Saturday 20 October 2018

Neil Francis: It would be really nice for Leinster to f**k Toulon's season up

Luke Fitzgerald is tackled by Toulon’s Matt Giteau last Sunday as some of the visitors looked elusive in the backline but lacked the support runners. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Luke Fitzgerald is tackled by Toulon’s Matt Giteau last Sunday as some of the visitors looked elusive in the backline but lacked the support runners. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Some of you may not know how the term 'ladyboy' came into being in the Leinster vernacular.

It was a self-deprecatory jibe aimed at myself and more specifically at some oestrogen-laden outside backs who had somehow contrived to leak tries in a Heineken Cup third-round pool match against a truly awful Border Reivers outfit.

We won the game 35-24 but it was more memorable for their dainty defensive performance.

The Leinster team headed back to Edinburgh that night and we went out for a few 'relaxers'. Edinburgh is a great town but the Scots tend to close up early - far too early - and at 12.45 a few of us were walking around looking for a nightcap when we chanced upon a little cabaret bar down a side alley off Rose Street.

A touring troupe of Thai Ladyboys were touring Europe doing a cabaret extravaganza. The bar was open, the show was in full swing and the boys/girls were fully deserving of our patronage. But hang on . . . there was a problem at the door. Blue blazers with harps on the pockets, polyester ties and grey slacks - this was not the type of customer they wanted or the appropriate dress code and so entry was refused.

Reassurances that we would sit in the corner and mind our own business didn't cut it either. I had managed to walk/talk my way halfway down the hall when I was met by someone about one-third of my size. They put their shoulder into my hip, pushed me five metres back through the door and out on to the street again.


It was all very good-humoured but there was legitimacy in the question as to whether he/she would consider playing for Leinster in our three-quarter line against Pau the following Saturday. Ladyboys indeed!

Leinster gave a very red-blooded, masculine, testosterone-charged, John Wayne-like performance last Sunday.

It is one of the things about sport, it is almost a code: you know the chances are that you will lose to Toulon, but unless you put your body in the line of fire you know that humiliation awaits. A thankless task for all the effort. It was though a determined effort, dripping with overtones of obstinacy.

Leinster made 149 of their 164 tackles for 93pc efficiency. At the Stade Felix Mayol, that's a pretty good defensive effort. Toulon stated quite rightly that they just couldn't get going as a result of Leinster's effort.

Conversely, offensively Leinster were unable to trouble Toulon. Yes, there was slow ball and massed ranks of tacklers but a number of individuals in blue looked flinty and elusive in the backline. That was the problem. They were individuals.

When a half-break came or some fancy footwork created a gap, there was no-one who could capitalise on the introduction from the ball carrier. The support players weren't exactly statues but they seemed to be leaning against the wall as the dance went on.

Leinster have scored one try in three pool matches. In a compacted tournament where four weaker sides were left out of the competition, leaving the show much tighter and more competitive, yet there has been a proliferation of try bonus-point victories, Ulster's being the best of them.

For Leinster, not only one solitary try but the number of red zone opportunities have been paltry.

In the Pro12, Connacht have 27 tries in the bag, Leinster have a meagre 16, a goodly portion of them coming from forwards. When Connacht have scored 11 more tries than you, it may be time to sit down and think through your shortcomings.

That will be Leinster's problem going forward. The bar was set so high over the last six or seven years where they had an all-purpose game with a square-jawed, bloody-minded and aggressive pack of forwards and a really sweet, fluent and intelligent set of backs. They could flick a switch whenever the feeling took them.

Whatever could be said about the Ladyboy backlines of yore, well they could run the ball really well, they had a practised playbook and they could cut defences to pieces. They could be dangerous with flat or deep alignment and their support runners always knew which lines to run and, more importantly, when.

The quality in this Leinster backline is still quite high and most of those players have been playing in backlines that have cut their opposition to shreds. In the past! But not now!

Yes, defences are more sophisticated, organised and hard-nosed from even three or four years ago. I think coaches and, more appropriately, Leinster's coaches have to find the touch-paper again. I said it a few weeks ago that the term 'winning ugly' is a metaphor for 'we've run out of ideas'.

I know I slagged David Knox off when he was here with Michael Cheika - Knoxy was a free spirit and one of a kind and you would never put him in as head coach of a team, but as an ideas guy, visionary, a 'why not?' person and a catalyst, he really did stoke the imagination of Leinster's backline eight or nine years ago.

Matt O'Connor's influence on the Leinster backline has had a retardant effect and Girvan Dempsey will have to work quickly to unravel it. There is still enough quality there to be a potent force.

It does go without saying that any backline is hostage to what sort of ball the pack provides for it. Leinster's pack did okay last Sunday. Good at tight and I suppose a special mention for the back-row, who played well and in concert.

But I looked back on my notes over the match and I used the words 'stupid' or 'dumb' eight times. Some of the penalties conceded were so needless that if the franchise said "we are not going to pay you this week" the players who gave away the stupid penalties would reflect and probably concur that they couldn't argue with the idea.

Cian Healy is now heading into dangerous territory. Far too often in big games he gets binned or makes needless concessions at vital times. Sure, Guilhem Guirado had rolled on to Leinster's side of the ruck and sure he would make a meal out of getting up slowly, ensuring that any Leinster rucker going through the gate would find it difficult to shift that ruck. Healy was right to be vigorous with him but wrong in the manner in how he did it.

None of Leinster's yellow cards came about from pressure applied by Toulon; they came about from stupidity by experienced players who should know that three sets of 10 minutes in the bin will cost your side the game in the Felix Mayol.

I think Leinster's pack have a bit more to give and if they are clever will trouble Toulon this Saturday. A little bit of adventure and purpose from their backs would help as well.

The match in the Aviva on Saturday is now more about the diaspora coming home for Christmas and a big social get-together in Dublin where everyone meets up for the game.

It would, though, be really nice to f**k Toulon's season up. A random act of defiance for Christmas would be just the job.

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