Monday 16 September 2019

Jim Glennon: Magnificent achievement, but the questions still linger for Leinster

Semi-final gives Leinster chance for a radical shift from what's gone before, writes Jim Glennon

Rob Kearney, Leinster, is tackled by Horacio Agulla, left, and Anthony Watson, Bath
Rob Kearney, Leinster, is tackled by Horacio Agulla, left, and Anthony Watson, Bath

Jim Glennon

My only daughter and her new husband deprived me and several of their wedding guests of the excitement of Leinster's Champions Cup quarter-final victory over Bath last Saturday.

I had to rely on sporadic updates and Sunday's reaction from Brendan Fanning and Neil Francis before belatedly catching up with the game itself. However unspectacular it may have been to those watching live, it was even less of a spectacle on Tuesday night.

Six semi-finals in seven seasons is a magnificent achievement and illustrates the level to which the Leinster operation has stepped up over the past decade.

Bath, with the familiar figure of Peter Stringer in their midst, are the embodiment - with the likes of the French powerhouses of Toulon and Racing Metro - of the new structures and power bases of European club rugby, even if the use of the word 'club' is something of a misnomer. Giants of English rugby in the 1980s and '90s, they have re-emerged on the back of a creative and entertaining game-plan, under former Ireland defence coach Mike Ford.

On the other hand, Leinster's more workmanlike style under Matt O'Connor has been a topic of discussion and, presumably, a minor irritant, at the very least, to the coach, his staff, and his squad. Still, most of their competitors would gladly swap their current position with Leinster's and even if they haven't been illuminating games, they nonetheless remain in contention for ultimate honours in the Pro12 league and take their place in the last four of what is probably the toughest ever European competition.

I have said countless times that a win is a win is a win. If style is temporary and class permanent, so also is winning essential and entertainment a bonus. Results dictate success or failure and provide the evidence upon which the professional reputations of players, coaches and backroom staff alike are constructed; methodology is secondary. While every team, in any sport, develops its own indigenous and identifiable culture, no team or coach should be bound by the acts of their predecessors. The object of professional sport, aside from commercial success, is victory - it's the yardstick on which the entire set-up will be judged, and their careers assessed.

Much of the criticism is misplaced in my view. The demeanour of both Leinster playing and coaching staff over the last number of months in many of their public dealings with the press have been defensive, with all concerned attempting to justify the style of play and quality of performances. Occasionally, too, the coach has bemoaned, at times with justification, the constraints placed on him by the IRFU's player welfare system - although one wonders if going public with his frustrations would further his cause - while at other times his players have defended their coach and accepted responsibility for the performances.

Many would say that Leinster fans have been spoiled in recent years by the sustained success achieved by Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt, as well as the Pro12 title in O'Connor's first season in charge, and that they should be happy to find themselves still contending on two fronts.

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The quarter-final was billed as a contest between the exciting and creative Bath, led by the excellent George Ford at outhalf, with little to lose in their attempt to topple the controlling and pragmatic hosts. The general consensus was that Leinster would win, with control ultimately suffocating creativity; the consensus prediction was proved right - the result was a positive one, but the questions linger for the victors. Ahead of the quarter-final - which had been billed in some quarters as a possible arm-wrestle - a prominent former Leinster player raised the pertinent question as to why this should be so, in view of the depth of quality throughout the squad, but selection, particularly of the midfield axis, and even allowing for the horrendous injury list earlier in the season, has been questionable at times. Also, some of the major signings of recent seasons, notably Zane Kirchner and Kane Douglas, have yet to fulfil their potential. Under Cheika and Schmidt, signings such as Elsom, Nacewa, Thorne and Hines proved to be catalysts for success; recent recruitment, albeit in a much tougher market place, has failed to deliver similar dividends.

Notwithstanding the primacy of winning, another issue for those with the best interests of Leinster rugby at heart is whether the coach is currently extracting the maximum from his players and, on this point, it's more difficult to defend him.

I may be proven wrong, but, having somehow hung in to remain standing in both competitions, the semi-final in Montpellier against defending champions and treble-chasing Toulon is an unlikely opportunity for a radical departure from what's gone before this season.

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