Friday 24 November 2017

Leinster's weakest links will be tested by Godzilla and Co

The champions have some key decisions to make if they want to retain the Heineken Cup, says Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The best that can be said for Friday night's 'Fever at the Aviva' was that it gave you a sensation of a coma without the worry and inconvenience.

The game was sullied by a referee who took instructions on the bureaucratic imperative. Pascal Gauzere was, in my estimation, a decent referee based on my experience of watching him in the Top 14. But he looked like a graduate from the Paddy O'Brien school of autocratic officiating and didn't really care about the thoughts, wishes or aspirations of either team, nor of the 48,500 people who paid hard cash to watch.

He refereed the breakdown at an irrevocable instant. For all of you over the course of the years who wanted to see the breakdown strictly refereed, well on Friday night you got your wish. There were 28 penalties awarded, nearly all for offences committed at the tackle scene. At every ruck a referee has a choice of awarding a penalty for something and Gauzere did just that. This had a retardant effect on the flow of the game and an anaesthetic effect on the crowd who were mute throughout most of the game.

It was rare that either side was able to get any kind of continuity past three phases. Gauzere was the prime reason, the secondary cause was due to the defensive excellence and speed of scramble when there was some kind of forward momentum. That said inventive creativity was at a premium.

Overall, the better team on the night won the match but you would have to ask questions about their ability to retain the Heineken Cup based on certain performances on display.

Leinster's tighthead and middle of the line jumper gave a display which would have you worried about whether they can replicate their unexpected forward dominance of last season. Mike Ross and Devin Toner are two physical extremes and the Corinthians and dreamers will tell you that it's great to have two physical specimens of their specific dimensions instead of homogeneous rugby league type 6' 3" stereotypes. There is a reason for that though. In life and in sport there are piano players and piano shifters, there are actors and extras, there are engineers and ditch diggers, and specifically in rugby there are runners and then there are fellas who clear out.

Neither Ross nor Toner are effective runners and yet they ended up in the first receiver position over a dozen times. In terms of taking on the ball as members of this Leinster pack, they are seventh and eighth respectively and how they managed to carry so much ball seemingly with the co-operation of their Leinster teammates is beyond me.

You wondered why Seán O'Brien and Cian Healy, splendid carriers throughout the night, weren't in a position to carry more. Surely a message could have come in from the sideline underlining the imperative that neither of them should carry would have been the most obvious ploy in a game of this intensity.

A season or two ago Ross looked like he had been poured into his Leinster jersey and somebody had forgotten to say 'when' but more recently Ross's body shape had improved as had his work-rate. On Friday night's evidence, there appeared to be a little bit more fudge on his sundae and it looks like he will have to lose another stone or two to be operating at the same efficiency rates that he was in the Heineken Cup and in the Six Nations.

Toner is a tremendous physical specimen who still probably hasn't realised how to utilise his never-ending levers to the maximum. We fully expect he will win his own lineout ball with ease but we wish he would be far more competitive on opposition throws, asking his ground crew to get him up quicker and make himself much more irritating as he gets his arms and body across the line. The point about having a big man as a runner is not for him to crumple to ground as soon as he comes into contact.

When you are 6' 10" you should have the ability, given your size and weight, to be able to take the tackle on your terms, stand tall absorb one or two tacklers and use your arms to put the ball in behind the tackler and pop it up for runners coming at angles. Going to ground is a waste of time. Anybody can do that.

It is obvious that the Leinster coaching ticket have put time and investment into Toner and his efficiency levels have improved too but there was one moment in the first quarter where Leinster, through Healy, had made good ground and Toner was the third player in to clear out. I had to look at it again on video just to confirm but the only player who was assisting the Munster tackler and attempting to pick the ball was Ronan O'Gara. Toner had time and space to come in and empty the Munster pivot as indeed a lot of Leinster runners managed to do over the course of the 80 minutes. Incredibly, Toner with his 20-odd stone was unable to clear O'Gara out of the ruck. You would have felt that with a bit of conviction even Michael D could have done it.

It is true that he had cleared effectively for some parts of the game but as this was in the Munster 22 and quick ball of the essence this is the difference between scoring tries and being ruthless and then being knocked back further down the line as the ball is won two or three seconds slower.

I am not privy to contract negotiations but I do not for the life of me understand why Nathan Hines wasn't afforded a one-year extension; he is one player who Leinster will really miss this year. Strong in all departments, not least in scrummaging, where Leinster was under pressure for most of Friday night. Hines did one thing brilliantly -- he had an amazing facility when on the ball to take tacklers in and offload exquisitely and intelligently to his best-placed runners while staying on his feet and sometimes doing it before the tackle. He could do this six or seven times a match and normally somebody like Richardt Strauss would be the beneficiary.

If the champions want to progress in the Heineken Cup decisions will have to be made about who carries the ball and what they want from their No 5. I still haven't seen Stephen Sykes play a full 80 and I'm not sure you could play Kevin McLaughlin against some of the stronger scrummaging packs in Europe.

Leinster did not score a try on Friday night primarily because Munster had a wrought-iron defence and given the referee's proclivity for blowing, it would have been interesting to see if Leinster were able to move that wrought gate around and advance into multi-phase. Munster slowed ball brilliantly and a lot of the times weren't pinged for lying on the wrong side but it was great to see Donnacha Ryan getting a proper shoeing in the 61st minute by Seán O'Brien for not rolling away quickly enough. The application of natural justice, and it was also good to see Monsieur Gauzere let it happen.

If Leinster are to succeed they will need to win away in their first match against Montpellier. They have an outsized pack that caused all sorts of trouble for some of the fancied sides on their way to the Top 14 final last year. Their best player is not Francois Trinh-Duc but the Georgian Mamuka Gorgodze. He is key. Stop him and you stop Montpellier. The name evokes something between a gorgon and Godzilla.

Defensively, Leinster's back row will have to be at the very top of their game and I would wonder how long it will be before Leinster decide to think about dropping Jamie Heaslip. Heaslip is still a long way off where he should be -- he has lost his mojo.

There are options -- moving Seán O'Brien to No 8 as he played brilliantly there in Heaslip's absence at the start of the year. Brian O'Driscoll's effortless grace was badly missed and you get the sense that had he been on the pitch instead of dispensing water Leinster might have converted one or two of their try-scoring chances. If he plays next Saturday Leinster will win.

PS: I was in the Aviva on Friday night but had to watch the recorded match on TG4. I just think it is ridiculous that a match of such importance is broadcast live only in Irish. I have no idea what the commentators or the analysts are saying and I have no idea whether they are any good or not and I suspect 99.5 per cent of the people who had to watch the match on that channel didn't either. If it was a case of TG4 having the money to pay for the rights, well why not sell them to to Al Jazeera who would have been able to come up with far more money for the Celtic League-Pro12 coffers -- at least there would be more people in Ireland who would understand what was being said in Arabic.

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