Wednesday 13 December 2017

Neil Francis: Paying a heavy price for failure to turn up on time

Leinster players leave the field after their Champions Cup semi-final defeat against Clermont last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster players leave the field after their Champions Cup semi-final defeat against Clermont last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A bloke goes to the local council to apply for a job in the office. The interviewer asks him, "Are you allergic to anything?"

He replies: "yes, caffeine."

"Have you ever worked for the public service before?"

"Yes, I was in the army," he says, "I was in Iraq for two tours."

The interviewer says: "That will give you five extra points toward employment."

Then he asks: "Are you disabled in any way?"

Isa Nacewa. Photo: Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa. Photo: Sportsfile

The guy says: "Yes, a mine exploded near me when I was there and I lost both of my testicles."

The interviewer grimaces and then says: "OK, you've got enough points for me to take you on right away. Our normal hours are from 8am to 4pm… but you can start tomorrow at 10am, and carry on starting at 10am every day."

The bloke is puzzled and asks: "If the work hours are from 8am to 4pm, why don't you want me here until 10am? I'm not looking for any special treatment."

"What you have to understand is that this is a council job," the interviewer says. "For the first two hours, we just stand around drinking coffee and scratching our balls. There's no point in you coming in for that."

This turning up for work and doing nothing or doing something badly has become a habit that Irish teams will have to lose quickly. I must say I thought that Leinster would win last Sunday and win well. The team and its management were a tad more than just quietly confident.

If Leinster had played Clermont in Dublin I would have been confident of a 15-20 point margin. Leinster were proficient and professional against Wasps and would have raised their game again.

However, their fitful efforts in the first quarter undid them, even though they had the composure and the confidence to come back and cause Clermont to doubt themselves - something that Clermont are pretty adept at doing.

The pattern is depressingly familiar: you only have to go back to Murrayfield in February to experience again what happened in Lyon. The 27-22 scoreline is the same in both games.

Carbon copy

In fact it is a carbon copy of what happened. Ireland lost three lineouts early on, gave up some silly penalties and got beaten on the wide outside as they conceded early tries to trail 21-5.

Ireland patiently got back into the game and you thought they would succeed in the end, but they had given Scotland the precious gift of encouragement.

The Scots never roll over and die. Ireland could not sustain their comeback and Scotland just held on.

Quite what state of mind Leinster were in when the first whistle blew on Sunday is hard to ascertain. They probably all thought they could win.

The first kick-off told you that Clermont weren't quite ready. The ball went into the corner and nobody called for it. Peceli Yato waited for somebody to claim it and he hesitantly moved towards it.

The Fijian let it bounce and the ball took too long to make its mind up and suddenly Morgan Parra had to make a wild jump for it. Isa Nacewa (pictured) was first on the scene and he hit Parra in the air.

Clermont got a penalty two metres from their line but the body language of their retreating forwards told a tale: a little bit of confusion, some shoulder shrugs but they got away with it. Clermont were vulnerable.

Thirteen minutes later they led 15-0. That is some volte-face.

Stupid penalties and free ball against the throw at lineout time. Leinster were not exactly drinking coffee or scratching their balls but they still hadn't they clocked in yet.

Clermont recovered themselves from their nervous start and did what Scotland and Argentina in the World Cup did, and attacked on the touchline. They scored two easy tries and a penalty, and the game - or the version of the game that Leinster had planned - was over.

The first quarter is simple in the big away games. No mistakes, press hard defensively, keep the ball, and if you can't do that, then play the ball down into your opponents' half.

To do this you rely on your set-piece to function. Leinster have one world-class jumper, Devin Toner, who has been calling lineout strategy at the highest level for a long time.

Of all the serious teams in this corner of the world, I have not seen a side as loose as Leinster in terms of where and how they throw the ball into their lineout.

They regularly choose the tail of the lineout and frequently turn it over there. It seems to be deemed an occupational hazard, sometimes losing half a dozen balls in a game.

If Munster did that there would be a steward's inquiry. Leinster get away with it in the Guinness Pro12 but this disease that afflicts them won't be let away as lightly in this level of the Champions Cup.

At Leinster's first lineout, two minutes and 25 seconds into the game, you could see some of the Leinster backs talking to Toner, telling him what they wanted. The answer should have been 'let's just win it'.

Toner opted to go to the back, Rhys Ruddock and Tadhg Furlong were the pod and Damien Chouly was the opposition jumper. It is not a complicated manoeuvre. Ruddock just turned and got his lift in time. Chouly was out-matched but the ball was badly over-thrown by Richardt Strauss and Benjamin Kayser picked up the loose ball.

Halfway between the 10 metre and 22 in Clermont's territory, it was a beautiful attacking opportunity. But 80 seconds later Clermont had scored in the corner.

On six minutes it looked like Leinster had copped on. A lineout outside their 22 and a simple ball to the front was won easily by Jack Conan. Basics! Just win the ball.

Leinster were still giving away stupid penalties and a yellow card but at least they now knew what to do at lineout time to launch their backs - or did they?

On 12 minutes Chouly beat Ruddock in the air. The ball was overthrown again by Strauss. Ruddock was slow into the air because Hayden Triggs and Toner are not good lifters. Ruddock is heavy and the lift wasn't executed well.

The lineout was in Clermont's half - a great attacking platform and a criminal turnover.

One minute later, Leinster were bounced back into their own 22 but had the throw in. Same ball to Conan at the front, or one up or down to Toner? No, no, let's play Russian Roulette.

Ruddock was at the back with Furlong behind him. At this stage Jack McGrath was at the front of the line-out. Triggs ran up and dummied to the front, then Toner did the same as they landed they got out of the way of McGrath, who was running seven metres to the back of the lineout.

Too many moving parts, too many variables, too many things that can go wrong and too risky a lineout to call 18 metres from your own line. McGrath just about got to his jumper and got him into the air.

The margin for error was too great. Ruddock, who is not a natural lineout jumper, couldn't reach or stretch for the ball because it is yet another overthrow. An overthrow near your own line is death because everyone on the ground is committed.

Clermont picked up the loose ball and after a few phases scored in the corner again. It was 15-0 after 14 minutes.

There are no points for artistic merit at lineout time. The tariff and degree of difficulty to safely execute that throw was just too high.

Somebody has to explain to me the percentages here - the need to win the ball at the tail balanced by the ability to get it there accurately and win it safely. Quite simply that call cost Leinster a place in the final.


Strauss is a half-decent thrower. Sean Cronin would be going on the Lions tour if he could throw consistently; James Tracy is an average thrower, as is Bryan Byrne.

Even if you get your systems wrong, great throwers find their jumpers. Leinster need a throwing coach because this phase will cost them again in the big matches and they need to fix it for their whole hooking roster.

Mentally Irish teams need to gear up to be ready to go from the off. Ireland lost a Six Nations championship because they didn't get to work until 30 minutes into the game.

Leinster missed a final because they were way off the pace mentally in the first quarter in Lyon. Leinster should have won that game comfortably. Very costly.

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