Tuesday 24 April 2018

George Hook: It beggars belief that English sides are calling shots

Tommy O'Donnell, Munster,contends for the ball with Dan Robson, Gloucester
Tommy O'Donnell, Munster,contends for the ball with Dan Robson, Gloucester
George Hook

George Hook

Nobody can work out why instruments on airplanes go on the blink in the Bermuda Triangle. And the Voynich Manuscript after a century still defies the best efforts of experts to decipher the language and script.

When the history of the Heineken Cup is written, the performances of the Irish clubs may also defy rational explanation. This weekend was a perfect case in point. Not only did Munster and Leinster win away from home, but the victories were predicated on inexhaustible courage, outstanding technique and above all an unwillingness to admit defeat.

What is inexplicable is that all the clubs in Europe -- particularly England and France -- have access to funds to buy players from all corners of the globe. It should lead to a level playing field. Instead, Ireland, with largely home-based squads, have delivered outstanding performances, not so much as trophy winners but rather on occasions like this weekend.

It beggars belief that the Premiership clubs think they can anchor a European-wide competition. This year, as the competition winds to its denouement, the English teams are stultifyingly boring and playing without any strategic imperative and -- more importantly -- passion.

The French continue to infuriate as their away form is awful and even at home they fail to deliver on their enormous pools of talent.

The inescapable conclusion is that the competition could not survive without Leinster, Munster and Ulster and far from the English laying down conditions, the Irish representatives on the ERC should be flexing their ageing muscles on the back of the titanic performances of the young men in their employ.

On Saturday, Munster won in yet another match they could so easily have lost. Gloucester dominated for much of the second half but not only did the men in red hang in, but Peter O'Mahony's try on the hour copperfastened a famous victory.

Munster defy rational analysis. The back play is average with little flair in the centre. Meanwhile, for club and country, Conor Murray continues like Sisyphus of Greek legend and takes two steps forward with his physical contribution and three steps back with his decision-making. Murray's partner at fly-half Ian Keatley has had setbacks, but nobody can deny his temperament as this weekend he delivered under the most severe pressure.

Where has this come from? Firstly, player power has in the best possible way exerted control on the ambitions of the coaches. Rob Penney arrived with a game plan, which utilised the wide channels and the supposedly innovative use of big forwards in the wing positions. It was way beyond the talents of his players and the team paid the price.

Paul O'Connell's return from injury generated leadership as well as a towering on-field presence. Munster went back to a forward- dominated game and have hardly looked back, even if this current eight does not as a group possess the firepower of its predecessors.

The feeling continues that this team cannot win the trophy, but they have bucked the odds too many times for the bookmaking fraternity whatever about the analysts betting against them.

Leinster delivered the outstanding performance of the weekend in ending Castres' 51-week unbeaten streak at home. They did it against a French team that should have won by 40 points.

There is no easy explanation for a win gained on the back of a dud scrum, an uncertain line-out and a porous defence. Time and again, centres Seremaia Bai and Remi Lamerat tore holes in the midfield; their opponents, who played with massive flair and invention, transfixed the Leinster back-row; and the scrum was threadbare.

APPLAUD

Playing under those handicaps, it seemed that there was no way Matt O'Connor's men could fashion a victory. Yet they did and despite the massive Leinster effort, they owed their victory, like that in the RDS, to French impetuosity.

Castres forced the offload or, with the try-line just inches away, failed to hold possession. Leinster supporters will applaud the skill of the steal, but in truth the laws of the game are weighed in favour of the ball-carrier and no team should lose possession so consistently in attacking positions.

In a reprise of the RDS, the French failed to use the scrum in the final quarter, preferring close-quarter line-outs followed by a driving maul. One wonders if a Tower of Babel exists on the field and communication is missing under pressure. There is no other explanation for such poor strategic options.

It seems as if there will be three Irish clubs in the last eight, accompanied by the same number from France plus the two standard- bearers of the Premiership, Saracens and Leicester. It is not a great result for the rebels in Wales and one suspects that the cold light of reality will prevail in the discussions on the future of the competition.

Irish Independent

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