Tuesday 12 December 2017

Intelligence, not courage, will be the difference in tense test

Home advantage will be a huge factor in making amends for the failure of last year, writes Neil Francis

In the movie Blazing Saddles, Hedley Lamarr and his bunch of desperadoes are coming to town to empty it and put a railroad through it. The townspeople meet in the hall to discuss what action to take. The Reverend Olson, after addressing the meeting, tells all that he is splitting but is prevented from doing so by Gabby Johnson, the town's resident lunatic.

Gabby Johnson: "I wash born here, an' I wash raished here and dod gam it I am gonna die here, an' no sidewindin' bushwackin' hornswagglin' cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter."

Olson Johnson: "Now who can argue with that! I think we are all indebted to Gabby Johnson for stating what needed to be said. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed the courage little seen in this day and age."

The cracker croakers are coming to town. Courage in the face of adversity is always welcome but in this case probably not so necessary. If you want to win the Heineken Cup, more than likely you'll have to beat Toulouse at some stage in the competition. Best to meet them in a home quarter or semi. Courage is a fundamental, particularly in a battle of wills, but intelligence is the prime ingredient.

I say this because I look back and observe what happened this time last year in Toulouse. Whatever you think about Leinster's dubious heritage before they won the competition in 2009, their pedigree has been honed in the blast furnace of competing in knock-out competition and a benchmark was set for bravery in that semi-final.

The exchanges at the point of contact in that match were feral. Savagery, where the participants forget themselves and any sense of self-preservation, came five minutes after the final whistle. It is obvious to point to the grizzlies in the Toulouse pack -- Albacete, Dusatoir, Millo-Chluski and Servat are people I would not like to meet in an alley with lots of bright lighting, secure cordons and police protection. They breathe physical malice.

It was in midfield, though, where Florian Fritz and Yannick Jauzion inflicted pain at collision time the like I had not seen. Our two as usual were exceptionally resilient and resourceful and gave as good as they got, but Guy Noves recognised that if you want to neutralise Leinster you have to suffocate and flatten Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll.

He gave specific instructions to Dusatoir to spend most of the afternoon in midfield to make sure that if the Toulouse midfield didn't make the quality hit required, he was to go in and mop up. D'Arcy in particular looked like he had taken his car to the crushers and forgot to get out.

Toulouse softened them up and picked them off in the second half. Leinster lost 26-16, it could and should have been a lot worse. At Blanac Airport later that night there was applause and appreciation for the bravery and courage. All the way home I wondered would Toulouse have been as swaggeringly ebullient and aggressive if the match had been played in Croker?

Leinster might not have won even at home; they had limitations imposed upon them which were very difficult to play out of. Shaun Berne at outhalf was a significant retardant on the type of game Leinster wanted to play. Michael Cheika got his scrum call wrong from the start. CJ van der lunch only played five or six matches a year for Leinster. He was fit that day and should have started on the tighthead side with Stan Wright moved over to loose. When the hogs in the Toulouse pack smelled weakness at scrum time, it was all over even before Cian Healy was withdrawn in the first half. Isa Nacewa missed two straight up tackles on Vincent Clerc, both of which led directly to tries.

This year, none of those impediments will prevail. Sexton controls for Leinster in a way that he just can't match when he plays for Ireland. His sense of purpose, mental agility and strategic surety will be in manifest contrast to that of David Skrela who is Clermont-bound. Skrela has just signed a lifetime product endorsement for a Cadburys product which is chocolaty and comes in a long yellow wrapper.

Nacewa, strangely brittle on that day, has, not unnoticed, turned himself into the best fullback in Europe and can see checkmate from ten moves off the board. His vision is phenomenal and all his team-mates fall in around his motion and his counter-attacking promptings. His try against Leicester was sensational in the way he held the ball in two hands which fixed defenders, moved the ball into one hand, shifted weight, held the ball in both hands, moved direction, shifted weight but did all this while running what was geometrically a straight line to score. It was world-class.

Last year, Greg Feek was somebody I was vaguely aware had picked up nearly a dozen caps for the All Blacks. His benign influence on this Leinster scrum has been immense. Leinster were never really sure what sort of scrum ball they would receive in their favoured positions on the field. They can plot and scheme now to their heart's content in the knowledge that they will get safe ball . . . or will they? Last year the guy who did all the damage was Benoit Lecouls; he has some seriously prolapsed discs in his neck and his career is more than likely over.

Toulouse, though, have recourse to the gargantuan Census Johnson (no relation to Gabby). Toulouse know that if they can apply pressure, particularly through Johnson, that it could sow some seeds of doubt in what is perceived a place of comfort. Cian Healy is on his way to a 120-plus cap career and the loosehead who was called ashore in that first half last year is now a completely different animal.

Scrummaging, as we know, is a unit skill, the reason it becomes a factor on French soil is because French sides, whether national or club, scrummage 20 per cent harder than par on their own patch. When packs get tired and back rows stop scrummaging because they are more intent on breaking early and getting around the park, then a black hole opens up that can swallow an entire side. Toulouse just won't be able to come close to matching the power displayed in this facet, they will be down at least 30 per cent and it really is a home-and-away thing. We will find out how good both sides are next Saturday.

Leinster have been very, very good at analysing other sides' weaknesses. They will know that Skrela is weak under pressure. They will know that if Poitrenaud is played in the centre as he has been all season that he just does not defend his inside. Nor his outside for that matter. Leinster are also aware that Johnson carries a huge amount of ball for Toulouse. Leinster will need to double-team him in the tackle.

The key to this game is the recognition that Toulouse commit no one to the breakdown. They have two, at most three, at the breakdown, the rest of the team fan out across the line and they have a secondary line of defence which is equally hard to break down. Leinster will have to maul when they have the ball, which they have done with success at critical times in important games. I don't know why they don't use it more.

When Toulouse have the ball Leinster will have to pile numbers into the breakdown. Not for the sake of staying on their feet and trying to filch the ball, but for the purposes of good old-fashioned rucking over the ball to drive the bastards out of the tackle zone -- you would be amazed at how effective it is when it is attempted.

Saturday's referee is David Pearson, who is a poor referee. His ability to let the game flow and show empathy with how the players from two skilful footballing sides is non-existent. He is officious and finicky and did Ireland no favours in the Aviva against France this year. Why was such a referee picked for such an important game? He will be a factor.

Leinster, because they are practically unbeatable at home, should win this game. Toulouse are literally the only side that can beat them. Leinster playing at home need intelligence, not courage, to win.

It will be another close and tense game.

Sunday Indo Sport

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