Sport Guinness PRO14

Sunday 25 February 2018

Neil Francis: It seems to me that Leinster have got caught up in their own celebrity

Johnny Sexton shows his disappointment after Leinster’s defeat to Scarlets on Friday night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton shows his disappointment after Leinster’s defeat to Scarlets on Friday night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Back in 2009, Leinster had decisions to make. They looked around, saw the talent and potential they had and then looked at their trophy cupboard and decided that this could no longer continue.

The squad made a conscious decision to suppress their natural instincts which when confronted with pressure or heat forced them to go into a little room on their own during a match and wait for that pressure to disappear.

That team in 2009 decided to confront and embrace pressure and expectation and they delivered. The province decided that it would be important to kick on and embellish a culture - a winning culture - something that they could use as a reference point for future teams.

After Friday night's debacle the province needs so much more than introspection because that edge that they had, that winning mentality they used to trot out, is gone and Leinster are in serious trouble. That loss on Friday night to the Llanelli Scarlets was simply disgraceful and once again a team with all of this talent and potential are at a crossroads and they don't seem to know which way to go.

This match can be used as a reference point because recent history shows that Leinster have failed when it's much easier to succeed. They didn't turn up in last year's Guinness PRO12 final against Connacht in Edinburgh. They didn't turn up for the first 20 minutes of the Champions Cup semi-final against Clermont. The graph showed a further decline with their performance against Glasgow, even though it was a winning effort. They were awful against Ulster last week and on Friday night the evidence was there for all to see.

Why bother playing all these competitions through the season when you are going to reserve your worst performances of the year for the crucial matches? This is two years of failure in the important games and it has to stop. The team that has taken to the pitch in these knock-out games is so far away mentally from where they should be to compete and win, that it is hard to know where to start.

Llanelli are a difficult side to analyse. They are like the West Ham of the PRO12. Whatever you say about them and about their stomach for the fight, they have always been able to play really good football. They seem to be able to produce a conveyor belt of speedy, quality backs who know how to pass accurately and exploit space but God knows what team turns up half the time. Remind you of anyone?

Llanelli were brilliantly prepared to overcome Leinster. They had done their homework and they read all of Leinster's plays seconds before they happened. There was, however, a bite and an edge. Llanelli were niggly and competitive and they got loads of encouragement from a slipshod and slapstick performance by Leinster.

The difference between the two sides can be encapsulated in their propensity to scramble.

In the middle of the first half Luke McGrath got away on the perimeter of a ruck. Leinster's scrumhalf, as he has demonstrated over the course of the season, has plenty of gas and you would expect him to go on to score. Llanelli were here to compete and McGrath was chased down and caught brilliantly by Scott Williams. Liam Williams, conscious of the danger but prepared to do anything to protect the sanctity of his try line, pulled off an astonishing steal at the tackle scene, showing real determination and presence of mind. It was the play of the night and Llanelli survived.

Moments later Llanelli passing out of the tackle and sometimes even before the tackle got Aaron Shingler away and clear in Leinster's 22. Jamison Gibson-Park had a line on him in the chase to the line. Shingler was clever and he actually slowed down and stiff armed Gibson-Park to score under the posts, but if the truth is told Gibson-Park's tackle was at the very best feminine and there was no sense at any stage that there was any desperation to stop Llanelli scoring yet another try.

This characteristic was imbued in every Leinster player who played on Friday night. They weren't desperate enough for the win. There was no edge to their performance and all the missed tackles and all the knock-ons and all of the really poor passing and all of the mistakes and all of the turnovers and all of the kak-handed efforts to try and go about working something into this game told you that they had no interest in winning. All they had to do was turn up.

Yet again their lineout imploded and even though they only lost four, some of the ball they eventually won after a little bit of volleyball bobbling in the air was of very little value to them.

When Steff Evans was red carded, Cian Healy resorted to illegal scrummaging against a seven-man Llanelli scrum in the three penalties he gave away on the night. The first try that Leinster conceded was yet another howler from Adam Byrne. With the touchline as his friend he came off it and inside to give Scarlets the tiniest bit of space down the touchline - and they gratefully accepted. There is a reason why Joe did not bring him to Japan. It is embarrassing and the boy should learn how to defend before he plays for Leinster again.

It is true that Leinster lost a number of their senior players through injury on the night and some were playing injured, but we have to ask, where is the leadership? Who are the go-to guys when things don't go to plan? Who put their hands up on Friday night to try and turn the match around? Where was the calm and then where was the energy?

Leinster have now lost what started in 2009. They may say that they work very hard and that the hunger, desire and want is still there, but I can't see it and it's never there when it needs to be there in the important matches at the end of the season - 29 turnovers in one match is testament to that.

It also seems to me that Leinster have got caught up in their own celebrity - wives and girlfriends, girlfriends and wives, who is dating who, who is wearing what - when the most obvious question is who is winning what?

Leinster said that they would take a long, hard look at themselves after losing to Connacht last season. This is the second season that they will have to take a long, hard look at themselves and try to establish what exactly they are here for. The graph is going only one way. Lazy boys.

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