Wednesday 12 December 2018

Neil Francis: Moments of magic can't mask a multitude of Leinster deficiencies

Adam Byrne of Leinster is tackled by Thomas Darmon of Montpellier
Adam Byrne of Leinster is tackled by Thomas Darmon of Montpellier
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

To win the European Champions Cup you need a number of ingredients. You have got to have a scrum, you’ve got to get your goal kicks, you must be able to defend and you need good half-backs.

Having a good scrum doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to progress, but if you don’t have one you won’t survive the knock-out stages. Leinster have a good scrum, their halves on Saturday were decent and managed to do things to make forward progress when their side needed it, but the Blues failed miserably on the other two basics. You won’t get too far with a 40 per cent success rate off the kicking tee.

It was in defence where Leinster yet again nearly gave the game away. Last week they were charitable to a fault after being the dominant side and on Saturday the Little Sisters of Charity were made to look like Ebenezer Scrooge when it came to defending. If you go back over the last 10 years, the winners always have a 90 per cent success rate on the tackle count. When Leinster won their three championships that was what their stats looked like. On Saturday they missed 34 tackles, which is a disgraceful lack of effort and co-ordination and, most importantly, concentration. Tackling is a mental process.

When Leinster players made their minds up to tackle Montpellier’s behemoth left wing Nemani Nadolo, the big man was brought down. In the 56th minute Montpellier realised that Leinster had very few men in the rucks and they picked the ball and went through the middle. Once in behind they were able to do damage and they got the ball to Nadolo who proved through his two tries that he is a highly potent offensive weapon but a defensive liability.

Nadolo, carrying the ball high, was met on the line by Robbie Henshaw, who attempted to tackle the ball, which is a mistake against a man of this size. Nadolo’s right arm was pushed in against his body but such is his power that it was like a coiled spring and he bounced and pushed Henshaw five metres backwards and continued to run forward.

Henshaw is noted for his admirable determination and among his many qualities is his ability to stay on his feet with or without the ball. He has this gyroscopic quality, like one of those kids’ toys that you just can’t knock over and always bounces back up at you.

Henshaw miraculously managed to tackle Nadolo without ever really losing his balance, and to compound a highly improbable tackle he got back up off his feet and effected a truly brilliant turnover steal on Ruan Pienaar just when it looked like Leinster were in trouble on the left.

There were two elements to that moment of play: the startling speed and mental reaction to recover the situation was world-class. Mentally, to be thinking of the steal when he had brought down Nadolo . . . if you could bottle that you have a winning formula. Henshaw’s technique was perfect and it was legitimate in its execution.

Man of the match Robbie Henshaw of Leinster
Man of the match Robbie Henshaw of Leinster

Leinster have bought in a number of sexy foreign players over the years, but this addition from within Ireland is by far their best acquisition.

If you think this Sunday’s article is a reprise of last week’s, then that is not my fault. Adam Byrne had another shocker in defence yesterday. He missed six of his seven attempted tackles, all of them on Nadolo. It looked like a game of Tag rugby where Byrne simply put his hands on Nadolo’s knicks and Nadolo broke the rules by not stopping.

I felt if Montpellier had gone into the break 12-0 down they may have given up the ghost. They got a sloppy try off a close-in scrum. As Luke McGrath spoiled at the back of the scrum, Byrne came in off his wing into no-man’s land. If the guy inside you misses his tackle or the play, unless you really have to, you stay on your man on the outside; instead, Leinster, after looking like they had the game in the bag, nearly gave it away.

Leinster’s pack had repulsed a lineout maul in the 74th minute and Montpellier chose to run it. Francois Steyn came on the loop but he was covered by Noel Reid, who worryingly also missed six tackles. Before he was tackled, Steyn directed a pass to Joffrey Michel which was batted down intentionally by Byrne, who was so far out of position it defies belief. If he had stayed on the line directly across from the man who was to receive the ball, everything should have been okay. Byrne got a yellow card because he was hopelessly outflanked and in no-man’s land again.

With six minutes left and 14 men on the field, Leinster could easily have lost this match, one which they had done more than enough to win offensively. The bonus-point try scored by Barry Daly should really have been the end of it.

It came from a lineout between Montpellier’s 10-metre and 22-metre lines. As is normally done in these situations, the ball was thrown to the tail. I have no idea who won the ball because I had my hands over my eyes. Miraculously, instead of doing what they normally do, ie, overthrowing or turning the ball over, they managed to catch it.

The catcher was so shocked that time stood still as everybody stopped waiting for a scrum. Louis Picamoles came on to the wrong side of the lineout, and Leinster, scarcely believing that they had actually won the ball, managed to get the ball to the wide outside. Henshaw ran straight and threw a quality pass to Joey Carbery. Leinster’s young full-back just did the simple things well and the difference between scoring and not scoring was the dummy pass that he gave initially to the Montpellier defence. The dummy pass checked the drift and Carbery gave it almost immediately to Daly, who still had a fair bit of work to do.

Daly is not particularly quick and does not have any of the outrageous skill or talent of the man who gave him the pass, but he does seem to be able to finish, and he does not make too many mistakes, and he seems to buy in to the team ethos — a cadet out of the Fergus McFadden school of wingers. Daly did what every good winger should do and stepped inside to bump the anticipated tackle from Frans Steyn and the lamentable Timoci Nagusa. It means you don’t get pushed into touch. He managed to get the ball down, and secure a crucial bonus point.

It is true that Leinster were missing a number of quality players. Ross Byrne did a good job in the absence of Johnny Sexton, and James Ryan had a really productive afternoon all around the park — 10 tackles, no missed tackles. A bonus-point win covers a multitude of deficiencies.

Glasgow will find it very difficult not to be complacent in the run-up to next weekend.

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