference between the sides.

Lyon’s coach, Pierre Mignoni, was a very decent scrum-half in his day and picked up 30-odd caps for France. But as the camera zoomed in on the coach he had a face filled with broken commandments. His game plan, which works a treat in the Top 14, just didn’t cut it against the best side in the Pro14.

The game plan seemed to revolve around giving the ball to Carl Fearns. The last time I saw something as big and fearsome as him they had to put the whole herd down. The problem was that the big man had no pace, no feet and no footballing sense. He consistently ran directly at the Leinster cover and the Leinster fringe mowed him down and gobbled him up. Normally in the Top 14 when the Englisman goes forward with the ball, he makes 10 yards and punches a big hole. But Leinster were pretty solid defensively and they offered unyielding resistance when they ran down the clock as Lyon expended energy going precisely nowhere.

Leinster, in addition, were just far too cute at the breakdown. That is the disadvantage of having a pack of huge men — their inability to poach or get low or drive stragglers out of the way is telling against a team who are very competitive and smart in that sphere.

Leinster were far from their clinical and professional selves, but we all know that they have gears and we all know that they will target the Northampton games in December. Lyon and Benetton are now out of the competition and Leinster will have to be very good to beat Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens on the basis that Northampton’s back row will be a far bigger challenge at the breakdown and in the tackle zone.

There were quite a number of players yesterday who had very poor games and a number who were cruising. I think that is down to attitude and that will have to change in December. A trip to the dry cleaners is required peut-etre

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