Friday 24 November 2017

Reserves reach critical low

Andrew Trimble dives over for Ulster’s third try against Leinster on Friday night.
Andrew Trimble dives over for Ulster’s third try against Leinster on Friday night.

Leinster's back-up problems have been highlighted by three defeats in succession, says Brendan Fanning

At some point in between the back-to-back Heineken Cup games which have left Leinster in the lurch, Clermont coach Vern Cotter conducted a little exercise based on then and now. His team had just prevailed over the Heineken Cup champions in a gripping game before another full house at Stade Marcel Michelin. Even if the away team had played more of the rugby, his side had come home first. Now he was looking forward to the second leg in Lansdowne Road. That's when he flipped open the laptop to look at the shape of the last Clermont team he had brought to the venue where Leinster had never lost.

You'll remember the day. It was the second leg of the back-to-back round in December 2010, and by then the history between the clubs was taking shape. They had first met in 2002/'03, with Leinster winning home and away in a six-from-six pool run. That away win was their first on French soil, three seasons after Munster had broken that ground for an Irish side, in Colomiers. In 2009/'10, aided by a Brock James meltdown, Leinster somehow scraped past Clermont again when the clubs met in the quarter-final in the RDS.

And then, eight months later, they were back in Dublin again, but this time in front of more than 44,000 in Lansdowne Road. The French would be well beaten, 24-8, by a Leinster side that was finding an irresistible rhythm.

So two weeks ago Cotter did his compare and contrast with that Christmas fixture of two years ago. At fullback he has replaced Benoit Baby with Wales's Lee Byrne. A good bit of business, you'd say. Also in the back three he has added the All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu to a roster that already included Napolioni Nalaga and Julien Malzieu. More good business.

Best of all he had brought in the explosive Wesley Fofana in the midfield for the journeyman Gavin Williams, who had spent a couple of seasons in Connacht. Alongside Aurelien Rougerie, and outside Brock James, Fofana gives Clermont a whole new dimension there. For extra back-up, Cotter recruited Regan King, and then Benson Stanley – two more quality buys.

Up front, he had offloaded Martin Scelzo and Thibaut Privat but he had gained Raphael Chaume, picked up Nathan Hines from Leinster, and brought in the impressive Damien Chouly at No 8. Cotter weighed up all the comings and goings and felt good about his team-building, and very good about the trip to Dublin.

At about the same time as Cotter was willing the game forward, Joe Schmidt was praying it was in the great blue yonder. On the long-term injury list he had Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney and South African Quinn Roux; on the list of strugglers for the following Saturday, he had Fergus McFadden and Damian Browne.

If Schmidt did the same exercise on Leinster's comings and goings then four names jumped out immediately on the missing list: Kearney, O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan and Hines. Moreover, he had been able to use Isa Nacewa at fullback in 2010. Ian Madigan is a fine prospect at outhalf, but less so at 15 where he has been filling the gap caused ultimately by the coach's lack of faith in Fionn Carr as a defender.

So leaving Stade Marcel Michelin two weeks ago, Schmidt wasn't exactly skipping out to the team bus. Yes, they were bringing a bonus point with them, but he knew Clermont would be better for having played badly and won; better again for having done so against a team who had been the dominant partner in the relationship.

Rougerie said as much straight after the game. Hooker Benjamin Kayser kept the theme going in the French press a few days later. Mostly Schmidt knew that young Madigan would face a lot more action from the skies the following Saturday, and there was no way to change course.

Mostly Leinster needed two things to go their way in that second leg: a decent set-piece, and a couple of chances where they could ask questions Clermont couldn't answer.

On the first issue, Mike Ross had to be taken off before referee Wayne Barnes put him in the bin. The background to this is that in the first leg, Nigel Owens had penalised Leinster for an early engagement at a scrum, which on reflection was not their fault. Close the gap between the front rows and all would be okay was the message.

New game, new referee. If you look at how Raphael Chaume set himself up at the scrum, then you can see why Ross kept hitting the deck. Sometimes refs get caught up in trying to figure whose bind is lost first as the scrum goes south. Make a decision there and it looks like you're on top of things. If they were to go one step further back in the process however, and watch where props position their feet before taking the hit, it can shine some light on who expects to go down and who hopes to stay up.

