Friday 15 December 2017

Green shoots but both provinces have a long way to go

Leinster players Devin Toner and Ross Molony
Leinster players Devin Toner and Ross Molony
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

On May 13, the fifth successive European final without any Irish involvement will take place. An era of Irish dominance ended when Leinster and Ulster met at Twickenham in 2012, but this season there were green shoots of recovery from the two provinces who drove that success.

A year on from failing to have any team in the knock-out rounds, Ireland provided two of the last four teams standing. Their presence added something to the colour of the latter stages, but Leinster and Munster couldn't make the next step.

James Lowe. Photo: Getty Images
James Lowe. Photo: Getty Images

For all that they will ultimately reflect on a season of progress and restored standards, both sides will be frustrated. There are grounds for optimism for next year but getting back to the last four is not an easy challenge.

The Guinness PRO12 holds their immediate focus, but in the coming weeks they will reflect on the semi-finals and the issues exposed by Saracens and Clermont.

Across 80 minutes each on Saturday and Sunday, the two provinces got a reality-check of the distance they still have to travel to get back to the level where they want to be.

It starts with the PRO12

There remains one trophy to be won and an all-Irish final between the two big guns beckons. Leinster already have a home semi-final - fixed yesterday for Friday, May 19, while Munster almost certain of hosting their own game a day later. No team has lost a home semi-final in the history of the tournament.

The PRO12 is the gateway towards European progression. Winning it guarantees top seeding, finishing second gives you a two in three chance of being amongst the big guns.

As well as seeding, there is also the value in getting to and winning a final. Leinster's last trophy came in 2014, Munster's in 2011. Many of the players who played last weekend have never collected silverware for their provinces and the confidence they can draw from winning their domestic league would be a key stepping stone from which they can build.

New faces

Although there will be room for development in terms of game-plan, there will also be changes in personnel.

Of the two, Leinster look like they are significantly upgrading their panel with the addition of James Lowe and Scott Fardy from the southern hemisphere. Both are upgrades on the players they are replacing - Zane Kirchner and Mike McCarthy - and will add an extra dimension.

The squad will also be supplemented by some more Academy talents, but there are concerns about the front-row depth with Mike Ross set to retire and Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath in for a long, hard summer.

In Munster, the situation regarding Donnacha Ryan continues to cast a shadow over plans. The second-row's departure to Racing 92 has yet to be confirmed but looks inevitable and he will leave a massive gap in the middle of the pack.

With Dave Foley and Mark Chisholm also heading for the exit doors, the province are on the look-out for a new lock. Perhaps Hayden Triggs could be convinced to move down the M7 or maybe Rassie Erasmus would prefer to return to his preferred market in South Africa to recruit.

So far, Erasmus has been buying Irish to bolster his squad. JJ Hanrahan will likely replace Ian Keatley whose destination is as yet unknown, with Worcester understood to be a possible option, while Chris Farrell and James Hart will arrive from France with international ambitions.

Farrell and Hanrahan will certainly add to Erasmus's attacking options, while the likely retention of Jaco Taute means there will be more depth with which to compete.

But Leinster certainly look like their transfer business will leave them stronger.

Coaching development

Erasmus has signalled his intention to stay on which is good news for Munster who have been transformed on his watch.

Under Jacques Nienaber, the defence has been hugely improved while the pack effort has been excellent. Until last Saturday, Tyler Bleyendaal looked the heir apparent to Ronan O'Gara and their approach has been direct and largely successful.

The tragic death of Anthony Foley left a gap in the coaching roster that has been left unfilled.

Erasmus may move to appoint a head coach this summer and after seeing how far the limited game-plan can take them against a class opposition like Saracens, perhaps someone with a proven background in attack might be the best option.

At Leinster, the coaching situation remains unconfirmed even though the men in charge have agreed to remain.

The game-plan

Stuart Lancaster was initially brought in as a replacement for defence coach Kurt McQuilkin but his most notable contributions have come on the attacking side of Leinster's game which has been revolutionised under the former England coach.

On Sunday, Clermont exposed some major flaws in the rear-guard that have only really cropped up on their travels in France.

Clermont repeatedly targeted Isa Nacewa's wing and got plenty of joy from the tactic. Whether it's individual reads or systematic matters, perhaps Lancaster needs to address the exposure of the 34-year-old winger whose contribution elsewhere is undoubted.

In attack, they will continue to build but they have become Europe's most potent team in a short period of time.

For Munster, the attacking side of the game needs a lot of work if they are to take the next step.

Their current model works against almost everyone in the PRO12 and most other sides, but against the best they need far more.

Like Leinster, their inaccuracy cost them dearly but when the set-piece creaks and the pressure game fails to yield the necessary results then you need a Plan B to try and open the door another way. Against Saracens, it was clear it wasn't there.

Hanrahan will add a second-distributor option while Simon Zebo can become more heavily involved. The tools are there and in his second season Erasmus must unlock them.

The gap is there, but both provinces will believe they can bridge it now they know the distance left to be travelled.

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