Neil Francis: Leinster need to urgently address their mental failings
After 47 minutes of some pretty good rugby last weekend at the RDS, Leinster had a choice. The Ospreys had unfurled a Daz-whitened flag and had come to the halfway line to parley for terms of surrender.
It was 31-0 to the home side, bonus point in the bag and their hand on the throat of a team that has consistently inconvenienced them over the last decade. The dagger is out of the scabbard and the blade is pressing against flesh - tighten the shoulder and follow through - no mercy - especially for the Ospreys.
There is one indisputable particle of certainty about Leinster and that is their mental failing to really smoke a good side when they have the opportunity. There was 35 minutes to play and Leinster chose to stop playing. One or two stop playing and, like a team of mountaineers all roped together, they all end up at the bottom of the mountain. Leinster, and indeed Ireland, have brought not playing for 25 or 30 minutes at a time to a fine art these days - it has to stop.
The prophets tell us that nothing is won or lost in September. It is very difficult to be consistent throughout the whole season but if you are serious about winning and progressing, there are certain things that you must observe. Pick and choose your moments and your matches. Simple things - when you are the better team and you are winning the match, make sure you do! Conversely give your opponents nothing.
Leinster know that Ospreys will be in the shake-up come April and May. They usually are. So if you play well and get a four-try bonus point - well, just ensure that points-wise it finishes at 5-0 for the game. Give the Ospreys nothing. What happened late in the game was hard to believe. Proof positive that you have to sweat the small stuff.
Leinster from 47 minutes had gone to lunch and they started to leak tries. Ben John got one in the 53rd minute. Dafydd Howells got another one in the 72nd. Leinster are tackling like a bunch of tipsy debutantes and two minutes later James King gets another easy try. There are six or seven minutes left on the clock at this stage and Ospreys at the very least can get a bonus point for four tries and a bonus point for being within seven points of their opponents. The way Leinster are performing Ospreys could conceivably win the match.
The last two minutes of the game were educational. The question I am asking is - who is doing the thinking?
As the clock runs Leinster have a lineout in the Ospreys 22. James Tracy, about to throw the ball into the lineout, has the look of a man who can't remember whether he left the stove on after he left the house. The ball set for Rhys Ruddock is short and picked off by Alun Wyn Jones. The Ospreys have a last chance. They won't win the game but to come out of the RDS with two points given what happened in the first half - well, that's a handy night's work.
Dafydd Howells knocks on in his own 22 with 15 seconds left. The game is over - all Leinster have to do is feed their impressive scrum - go one phase and kick it out. We must remember at this stage that Johnny Sexton has been in the bin and it has been 14 men against Ospreys' 15 - a result of continuous defensive indiscipline. Remember also that you don't get any additional bonus points for scoring a fifth try.
Leinster go open and recycle the ball through Ruddock. At this stage the referee Marius Mitrea clearly calls 'Time Up' as the clock goes red. Get the ball off the park and apologise to the faithful that there was no endgame flourish.
A few recycles later and Mitrea at 80.24 calls 'Time Up' again. If I could hear him, well I'm sure most of the Leinster players could too. After doing precisely nothing for 35 minutes quite why Leinster felt the need to get another try was beyond me.
Leinster are 10 metres out and Mike Ross gets on the ball. He is pinged for holding on. Mitrea, after being ignored twice, decides to make a game of it and suddenly from close to their own line the Ospreys are off. They have enough quality and nous to have a real go and they make very easy progress to the halfway line. Leinster belatedly realise their folly and a couple of individuals make big tackles but off their own conviction - not on team ethic.
The ball gets out to the right hand side and Howells has space and only one man to beat in the Leinster back-field. The pass from Josh Matavesi was needlessly forward and Howells never gets the chance to chip the last man or feed inside to his support runners with Leinster's line breached.
Ospreys didn't get the score but that doesn't mean there shouldn't be a stewards' enquiry - or is this sort of unthinking performance allowed in the early season? It is just September after all.
It depends on how ruthless you want to be. If they really wanted to, Leinster could have put 50 points on their bitter rivals but characteristically they chose to stop playing and in the same sort of slipshod manner could just as fecklessly have given away two points. If you look at how the regular season finished last season, Leinster 73, Connacht 73 and Glasgow on 72. Two points is the difference between a home semi-final and an away one.
In the course of this season and no more than the Heineken Cup, the table will turn on simple points lost and won - particularly bonus points. It is symptomatic of Leinster's decline over the last few seasons that nobody on or off the field is sharp enough to work out the angles in the crucial moments of the last five minutes.
Leinster have had their playmaker off the park in the bin for the last ten minutes of the match. They are down in their opponents' 22 but can't win any better than what is already on the scoreboard.
The Ospreys can get two points from a breakaway try. The clock is in red - kick the ball off the park and shake hands.
The clumsy finishes Leinster had last season and the naivety shown in the close-out of last Friday night's game do not bode well. All the good of the first 47 minutes was undone by what followed.
Leinster's fixture list for the next four games are all knife-edge games. Munster had their own problems last week finishing off weaker opponents. Maybe neither side will be as loose in 10 days' time when they meet.
We are at a stage in the season already where 80-minute performances are now mandatory in addition to the clear-sighted realisation that you give your opponents nothing.