Sunday 18 August 2019

Neil Francis: Leo Cullen and Leinster have to move ahead of the times... not with the times

Leinster need to use the remainder of the Champions Cup to hone their game
Leinster need to use the remainder of the Champions Cup to hone their game
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On a weekend when the criminally insane attempted to infract on the personal freedoms and liberty that we in the West take for granted, I chose to exercise my personal freedoms on a less grand scale.

I chose not to watch Leinster play live on Sunday. I knew they would lose on Sunday but 6-33 was a bit adrift of the spectrum I had envisaged.

I have written some fairly negative stuff on my home province in the last two years – much of it justified. They had become hard to watch.

Winning ugly had become a metaphor for ‘we’ve run out of ideas.’

After Matt O’Connor took over in the 2012-2013 season the team in the period September/December still managed to play the way Joe Schmidt had got them to play. It would take more than 6 months to prove the old chestnut that you don’t become a bad team overnight.

They eventually turned from a brilliant team into a good team and last season became a mediocre team with a mix of high and low points.

O’Connor is gone and didn’t get the Queensland Reds job – Richard Graham got another year to turn them around. So these rugby franchises are like steering the Queen Mary – takes a while to stop them, turn them around and crank ‘em back up again. Sometimes the transformation – if there is one coming – can be frustratingly slow. We are not sure that things won’t get worse – much worse than Sunday – before they will get better. Have patience, I suppose, all things are difficult before they become easy.

So on Sunday I went for brunch into town instead of watching the match in the RDS. Watch it later on Sky plus when you know the result.

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The Seafood Eggs Benedict was sensational in Brasserie 66 and then I ended up in Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street thumbing my way through some of the recent rugby biographies on offer.

The old adage ‘when you have nothing to say – say nothing’ came to mind. I don’t think I should comment anymore!

From behind a bookcase this guy in blue nods to me and says ‘what are you doing here?’ I shrugged and asked what him what he was doing here.

“What’s the score” I asked. “23-6 to Wasps.” “Is that the final score?” I asked. “No I left with 20 to go.”

As I left I mumbled something to him about being patient.

Lewis Carroll said a good while ago “if you don’t know where you are going – any road will get you there.”

I think Leo Cullen has a fair idea of where he is going and where he wants to bring his team. So six months will give us a reasonable indication.

Anthony Foley has done a reasonable job with Munster. Yes the Glasgow Warriors did a job on them in the Pro 12 final but Gregor Townsend has had a four year hop, skip and a jump to get them where they wanted to be. Townsend had very definite ideas about how he wanted his team to play. Glasgow are a reflection of their coach’s persona. Ditto Foley and Munster.

So this is going to be a fallow season and for this squad patience is not the ability to wait but how you act while you wait. Sometimes you do not know what a season or the span of a week can bring.

We had some geniuses telling us a few months ago that Ireland were gearing their run in the World Cup to peak in the quarter-final! Sheesh!

There are certain things that Cullen has to maintain within the squad – things that took well over a decade to cultivate. Things that Leinster probably have taken for granted and haven’t worked on in the last year or two. They are not as smart a team as they used to be. Their skill set is nowhere near where it should be – passing being the most obvious.

Somebody told me recently that he had gone to see the All Blacks in five of their World Cup games. During the five hour half time break they would come out 6/7 minutes early and practice their passing in wide lines. There were no passes down and more importantly all the passes went accurately in front of the receiver. Leinster have to practice their passing. It is not good enough anymore.

We look for a change in direction from Leinster. Everybody has been beating a drum about off-loading.

Strange to relate the two best teams at it in Europe happen to be Toulon (Top 14 and Heineken Champions) and Glasgow (Pro 12 Champs).

The World Cup winners were masters at it and so were Australia and the team that out-performed – Argentina – were pretty handy at it too.

So for any change in culture you have got to do it because you want to not because you feel you have to. I feel that most teams in Europe have a positive read on what Leinster do.

The blue side have become very easy to read- very predictable. There were about 10 things that Leinster attempted to do last Sunday and not only were they executed poorly but they were read easily.

There was a knitting and embroidery exhibition on beside the RDS last Sunday – there were some better executed loops in that show than in the rugby game. One moment summed it up when Sexton attempted one of his trademark loops and George Smith read it so easy that he pushed the in front player out of the way and tackled Sexton behind the play.

There is no tax on imagination. We assume that Leinster will maintain their appetite and a hard edge up front but they have fallen behind in their ability to find space and now others have a better cutting edge. It is important that Leinster realise this and react.

One of the things that they still have is leadership in all the key areas. When these players get over their World Cup torpor (not an easy thing to do) they will have an advantage over most sides.

Looking at Munster play last Saturday you realised the yawning chasm that Paul O’Connell and the injured Peter O’Mahony leave when they are gone.

Munster, despite their redoubtable heritage and pedigree, have no leaders. CJ Stander possesses many positive qualities but has limited rugby intellect and his leadership is out of the 'do as I do' handbook.

The transition for Leinster can be less painful than it needs to be because they have leadership. The new coach has not to move with the times but move ahead of the times to get back to where they need to be. Last Sunday needs no further comment from me. If you want to progress in this competition – you win your home games.

Northampton on 19, Wasps on 18 and Saracens on 17 points – all qualified for the knock-out stages last year. Leinster will have to post some extraordinary performances between now and Christmas to be in the shake-up. Lose to Bath this Saturday and they are out! They will probably do somebody else a favour but the 18/19 points required at this stage is too much. This pool section is now about perfecting a brand of rugby that will give them a chance next year and that will give them a chance to win the Pro12 in 2016 and a decent draw next season.


p.s. People ask me why I still call the competition the Heineken Cup. Maybe I will change my mind on this now. The new organisers have done such a brilliant job bringing in so many new sponsors that I …… sorry they have only brought in one new extra sponsor in addition to Heineken you say – okay the Turkish Airlines Champions Cup it is then!

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