Thursday 23 May 2019

Neil Francis: 'Jerome Garces howlers gave Saracens the edge but Leinster let this one slip from their grasp'

 

Garry Ringrose had some uncharacteristic errors in the European Cup final. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose had some uncharacteristic errors in the European Cup final. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Early last Sunday morning I met Doddie Weir for breakfast in Gateshead just above the river Tyne. In his presence there was just this breathtaking sense of humanity. A giant in many senses of the word, his ability to calmly articulate his motor neurone disease condition left me feeling ever so slightly inadequate.

The prevailing sense of gloom after Leinster's defeat in St James' Park was parked a long way down the list of life's meaningful hierarchies - the match barely got a mention. Given Weir's predicament, it seems incongruous that players were willing to put their lives at risk for a nickel-plated bauble. If ever you needed perspective on something…

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The 10-minute taxi ride back to my hotel took 30 minutes as I engaged with a stout and devout Brexiteer - both of us convinced that we had won the argument by a mile.

I could have the same argument with a Saracens supporter - 20-10 tells you that there is no argument to be had but when Leinster reflect they will kick themselves and Jerome Garces too. Despite Saracens' size and power, this game was eminently winnable - even on the day.

En route to the stadium very few Leinster supporters I met had any sense of optimism and many told me so after the game - but many are looking at what happened on TV and are changing their minds.

You knew you were on the 'mainland' when you saw the heavy security presence - a huge amount of police on the day carrying heavy weapons, machine guns and flak jackets. There was a police sniper on the roof of the Sandman Hotel which overlooks St James' Park. I trained my binoculars on him yet could scarcely believe my eyes. I never thought I'd see the day when there were snipers at rugby games.

If I could have done a deal with him to wing one of the Saracens players, Brad Barritt would have been a long way down the list. The 'man of the match' award is a pretty nebulous concept - a subjective view, one man's opinion on who was the most influential or important player on the pitch.

The first loser on the day was not Leinster but the decision not to award Billy Vunipola the 'man of the match' award even before a ball was kicked - that stinks. Couldn't have that awful man pick up two consecutive 'man of the match' awards after all he had said and done.

Vincent Koch was good, Jackson Wray was very good, George Kruis was outstanding but big Billy was a force of nature. Vunipola's bullet 30-metre pass in the last 15 while acting as scrum-half from the lineout was just incredible. Get the sniper to wing him and Leinster would definitely have won.

Leinster were the dominant team for the first 50 minutes and should really have been a good deal further ahead but two poor decisions by Garces cost them dearly. Garces is a vastly experienced referee and yet he got hoodwinked in the 40th minute by an old trick which in truth was patented by Leinster.

Nobody complains when Ireland or Leinster go bald-headed for an additional score as the game is going into the red because they normally pick up some points in that period. Luke McGrath's box-kick was not a blight on his performance; he was just complying with company policy.

Where Leinster got done was in Rob Kearney's actions. Kearney chased, competed and tackled very effectively and was the only blue player in the ruck as the tackler from the box-kick. Leinster's full-back genuinely tried to get out of the way but was held down in the ruck by Kruis. Nigel would have copped it immediately and told the Sarries players to stop playing for the penalty. Belatedly, Garces gets suckered into awarding Sarries a penalty, Farrell gets it close to Leinster's line and the rest is history.

Leinster were really good for the first 10 minutes of the second half and they put huge pressure on Saracens close to the line. Tadhg Furlong got close but got stripped by Kruis metres from the line. Furlong has a habit of getting strip-sacked in vital situations - this is by no means the first time it has happened and he may want to revise how he carries the ball close in.

Leinster came back and got close again in the 47th minute but again their passing let them down and Garry Ringrose got caught square with Jordan Larmour outside him. Liam Williams made the hit but it was what he did afterwards which rankled.

Williams did not disengage from the tackle when he made it and he went for the ball and played it when he was off his feet and then when he could not possibly have supported his body weight he made a steal/turnover. Three penalties in five seconds and he gets away with them all.

Brian O'Driscoll described it as "majestic" in his commentary; he was half-right, it was majestically illegal. It was a penalty and most likely a yellow card. Garces signalled play on and Saracens rode their luck again this time illegally. That stop and turnover gave Saracens huge encouragement and set them up for the match. The penalty count finished 10-6 against Saracens but they could have been pinged for a lot more. It was those two moments that set Saracens up for the match.

It was, however, where Leinster ceded the initiative without Mr Garces' interventions that troubled me. Ringrose has plenty of credit in the bank and is one of Leinster's best passing players - even off his left hand. Ringrose's pass in midfield to Jack Conan in the 37th minute to cede Saracens a penalty was probably the worst pass he has delivered in his burgeoning career. It was awful!

Ringrose, under no pressure, inexplicably lofted one out to Conan in open space. The Leinster No 8 is normally lethal in those outfield situations. Instead of the pass arriving in the bread basket, Conan had to jump two feet into the air and catch it head high with bent arms.

When Conan came back to earth, Alex Lozowski was waiting for him, primed and low and he knocked him back three metres. Conan was defenceless and had to take his punishment. If the pass had gone at hip height and in front to Conan, he would have had the time to work some footwork and bounce Lozowski and get a pass away and put Leinster's dangerous outside backs running. Instead Leinster are retreating and eventually Johnny Sexton gets snotted by Kruis and Leinster concede a very cheap three points.

I would suggest a heavy emphasis on Leinster's passing skills during the summer. They might also look at how the Canterbury Crusaders deal with big, powerful, heavy South African sides. They cut them to pieces with the accuracy and speed of their passes. Leinster could do it a few seasons ago but need to rediscover the skill.

Leinster can deal with monster sides like Saracens and Racing but need to concentrate on their skills more than their bosh tactics.

Saracens only really bullied them when they got ahead in the last 15 but they never took Leinster's lunch money. This one could have been very different.

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