Sunday 19 January 2020

George Hook: Keatley fails European test but Gopperth is perfect 10

Munster sorely lacking the game-management skills of Leinster's Gopperth

Leinster benefited greatly from the game-management of Jimmy Gopperth
Leinster benefited greatly from the game-management of Jimmy Gopperth

George Hook

There were five Heineken Cup games with major interest at the weekend and I watched four of them. Connacht missed out because of a clash with Ulster and I included Harlequins because of the involvement of Conor O'Shea, who may yet play a major role in Irish rugby.

To start with parochial matters, the mighty Premiership took a bloody nose, with powerhouses like Leicester, Northampton and Harlequins shipping defeats. Conor O'Shea was incandescent after his team's loss at home. Unlike coaches in Ireland, he has no problem in criticising his team when they screw up.

With Ronan O'Gara retired and Jonathan Sexton in France, the spotlight was on the fly-halves. In Leaving Certificate parlance, Ian Keatley failed, Paddy Jackson got a pass and Jimmy Gopperth got an A1.

The essence of No 10 play is to control the game. Keatley has never demonstrated that quality and he slavishly passed the ball on to a backline bereft – with exception Keith Earls – of line-breakers. Simon Zebo has looked uninterested all season; James Downey is predictable; and injuries, sadly, have taken a toll on Felix Jones' flair.

One yearned for any Munster fly-half of the amateur era that would have pinned the Scots in the corner and given the forwards a chance to score from close range. Rob Penney's stubborn refusal to see that he does not have a team to play the game he wants will cost him and the province dear.

Jackson played well on a good night for Ulster but with Ruan Pienaar set to be a first-choice starter, either the fly-half or Paul Marshall will lose out. Pienaar is the better goal kicker and game-manager, so Marshall, in the interests of the national game, should start. Much has been made of Jackson's comparative youth but he has never demonstrated that he is an international No 10.

The choice of Gopperth over Ian Madigan for the Ospreys game probably raised a few eyebrows but the foreign import was the class act of the weekend. Madigan does everything his rival can do with the exception of running the game. I watched the youngster against the USA in Houston this summer and with the pack under pressure he could not vary his game from the in-your-face style that is his trademark. There are no dead heats in man-of-the-match awards but Gopperth and Sean O'Brien were the reason Leinster came out of Wales with a win.

O'Brien's performance reminded me of David Wallace against Biarritz in Cardiff when, with his team under the cosh in the first half, he kept them in the game. When the Welsh were in the ascendancy in the first quarter, O'Brien seemed to stand alone amongst the forwards and his ball-carrying was a sight to behold. He extended his remit to winning the ball at the breakdown and bringing Jamie Heaslip and Kevin McLaughlin along in his slipstream. It was, as Michaleen Oge Flynn said in 'The Quiet Man', "Homeric".

Yellow cards were crucial in most of the games. The original intention was that they be used for a professional foul. I beg to differ; they appear to be awarded for a display of stupidity below an IQ of 50. Those offences, coupled with equally stupid penalties, cost teams dear this weekend.

Twice Munster handled the ball in front of a knock-on. That kind of error may be acceptable in the extra As, but hardly acceptable from international players. Meanwhile, Ospreys gave away the defining three points to Leinster by handling the ball in the scrum.

The biggest message for Ireland over the weekend is that recurring failures at scrum and line-out have not been fixed. Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Donnacha Ryan conceded the line-out to, wait for it, workhorses Sean Cox and Grant Gilchrist. Leinster were not much better with a lighthouse like Devin Toner.

The answer lay in the throwing skills of the hookers. Sean Cronin delivered a wonderfully athletic performance but seems to treat his problem with the same lack of urgency that middle-aged men view prostate cancer.

Meanwhile, Munster cannot make up their minds on the relative merits of Mike Sherry and Damien Varley. The line-out could be the difference between a place in the knockout stages and oblivion.

ADVANTAGE

The new scrum laws have made a huge difference to the continuity of the game but will develop different skill sets in the front-row forwards. Hookers will have to learn to strike for the ball as of yore. The steady scrum means that the ball is slow to get to the back-row.

The good teams will recognise the advantage and a breaking No 8 could once again be seen in the game. Cronin and Heaslip should have a chat.

For prop forwards, it is now about body position and technique rather than an initial hit. So far, Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer are less effective than the experienced BJ Botha and the promising James Cronin.

Similarly at Leinster, for the first time in years the loss of Mike Ross was not catastrophic, but Martin Moore, although he survived, teetered on the edge of disaster. Still, he is a better bet than Jack McGrath on the other side.

This was a great start to the threatened competition. The English struggled but the French, as usual, were powerful; together they will change the shape of this tournament forever. Leinster need the Ospreys to do them a favour next week, Munster could be out of contention and Ulster may prove to be Ireland's best bet for a qualifying place.

It is going to be fun.

Irish Independent

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