Tuesday 16 July 2019

Neil Francis: 'More to come from Leinster but ghosts of Thomond Park are now well and truly banished'

Cullen's men still trying to find ruthless streak but defeat of Toulouse offered plenty to admire

'Anybody who you had doubts about in the blue ranks performed admirably and that was the most pleasing thing about yesterday's victory.' Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
'Anybody who you had doubts about in the blue ranks performed admirably and that was the most pleasing thing about yesterday's victory.' Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I was looking for a word to describe Leinster's performance. The word 'clinical' popped up but I'm not sure if you can justify using it on this occasion. Yes, the team in blue were coolly dispassionate and some of the phases of their play were executed with emotional detachment but there were too many unpardonable inaccuracies.

The word 'relentless' can't be used here either because at some stages in the game Leinster did relent. In the bigger picture, their bonus point, when it came in the 75th minute, was their fourth attempt in the last 15 minutes to make sure that theirs is a home quarter-final, which is where you have to aim if you are serious about yourself.

The list of significant absentees was a worry for Leinster and the question you had to ask was not which of the 23 on the Leinster side is not Heineken Cup standard, but who is not international standard? In a match of this quality, PRO14 and even good standard Heineken players can get exposed. None in blue were exposed. Anybody who you had doubts about in the blue ranks performed admirably and that was the most pleasing thing about yesterday's victory.

The eclipse of a serious side such as Toulouse - although you could not call it a masterpiece in planning - was all about Leinster tackling their deficiencies from October in the first game and making sure that they didn't happen again.

Toulouse may have thought that Leinster were vulnerable without their superstars but you don't achieve such success without having depth. Leinster's bench did scare me a bit but discipline was their bridge to victory. They looked after the ball far more effectively on the ground but Toulouse were still able to pick off 12 turnovers. Leinster, though, were far more effective in every other phase of the game and they put the indiscipline of Thomond Park behind them. Six penalties conceded is a testament to that.

Referee Luke Pearce had a mixed afternoon. Quite how Toulouse, who were both cynical and illegal in the ruck and on the line, didn't have at least two cards against them was beyond me. Some of his scrum calls were also debatable.

Leinster's pack was dwarfed by the Stade Toulousain eight but were a superior scrummaging force. In the clear-outs and in some of the exchanges around the ruck, some of the Toulouse forwards looked like a bowling ball searching for an alley. However, they could not maintain or stay with the pace of the game and a little cameo by the hulking Joe Tekori in the 47th minute, when he was attempting to give out to his team-mates as they were stuck in the '22 and couldn't exit proficiently, said everything. Hard to give out when you have your hands on your knees and you are gasping for oxygen.

The oxygen burn was too much for the Toulouse forwards and while we gave them credit for being a far fitter outfit than they have been over the last four or five years, they just were not able to live with Leinster when the blue side went on attacks that numbered up to 40 phases.

Sometimes I think I will hear the stadium announcer say something like Jack Conan, leg before wicket, out after 41 runs. In the 20th minute, when Leinster went 37 phases, Marchand, the Toulouse hooker, got into the ruck and Leinster got pinged for not releasing. The Blues did not get over the line but the damage would be done late in the second half.

This is why, of course, Toulouse went for a six-to-two forwards-to-backs bench, because none of that pack of behemoths were going to function after 60 minutes.

It is one of Leinster's great strengths which is not often pointed out - they are a very, very fit side. The 10-6 scoreline didn't really reflect the trend of the game at half-time. Leinster's passing was not as crisp as you have expected, and the wraps and the little loops didn't come off when you were expecting them to and Leinster lost their shape when looking for scores.

It is why Ross Byrne had no other choice but to go for the cross-kick for Dave Kearney. The kick was a peach and yet Romain Ntamack's tackle was weak. Yes, it is difficult when you are looking over your shoulder and you know that you won't be able to catch the ball, but at the very least take the man into touch. That said, it was a good finish by Kearney.

Leinster's back-row at this stage was in command and if I was the Toulouse chairman I would be looking for my money back on Jerome Kaino. Leinster's goal-line stand with about 10 or 15 minutes to go pretty much sealed the victory. They were lucky in one or two instances not to get a card themselves and that concluded the challenge from Toulouse. The new challenge was for Leinster to pick up a bonus point in the last 12 minutes and this is why we cannot use the word 'clinical' - they had four chances and they took one.

The James Tracey crooked throw at the lineout in the 70th minute is now just standard procedure for Leinster. Why was Cronin, who had an outstanding game, replaced? Larmour, who had a good afternoon, needlessly knocked on two minutes later in the Toulouse '22 and you thought maybe Leinster were happy with just the win.

Jamison Gibson-Park was the catalyst for Leinster's excellent finish. When Toulouse conceded on the ground, Gibson-Park ran in, his eyes fixed on getting the ball and fully aware to the opportunities around him. At that stage the Toulouse forwards were too tired to even hang on to the ball after the whistle. As he looked for the ball, he had already seen that Yoann Huget was standing too shallow.

He made sure that the ball was tapped at the penalty mark and then ran in-field 10 metres where he had options of Rory O'Loughlin, Noel Reid and Josh van der Flier who could have all taken a line off him. This checked the defence and Garry Ringrose's presence was enough to keep Huget stuck on the inside. The pass was a 32-metre beauty which Adam Byrne took over his head and he cantered in. Byrne, in fairness to him, took the opportunity well. This player has improved and looked dangerous every time he got the ball.

Gibson-Park could be getting a lot of game time for the rest of the season as Luke McGrath's injury looks serious. Leinster still need two points to guarantee a home quarter-final and the possibility of meeting Toulouse again - this time in the Aviva.

Meanwhile, Ulster played a delicate balance between riding their luck and playing out a performance of guts and no little skill to just about see off Racing 92. The French side will easily top the group and Ulster must get this monkey off their back when they travel with much at stake. In all probability, they need another two points which means they must win.

Leicester have no chance of qualifying and gone are the days when Leicester would give up nothing even when the home side had nothing at stake. Ulster have momentum and a glimpse of the Promised Land. If they do qualify it will again be as a member of the supporting cast. It looks like Saracens, Racing, Leinster and Munster will all have home quarter-finals assuming things go to plan.

Jared Payne's presence has ensured a dollop of pragmatism and pride has been introduced into Ulster's leaky defence. We can only take this as fait accompli if they defend as strongly as they did yesterday. Ulster lack firepower and real grunt up front but I suspect they will be in the hat when the quarter-finals are announced. Congratulations to them it was no mean feat to beat a Racing side who were fully locked and loaded to win yesterday.

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