Leinster were unable to get any change out of Wayne Barnes, who is a pretty good technical referee with an unfortunate habit of sometimes waving players away with disdain. The reality is that referees operate differently among the various competitions north of the equator, never mind the gulf between north and south. And when they are questioned then sometimes they just don't want to listen. Leo Cullen wouldn't have a reputation as being one of the game's serial moaners, and given the captain's credibility Barnes might have entertained him longer than he did. That aside, there is an issue here for Donal Courtney, the referees' manager in the Six Nations. It seems there is a gap between his chat with coaches in the days after a game, in which areas of contention are straightened out, and what referees go and do the following weekend. As one European coach put it: "I don't give a toss about him agreeing with my point, I want to know what he's going to do about it."

Neither Courtney nor Barnes were able to do anything about the stuff Leinster got badly wrong however. As an illustration of how fine the margins can be, even on a day when one team secures a losing bonus with the last play of the game, go back to the 30th minute last weekend when Leinster ran a play as intricate as you'll find.

It had the desired effect – after all the moving parts had gone where they were supposed to go – of isolating Brock James on the wide outside. If Fergus McFadden had let the ball go to Seán O'Brien then James would have been roadkill. Instead the wing stepped inside and the chance was lost. It was 6-6 at the time.

By the final whistle that play had seemed like it was from another game. And the post-match scene from another era. The air of gloom that dropped on Leinster was like one of those mists that appear out of nowhere on a dark country road.

On Friday night in Ravenhill, they had to restore some vision for the Pro12 tie with Ulster. The chances of this working out were blighted by Ulster loading their big hitters into the first of the two derbies, for obvious reasons: the need to immediately return to winning ways; and the need to atone for the shellacking in the Heineken Cup final last May.

Coming hard on the heels of Saturday, it shone a light on Leinster's resources. Their Academy, rightly, has received plenty of positive press over the last three seasons especially, thanks to its ability to stock the senior team on slow Saturdays without the show being cancelled.

For example, the 45-25 win over the Dragons in early September featured a backline in which Andrew Conway, Brendan Macken, Noel Reid, Fionn Carr, Ian Madigan and John Cooney all started, with Darren Hudson and Luke McGrath coming off the bench. You would have gone home from the RDS that night thinking that, whatever about the Dragons, growing your own was a game Leinster could play effectively.

Leaving Ravenhill on Friday night you might have had a different feeling. Noel Reid looked as uncomfortable at fullback as Madigan did last weekend, though Macken definitely has something about him. It was hard for the new brigade to produce anything worthwhile however given that Leinster's all-international front five were being dismantled at the scrum, where Tom Court was making every minute count in his confrontation with Michael Bent.

Blooding home-produced front-rowers is obviously a challenging job, but the back five is an area of equal weakness in Leinster, compounded by the injuries to this season's new recruits in the second row, Tom Denton, who missed a five-week chunk in October/November, and had a late run on Friday, and Quinn Roux, who has managed just three games.

Leinster are desperate for a big hitter to pack down with Leo Cullen, who is still very effective at the breakdown, and in running the lineout, but at 33 he has a lot of sticking plaster on his frame.

Suddenly, the succession stakes are top of the agenda. Damian Browne (32) is not the answer, and while Devin Toner (26) is the perfect age profile, if he was going to make it he'd have done it by now. Quite why he ends up carrying so much ball, as he did again in Ravenhill, is a mystery. We don't know yet about Quinn Roux (22), and wait to see what Mark Flanagan (23) looks like after a long rehabilitation from back surgery, though we're told he's in optimum shape now to make an impression.

Deepening the player pool while staying within the IRFU regulations on NIEs (non-Ireland eligibles) is a battle for Leinster. That was part of the reason they were so keen on Connacht's Mike McCarthy: he's Irish. The worry for McCarthy (31) is that he'll fetch up at the RDS about two years too late.

Joe Schmidt will be gone in a year and a half. Back to New Zealand to serve some time in Super rugby, and to get on track for the All Black set-up. By this time next year Leinster would hope to have identified his successor. That man will find himself in the unusual position of having funds at his disposal, but his hands tied on where he can spend it. For example, if they need a second-row forward, and either Munster or Ulster have already blocked off that route, then their financial clout will count for nothing.

That pressure to reshape the model will start now. The last time Leinster lost three in a row was at the tail end of the Michael Cheika era in 2010. They would look a different team if they had all hands on deck, but even then you suspect Vern Cotter would fancy his chances. On current form, it's unlikely he'll have another crack at them this season.

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