Sunday 19 August 2018

Neil Francis: Semi-final told us something in definitive terms - if Carbery joins Munster his career will be over

24 April 2018; Head coach Leo Cullen, left, with Joey Carbery during Leinster Rugby squad training at Rosemount in UCD, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
24 April 2018; Head coach Leo Cullen, left, with Joey Carbery during Leinster Rugby squad training at Rosemount in UCD, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

If I were fierce and bald and short of breath,

I'd live with scarlet Majors on the Base,

And speed glum heroes up to the line of death.

You'd see me with my puffy petulant face,

Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,

Reading the Roll of Honour "Poor young chap",

I'd say - "I used to know his father well;

Yes, we've lost heavily in this last scrap."

And when the war is done and youth stone dead,

I'd toddle safely home and die - in bed.

Siegfried Sassoon

The season really should have ended two weeks ago but we are still at it. They should have got Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and George Orwell (Animal Farm) to do a collaboration on the never-ending season.

The more successful you are the more you are pushed to the brink. This is the month of the fatigue injury - all of the players left in the final stages of any professional competition in Europe are riding the line between fatigue and flightiness, confidence and delusion.

It is a state of mind and body where "once more into the breach dear friends, once more" has lost its meaning. Fatigue endurance is, I suppose, part of a champion's diet but when the final whistle blows this Saturday the overriding emotion will be relief rather than joy.

"Player welfare, my dear boy", as the scarlet majors would say.

Speaking of Scarlets - Llanelli are probably just as bushed as Leinster. It is important to remember that they provided the bulk of the Welsh team in the Six Nations and November.

They have only played one game fewer in the Champions Cup and here they are at the finish once again - same time, same place.

How poor were Glasgow? They were chasing shadows and it was easy to gauge how far off the pace they were. They lost their last two matches of the regular season and had to wait three weeks to get going again - when they took the field they belatedly learned, the hard way, that sometimes it is better to just keep going.

If the organisers asked Leinster would they like to hold off for another week to recover the answer would be 'no, let's do this now.'

To get a feel for how the final will go maybe it's a good idea to look back over the last week or so.

Leinster were missing their best and most influential players last Saturday. I figure that even though the scoreboard said it was a one-point game - the difference between the sides was still substantial.

If James Lowe had scored in the corner it was 17-3 and the brave and the faithful, rather like last year when they conceded 46 points to Scarlets, could have unfurled the white flag.

Leinster played without Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Dan Leavy and Robbie Henshaw, and only got short shifts from Isa Nacewa and Scott Fardy. Leinster's core had one arm tied behind their back.

Sexton is obviously Leinster's supremo in terms of ability and influence but the guy next to him is Fardy.

In the helter-skelter of the last two minutes in Bilbao, three players stood out defensively - Jack Conan who was fresh, James Ryan who was not and Fardy who also had put in a savage shift. In the last two minutes all three put in devastating tackles.

Racing were using triple pods to get going forward which makes it hard to make an accurate tackle and stop the ball-carrier dead on the line.

You could see Fardy think his way through the tackle - you could bet your house on the result, Racing would still be there now trying to get close to the line.

When Fardy starts for Leinster they are far more accurate and decisive at the breakdown. The Australian only played 17 minutes against Munster and his influence previously had been sorely missed.

He out-played Aaron Shingler in the Champions Cup semi and I suspect he will do so again.

It is not surprising that Tadhg Furlong has had a mini dip in form given the sort of season he has had.

He had a decent first half in the final and a thunderous first 20 last week but then he tapered off.

The body shape is old school and it's hard to maintain his excellence throughout the whole season. Even his sensational hands and skill levels are off a bit - he looks like a tired man.

Samson Lee and Rob Evans looked a million dollars in Scotstoun; the Welsh loosehead popping up inside Steff Evans after 60 metres for a fantastic try.

Furlong and Cian Healy need to put in a dynamic and consistent 60 minutes. If Furlong had continued his form from the first 15 minutes against Munster he could have won the match on his own.

It is the fervent wish of every Leinster supporter that Nacewa gets to play in the final in his last game for the province. If he is any way close to being fit he will surely start. Nobody has really emphasised what a huge loss he will be for Leinster next season. The Leinster back-line purrs with him in it.

In the Matt O'Connor era Leinster forgot how to pass the ball - Nacewa wasn't around then. The talisman pops up again and hey presto - maybe it's just a coincidence. He is a team player and one of the most natural footballers I have seen. His crucial interventions in big games over the last decade can't be underestimated.

After the semi-final Simon Zebo got all the headlines. How cruel Joe Schmidt has been - you do the crime you pay the time! It's funny how Donnacha Ryan knows what the deal is and is just getting on with it.

Zebo isn't going to Australia and won't be going to Japan. If he is going to Paris for the money - stay for the money. Even if he comes back to play for Munster again the world will have moved on.

The semi-final also told you something in definitive terms - if Joey Carbery leaves Leinster to go to Munster his career will be over.

Munster have a unique style of play and over the course of the last 10 years they have tried to change it by attempting to play an expansive game. If you had Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Zebo in your back-three why wouldn't you?

It is a matter of regret that Munster can't play the game like Scarlets, Glasgow or Leinster. They don't have the vision, the system or the skills.

Why ask Carbery to come down, ask him to play his natural game, then realise it doesn't suit Munster and mid-season ask him to change his style? It would be like putting a turbo-booster in a Zetor tractor.

Last Saturday showed what Munster can and cannot do. In the first half when Munster were attacking in Leinster's half, Rory Scannell threw a long, looping pass that was six or seven metres forward. That pass told a story.

Conway may or may not have been the intended recipient of that pass but he was in the line waiting for the ball.

He turned to his centre and you don't need to be able to lip sync to know what he thought.

Under no pressure and off the right hand it is difficult to actually throw a pass that badly.

Munster probably thought they could catch Leinster short with some long passing to the wide outside - good thinking Batman but you have got to be able to pass properly to do it.

Munster have scored 78 tries in the PRO14 - their pressure game works. Borrowing a passing out-half from Leinster isn't going to suit either party.

Passing will be the name of the game this Saturday. It could be the best game of the season - a passing extravaganza. If Scarlets keep their sharpness and intensity they will win. If Leinster park their fatigue until Sunday it's theirs.

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