Thursday 26 April 2018

Tommy Conlon: Risk-free philosophy turns powerhouses like Leinster into plodders

A dejected Ian Madigan, Leinster, leaves the pitch after his side's defeat on Sunday
A dejected Ian Madigan, Leinster, leaves the pitch after his side's defeat on Sunday

Tommy Conlon

For a side that was supposed to throw everything at their opponents to stand any chance of winning, Leinster seemed curiously ambivalent about their role last Sunday.

One therefore cannot avoid feeling somewhat ambivalent too about the ultimate merit of their performance.

Leinster were the underdogs against Toulon in Marseille. It was a European Cup semi-final. They had permission to do what rank outsiders often do in a one-off situation: go hell for leather and leave it all on the field.

In other words, their status should have liberated them. The burden of expectation was on the European champions, the virtual home side, with all their money and megastars and thousands of supporters demanding nothing less than an emphatic victory.

This is the exact scenario that frequently facilitates an ambush: a bolt from the blue when the team with nothing to lose plays like it has nothing to lose - and ends up winning.

But Leinster were every bit as uptight as Toulon. They played with fear. They were conservative to the point of paralysis with ball in hand. Time and again they just kicked it away rather than trying even a simple backline move when the chance arose. They seemed too paranoid to take even the slightest risk with possession. The abiding impression throughout their performance was of a team refusing to lose rather than playing to win.

It seemed that deep down they did not believe they would win. They didn't believe, deep down, because the foundation they were working off was so shallow.

They'd come into this game without solid ground beneath them. It had been a mediocre season with too many problems in defence and attack. The team was drifting from one game to the next with a stagnant playing philosophy and dwindling stocks of confidence. A week earlier their mainly second-string 15 had coughed up a 22-8 lead in a league defeat to Newport Gwent Dragons that did further damage to morale.

To salvage the season they would have to move all their chips onto one major gamble in France. And yet when it came to the crunch they hoarded them here too, seemingly hoping to somehow scrape over the line while taking no initiative at all.

It should be emphasised that they didn't hoard their energy or their physical courage. Theirs was a monumental effort. They poured body and soul into this match. Leinster went to the bottom of the well last Sunday and came up with every ounce of resistance they could muster in what was a colossal battle of wills. In this regard it was a performance of unimpeachable integrity.

The reporter from L'équipe who described their approach as a "bankrupt operation" was more than a little unfair. But it was harder to disagree with his assessment of the Leinster coach Matt O'Connor's match strategy. "The Australian," wrote Arnaud Requenna, "chose a radically different game plan: one summarised as 'We'll do nothing, make nothing of nothing, but tighten the screw on Toulon'".

Three incidents in the five minutes before half-time amply demonstrated their crippling neurosis with ball in hand. In the 36th they stole a Toulon lineout just outside their own 22. The ball fell to Jamie Heaslip. With several home players caught up in the lineout, this was a rare chance for a quick counter-attack. Heaslip instead just walloped the ball downfield.

Four minutes later, Leinster won back possession from an Isaac Boss box-kick near the right-hand touchline. Seán Cronin did well to punch through the gainline. Boss recycled it to Ian Madigan. "Bit of width here," said Stuart Barnes on Sky's match commentary, sensing an opportunity to move it wide through the hands and make some good yardage. Madigan instead made a thoroughly lame-brained decision to kick a cross-field ball. The execution was worse than the decision, kicking it straight down the neck of Toulon's Delon Armitage.

In first-half injury time, Fergus McFadden picked up a Mathieu Bastareaud grubber and ran laterally before kicking the ball away to nothing and nobody.

A lot of these same players were part of a squad that only a few years ago was playing some of the most flamboyant and devastating rugby the European Cup has ever seen. In the space of a few seasons it has become a team of plodders.

The coach and players could well argue that they came within a drop-goal, with two minutes remaining, of beating Toulon using this risk-averse style of play. But they mightn't have needed a late drop-goal at all had they attempted even a sensible level of adventure much earlier in the match.

In the first half of extra-time Toulon took the game away from them. And then inevitably, with nothing left to lose, Leinster finally came out of their shell.

Ten points down with just ten minutes to play, it was desperation that finally cleared their minds of the inhibition that had strangled them over the previous 90 minutes.

This is normally what happens to a team of heavy favourites who've spent most of a match trying to get by doing the bare minimum, and only wake up when they're in real danger on the scoreboard. Then it's panic stations as they try to find top gear with time dripping away.

The underdogs here brought all their formidable physical and mental courage but left their moral courage at home. They gave it everything but still didn't do nearly enough.

thecouch@independent.ie

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