Wednesday 19 June 2019

Neil Francis: There is a fine line between resting stars and not giving a toss


Leinster's James Ryan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's James Ryan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

While Castres were waiting the three hours for Thomond Park to dry out last Sunday, many things would have been circulating through the minds and hearts of the collectif.

Both teams would have had to throttle back, warm down and work out a way to keep the engine idling without expending a huge amount of nervous energy.

If Castres had gone inside to watch the Leicester versus Racing 92 match being played at the same time in Welford Road - well, that might not have been a game that fortified the French team with notions that something big was going to happen for them in Thomond. They were now out for certain before the rescheduled match even started.

Leicester have been a disgrace to their heritage in this year's competition. They brought the U-14s to Castres the previous weekend and got thumped 39-0. Leicester are languishing in the eighth spot in the Aviva Premiership, well out of the play-offs, a minus points differential and meandering into the mundane of a mid-table finish.

Their European form played six, lost five and a -53 points differential. Matt O'Connor can't keep blaming his players. Leicester have drafted in the renowned Korean coaching strategist - Win One Soon - and if his tactics don't work then O'Connor will be coaching Pyongyang Rangers next season.

Leicester were gamey without ever giving a sh**e. You can feign enthusiasm and intensity. The Tigers - if you can call them that - lost 23-20. The net result was that if you'd asked the Castres squad do you want to play 80 minutes against Munster or go straight to the airport, they wouldn't have bothered to stop at duty free.

We don't know how good Munster are because a 48-3 win against an aimless Castres side really tells us nothing. It was an easy group and we still have to rationalise the draw away to Castres and the dispiriting loss in the U Arena the previous week in Paris.

It is not good for the competition or for television to watch one-sided turkey shoots against teams that are well out of contention. It was a mixed bag, though Harlequins, as predicted in this column, beat Wasps the previous weekend and gave it socks against La Rochelle - only losing 16-7 when most expected a 60- or 70-point thumping. This meant that La Rochelle finished behind Scarlets and Munster and have to travel away for their quarter-final.

Ospreys gave a good account of themselves. Yes, they had something to play for but Glasgow really awoke from their slumbers to spoil Exeter's season. Bravo! Northampton should be ashamed of the 62 points they conceded against Saracens.

Ulster too with so much at stake - well, they were abysmal. Maybe they should ask Donald Trump to build a wall which would separate the states of pride and shame.

Fans and pundits enthuse about the incentives to win your away quarter-finals but I think with so much riding with the teams who are in contention and they have to stand and watch as teams who are out of the competition turn up and play a second-string side and ship 50 points. That has to stop.

In Formula One, you get five engines for the season and if you blow them the penalties are severe. You have to start at the back of the grid if you do not act in a responsible manner. I think teams that put out weakened sides in the Heineken Cup should be penalised the following season.

If you play a weakened team in Rounds 4, 5 or 6, then you should have to play a weakened side in rounds 1 or 2. Leave out your stars in the last few games and you forfeit the right to play them at the start of the new campaign when you are in contention. Back of the grid.

There is a completely different parcel of thought separating the need to rest your star players and not giving a toss. The integrity of the completion rests on that line.

There were many remarkable performances last weekend. Leinster's win against Montpellier was a remarkable display of determination by the blue side. One of the fascinating sub-plots was the game of poker at lineout time.

The French side scoring from a lineout maul in the 23rd minute off a Nico van Rensburg take, Leinster five metres from their line choosing to get James Ryan (below) into the air at the front and letting Devin Toner stay on the ground.

It didn't work and Leinster got hooshed over their own line as they are slow to react and very loose on the ground. Thirteen minutes later, and from exactly the same position, Leinster have to guess again and they get Ryan up again at the front but they are much tighter and compact on the ground as the ball goes to Van Rensburg again - but Montpellier catch them cold and work Louis Picamoles rolling around the side as Leinster expect the maul. They score easily again.

In the 68th minute, Montpellier have another five-metre lineout and this time Leinster worked it brilliantly. In a Texas hold 'em game, Leinster went all in and caught Montpellier cold. A first lineout was rebuffed with Ryan again at the front up in the air.

Leinster stopped the maul illegally and were under orders not to do it again. Toner decided to get himself and Ryan into the air and they picked off a vital lineout ball in the air. Montpellier did not expect the two jumpers in the air at all. The score was 23-14 at that stage - a seven-pointer would have ensured a fraught end and given Montpellier hope. Leinster extinguished that hope with that vital interception and Montpellier gave up the ghost from that moment.

The ploy emphasises the point that you never give cheap or easy ball to your opponents, particularly near your own line. And speaking of a good second-row play, how good is Tadhg Beirne? He more than caught the eye in the Scarlets' fantastic run to the Pro12 Championship last year.

Beirne's tight play is international class but it is around the park where his value is at a premium. Sometimes you think are there two Scarlets players wearing a blue scrum cap - not only does Beirne have a good engine, he is quick and dynamic and very good on the ball. He is Scarlets' top carrier and his hands are very good.

Big men find it very difficult to steal ball at the breakdown because they have a high centre of gravity and they fall to the ground easily and can't challenge there. Beirne's technique is very good and he gets onto the ball in a really strong position and latches on to that position very quickly.

I look at Leinster's reserve strength in second-rows of Ian Nagle and Mick Kearney and think whose idea was it to let Beirne go to Scarlets? He may have had a few injuries while at Leinster but strangely he has gone nearly two seasons without one in Llanelli - how do you reconcile that?

Beirne joins Munster next season and his proposed partnership with Fineen Wycherley could be another O'Callaghan/O'Connell combination. Ireland have Toner, Iain Henderson, Ryan and Ultan Dillane on board - it is going to get uncomfortably crowded in the second-row position very soon.

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