Sunday 15 September 2019

Tony Ward: Horror show leaves Leinster with mission impossible

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen speaking to media after the loss to Wasps. Cullen and his coaching team need the support of the fans more than ever
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen speaking to media after the loss to Wasps. Cullen and his coaching team need the support of the fans more than ever
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

What transpired at the RDS on Sunday was a disaster for Leinster rugby. However, following on from the mind-numbing horror of Paris and everything that meaningless loss of life entailed, it's easy to keep a sense of perspective.

No doubt, there are some who will say they saw this defeat coming. I certainly didn't.

Given the circumstances of players returning after World Cup duty, there was always that element of doubt, but only in relation to the result much more than the performance. That performance was, at best, as described by head coach Leo Cullen, "disjointed".

At worst, it represented a mishmash, comprising error upon error and going from bad to worse as the game progressed.

And that's without wishing to detract in any way from what was a thumping victory for Wasps, their best in Dublin since Lawrence Dallaglio, Rob Howley, Josh Lewsey and the rest got the better of Munster in an absolute classic semi-final just down the way in the then Lansdowne Road a little over a decade ago.

Wasps may not be the force they were back then, and this was certainly no classic, and that's where the real pain must lie in the post-match analysis for Leinster.

Wasps weren't spectacular but they were organised and efficient in defence, more patient in attack, more prudent in terms of kicking and Leinster couldn't cope.


Even after one game - with Bath away and Toulon twice in a fortnight next up - qualification from Pool 5, this season's Pool of Death, appears mission impossible for Leinster. You can bet Matt O'Connor was having a wry smile somewhere as last season's semi-finalists imploded.

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Poor kicking and passing contributed significantly to the home team losing its way. And while the opportunist try that turned it (by Christian Wade on the half hour) can be traced to individual error, specifically Dave Kearney, to blame everything on one slip-up would be a denial of the horror show that was building up to then.

Most disappointing of all was that when cool heads were needed they were marked absent and that included some 13 players just back from the World Cup.

Leinster have in place a young and inexperienced coaching team and it is now more than ever that Cullen, Girvan Dempsey, Kurt McQuilkin, Emmet Farrell et al need the unequivocal support of the true blue faithful.

There is no quick fix, but I would like to see a little bit of daring in selection. Of course, it is high risk when previously untried players are given their head but the case for initiating young players into the white heat of European battle is a strong one.

We are much too conservative in this country when it comes to giving youth its fling and professional rugby for all its benefits hasn't really advanced the 'old enough if good enough' principle one iota.

What about Tadhg Furlong at tight-head or Luke McGrath at scrum-half? Eoin Reddan has still much to offer in terms of impact and tempo off the bench but the time for an emerging talent like McGrath has surely arrived.

What about developing Noel Reid and Garry Ringrose, however lightweight, as a potential midfield pairing, at inside and outside centre? Why not Dave Kearney at full-back?

Of course, such selections have to be measured on a horses-for-courses basis and with Bath at the Rec next up I suspect the rationale for selection is more likely to centre on a visit to the last-chance saloon for many of those who were so poor against Wasps. But the overall point and message from the RDS is the need for a change in mindset.

It is at times like this that true Leinster support is needed more than ever. Jurgen Klopp's widely reported message to Liverpool fans ought have a resonance here.

For Munster, while no one is counting any chickens, there were definite signs of improvement through game management and control in trying conditions - albeit against the weakest team in the tournament by far.

The bonus point was essential and while always set to be difficult to accumulate given the prevailing conditions, it was hugely encouraging in the patient manner in which it was achieved.

Stade Francais will represent a different type of challenge entirely but on the back of the opening weekend results opportunity knocks for Munster to hit Stade Jean Bouin running and with confidence high.

In specific terms, the maul was back to the potent weapon it can be at critical times in critical matches.

CJ Stander continues to inspire as both leader and a dynamic, driving No 8. I don't buy into the three-year residency rule by which Richardt Strauss and Jared Payne have already qualified for Ireland but rest assured Joe Schmidt will exercise it come the Six Nations and the build-up to that competition.

Stander is in inspirational form, with the outstanding Jack O'Donoghue developing rapidly alongside.

From watching both he and Peter O'Mahony emerge through the U-20s, there are definite similarities in terms of talent and potential but with differing temperaments which in itself is no bad thing when O'Mahony is back fit and firing for selection.

Stander may well end up as an alternative six or even seven a level up but certainly for Munster he is proving inspirational in the pivotal No 8 role. He could hardly have a better mentor than his current head coach.

Beyond that, and I stress it is still very early days yet, the addition of Francis Saili alongside Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo (Gerhard van den Heever, Gonzalez Amorosino and Ronan O'Mahony too) makes for exciting attacking possibilities more appropriate to rugby the All Black way.

High standards yes but equally high expectations.

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