Sunday 25 March 2018

Set piece shambles spells trouble for our World Cup dreams

The manner of Leinster's defeat highlights a real crisis in Irish rugby, writes George Hook

Toulouse, as expected, reached the final of the Heineken Cup in Paris. They stuttered in the process, but it would have been a travesty had they lost a game that they dominated from the off.

It was a sad way for Leinster to bow out, but their luck was always going to run out away from the heady atmosphere of the RDS.

It took just 12 minutes for this game to move away from Leinster. The first scrum of the match demonstrated the gulf between the two teams and only Toulouse's conservative and nervy performance allowed the Irish province to survive.

However, it would be unfair not to credit Leinster's indomitable spirit and organisation. The winning habit is hard to break and this team never gave up against a vastly superior force. But the facts of rugby union are immutable; forwards win games, the backs determine by how much. Michael Cheika may reflect on Eoin Reddan's near-try, but, in truth, his team threatened just twice to break free from the French shackles.

The scoreline at half and full-time was no reflection of the respective quality of the two sides, but Guy Noves will know that he will need a much-improved performance to win in Paris, irrespective of the opponents. The problem for the other finalist on May 22 however will be that Toulouse have placed the Heineken Cup ahead of their Top 14 ambitions. If Munster win today, they will hope for a referee who will allow them hit early in the scrum on their own ball and wheel on their opponent's put-in.

Leinster had defied the reality of rugby against Clermont Auvergne by winning a game without a scrum and parity up front. They were aided and abetted by a dreadful kicking performance from Brock James. This time around, Leinster were embarrassed in the tight and magnificent in defence but David Skrela threatened to repeat the James performance and it was a miracle that it took Toulouse an hour to cross the try line.

The awful weather conditions made it difficult for Toulouse to ram home their clear superiority. However, conversely it increased the number of scrums, which was a nightmare area for Leinster and must have damaged the morale of the forwards. Coupled with a suspect line-out it was astounding that the visitors went in at half-time a mere three points behind.

The Leinster scrum looked in trouble from the beginning and with Mike Ross on the bench merely to make up the numbers, the prospects looked ominous. The problem was confirmed after 30 minutes when Cian Healy was taken off. It was an astonishing verdict on an Irish international prop.

Cheika had to get CJ Van Der Linde on the field and move Stan Wright to loosehead to ease the pressure on the Cook Islander, who was in difficulty. Wright professes to be able to work on both sides but he is no Peter Clohessy. He is clearly more comfortable on the left-hand side but the change made little or no difference.

Wright was even luckier to stay on the pitch when he carelessly drove in to the prone player at the ruck. Nigel Owens was seriously at fault in ignoring an IRB directive on that very issue which made a yellow card obligatory. The game is playing fast and loose with the health and safety of its players. There is little point in directives if the referees ignore them. Owens should also have issued a yellow card against Leinster's consistent infringement at the breakdown.

The Leinster kicking game was patchy. It worked when Shaun Berne targeted the French wings and Leinster consistently succeeded in winning back the ball. However, some of the other tactical kicking was downright awful as the ball was hoofed downfield in hope rather than certainty. Berne did little wrong but the threat that might have been posed by Jonathan Sexton was missing. The outhalf played to the limit of his ability and crucially delivered with the placed ball. Even if Sexton had played it is difficult to see how he could have had a greater influence on the game behind a beaten pack.

The French line-out was sound and when Shane Jennings left the field, the arrival of Stephen Keogh weakened the defence off the tail and the Skrela try was a product of the lack of a second line of defenders.

The benches were instructive. Van Der Linde apart, Cheika did not have a single game-changing player. In contrast, Guy Noves had an array of hardened international players to bring on if the game became tight. It was reminiscent of Alan Gaffney's problem with Munster against the same team when the match was won and lost by the quality of the substitutes. Noves emptied his bench to keep his team fresh while Cheika must have fretted at his lack of alternatives. Ross, supposed heir-apparent to the Irish No 3 shirt, entered the fray after 76 minutes when the game was lost.

The Irish game is now in crisis. The two best provinces and the national team are bereft of talent at the scrummage, while the line-out depends on the throwing ability of just one hooker. It is no recipe for the future health of the representative game. Australia has solved their set piece difficulties while Ireland has been in denial of its problems in that area.

Declan Kidney is facing a race against time to get a group that can get parity. If he fails, the challenge for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 will be stillborn.

Sunday Independent

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