Monday 20 November 2017

Neil Francis: Saturday's derby has sub-plots but the big story is that these two sides might not be up to it

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, left, and Munster Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, left, and Munster Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

This one is supposed to be for the carnivores - Leinster versus Munster - you know blood, meat cleavers, a little bit of barely-disguised hatred. The build-up to these games over the last few years has been so lacking in colour that the match usually follows suit. Just different shades of mundane.

I think that there is a streak of namby-pamby vegetarianism coming into this game. You're inclined not to believe a word out of the mouth of the coach or the players in the lead-up but I am beginning to believe some of what they say. A stepping stone for Europe, it's a litmus test for us, a bit of rhythm, momentum and consistency, a few more variations and combinations to get the mix right, so and so is just not ready so we won't risk him tomorrow. Ok!

But someone tell the marketing people and the TV people to prepare a vegan TV dinner. You can't sell this one on endeavour or on past performances alone. You can't hype it as 'The Big One' and players then just go through the motions. A bit like one of Liz Taylor's husbands on their honeymoon night - he knows what to do, the trick is to make it exciting.

There are plenty of sub-plots on the periphery but I have to say both teams look a long way off being ready to produce a serious challenge in Europe let alone win their first match against decent opponents.

Leinster and Munster have been somewhere between consistent and competent in disposing of four very ordinary Guinness Pro14 teams but suffered blow-outs to Glasgow and the Cheetahs when they were asked to change up a gear.

This Saturday you get the sense that neither team are going to shoot the lights out. What is worrying is that there is a gnawing feeling that neither of them can. Not now and maybe not for the season.

Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Sportsfile

Anyway we know that for the regular season league fixtures between these particular sides the gloves are on. An unkept promise of a bare-knuckle encounter in the Pro12 final as Leinster produced a witheringly poor performance to let the Scarlets take their place in the decider.

The Welsh team had timed their run perfectly and were throttling back as they hit the play-offs. Both sets of Irish fans will be eager to let their respective heroes know how disappointed they were with the performances on the day. Time heals and all that but if these franchises become conditioned to playing well below themselves in the knockout games, then there will be consequences.

Leinster, I think, are in the more difficult position. They have a coaching ticket which they know will be there till the end of this season and next season. That in itself should be reassuring to the players - so consistency of selection and reinforcement of a well-explained game-plan and philosophy . . . we think .

Munster on the other hand have been blindsided by one of the great inequities in life - the better offer.

I am not impressed with Rassie Erasmus' behaviour or attitude. I don't think I'd be allowed to say what I really think so I won't bother. "Are you going this week Boss or next week? Will it be in the middle of the Heineken Cup or after it? Do you want Johann van Graan to stay with you when you go back to South Africa or just send him over?"

Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are probably the best coaching ticket that Munster has had since Declan Kidney. Their loss and the nature of their departure is like an anchor weighing Munster down.

Munster have had some real under-achievers in charge over the last 12 years or so (Laurie Fischer and Tony McGahan) they can't afford any more. Wessels and Van Graan - sounds like a tobacco shop for pipe smokers.

Cullen and Lancaster are in the groove now and the non-performances in the big games of the last two seasons are only forgiveable if they can learn from them - pardon me - did I just say that? Coach speak!

Getting your team to produce the big win when it is really needed despite a strongly positive win/lose ratio during the regular season.

Cullen for such a successful player knows that underperformances such as the 2016 final loss to Connacht and the 2017 semi-final loss to Scarlets are unacceptable.

Whatever term you use - 'off colour', 'below par' or 'on the day' - getting Leinster to the knockout stages given their roster and resources is expected. Getting them to produce their best performance in those knockout stages - that is where you earn your reputation as a coach.

Erasmus (left, below) didn't cover himself in glory either with his team's performance in the final last year. The Scarlets, it will be remembered, put 46 points on Munster in the decider. Don't remember anyone in recent memory doing that. Munster had 31 points put on them in the 2015 final by Glasgow. Is there a recurring theme here for Ireland's two heavyweights? Leinster also will have to deal with the departure of two very important players and the likelihood is that it will happen this season.

Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip have been central to everything good for their province and country for the last decade. For such singularly talented and reliable players, it is beyond me why both have received goodly portions of abuse from an uninitiated minority. Their qualities are both undoubted - their positive contributions compared to their tiny number of minor failings are well into the black. Such was the standards set by both players in their prime that when they do not replicate these they are castigated.

It is undeniable that their quality has fallen off a bit but if they are fit and on form then they are still worthy of selection in this Leinster side. Experience in the dressing room and on the field is irreplaceable. It is no coincidence that when they both play Leinster benefit hugely even if it is just their presence alone - but often it is obviously so much more than that.

Kearney and Heaslip may recover to play a part in Leinster's season and if they do it will benefit the side. It does not look good for either of them to play a constant and consistent role this season. Leinster can choose the equally experienced Seán O'Brien and Isa Nacewa to cover them or the less experienced Jack Conan and Joey Carbery. Influence and active contribution from highly experienced players is so hard to replace. Leinster's determination to do much better this season will depend on how they deal with the continued loss of Kearney and Heaslip.

Now where were we? New York striploin rare with all the trimmings please.

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