Friday 18 January 2019

Comment: Leinster will show Racing just how far Munster are now trailing

Donnacha Ryan of Racing 92 consoles his former Munster team-mate Keith Earls in Bordeaux. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Donnacha Ryan of Racing 92 consoles his former Munster team-mate Keith Earls in Bordeaux. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Thank God that All-Ireland Champions Cup final won't be happening. Leinster would beat the pick of Racing and Munster. Won't it be better to see them destroy a French team in Bilbao instead of an Irish one?

Leinster's performance on Saturday inhabited an entirely different universe from yesterday's error-strewn slog in the sun. The three tries conceded in the first quarter banjaxed Munster, but the second quarter even more cruelly exposed their shortcomings.

Munster camped inside the Racing 22, monopolised possession and just couldn't score. Ian Keatley had an ill-judged drop goal attempt charged down. Niall Scannell did something different by striking his ill-judged drop goal attempt wide. Sam Arnold threw a forward pass, Keatley flung a pass wildly into touch, Niall Scannell overthrew two close-in line-outs. Conor Murray asked his team-mates to calm down. The great scrum-half looked on the verge of weeping. You knew how he felt.

The lack of invention behind the scrum was kind of breathtaking, like the 1973 Barbarians v All Blacks match in reverse. It was as if Munster felt a try might eventually be awarded for sheer quantity of possession. The contrast with Leinster was stark.

At the Aviva, 2018's champions-elect bristled with intelligence, creativity and surprise. There was an impression of forethought about everything they did. Every phase of possession seemed part of an overall plan. Once in scoring position, they were merciless. Their display was a thing of unmitigated joy.

Leinster might not be a better team than Ireland but they are a more exhilarating one. Saturday's performance was as good as anything from the O'Driscoll era, the record-smashing 2012 final destruction of Ulster included.

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Racing looked just as impressive when running in the tries early on yesterday. The ease with which they cut Munster apart made them momentarily resemble Leinster.

In reality, Racing are a very different animal. Their strengths, like those of the French national team, are conservative and earthy ones. In the group stages 15 sides scored more tries than Racing. Crucially, only one team conceded less. The twinkling toes of Teddy Thomas cannot camouflage their reliance on defensive obduracy and forward grit.

In that they mirror one of those defence-minded Italian soccer sides who sometimes make it to Champions League finals only to be embarrassed by more expansive opposition. Does the same fate await the Parisians?

Probably. Leinster have a Sexton at out-half rather than a Keatley. If Luke McGrath makes it back for the final, they will be free to play James Lowe on the wing, thus adding another weapon to an already fearsome armoury. Had Lowe played on Saturday Leinster might have scored 50 points.

Should they enjoy the same amount of possession and territory against Racing that Munster did, Leinster will make the most of it.

Donncha Ryan's Lazarus impersonation continued yesterday with his ability to disrupt Munster's line-out crucial. Yet it is impossible to see him having the same success against Devin Toner, a better line-out jumper than any Munster possess who'll be supported by James Ryan and Scott Fardy.

Munster's second-half rally was based on a superiority in the scrum which must have brought an anticipatory smile to the lips of not just Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy, but Andrew Porter and Jack McGrath too.

It is customary for managers to issue stern warnings to their players about the dangers of complacency. Those of us not in management have a little more license. We are free to point out that if Leinster are at their best Racing won't get within an ass's roar of them.

It's customary too for pundits to pay tribute to the indomitable spirit of Munster and observe that they have emerged with pride intact from their latest semi-final defeat. This is the worst kind of condescension. Praise for gallantry in defeat must be galling for a province whose proud European tradition is based on winning big matches.

The disappointing thing for Munster was how much this defeat resembled last year's loss to Saracens. Little appears to have been learned in the past 12 months. The one-dimensional approach which gets them this far but no further seems inordinately South African in an era when that country no longer leads the way.

In its fluidity, its ruthlessness and its belief in the kind of total rugby epitomised by the way Ryan created Fardy's second-half try, Leinster's approach seems influenced by a more interesting part of the world.

We were once informed that Men were from Mars and Women from Venus. These days it seems Munster look to South Africa but Leinster look to New Zealand. Their wonderful front five are as adept with ball in hand as they are at work in the engine room. No Irish sports team is more fun to watch.

Leinster have learned from last year's setbacks. They have been better in every way this season and have put together one of the great European campaigns. Their 100pc record in the group stages was achieved against the teams which currently lead the English Premiership, the French Top 14 and half of the PRO14. The reigning European champions were routed in the quarter-final and the PRO14 champs in the semi.

The road could not have been tougher or been made to look easier. Yet Leinster have managed to get better with every game. Something very special may be in store for us, and for Racing, in Bilbao.

Irish Independent

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