Friday 27 April 2018

Neil Francis: Blues were lucky but expect them to push on

This was the worst European showing for a long time

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

No feeble capitulation. Castres had picked their strongest team and had come to play. Leinster, missing their customary predatory instincts and lacking that ineffable something, produced their worst performance in this competition for a long time.

They have eight points and Leinster supporters may be content with that – then again some people want to have their luck buttered. The team in blue were very lucky that they got out of this arm wrestle with a win. Yet if they had decided to engage in the first 30 minutes and do the simple things, maybe Castres would have rolled over. You sensed at 9-0 that they would have been quite happy to do so but Leinster fluffed their lines and, as the tempo stuttered, Leinster still tried to play this game as if they would win with contemptuous ease.

For such a good player, Sean Cronin is a monocle and a Persian cat away from being the villain of the piece. There is so much good about his contribution in every game but yesterday he alone got his side into trouble. Leinster were looking to go through the gears after they had sculpted a 9-0 lead. All it would require would be perfunctory ball at set-piece and then the ability to go a couple of phases at pace. Cronin threw a second crooked ball in after the 21st minute and then managed to sell his jumpers short when he did manage to get it straight.

But the key to sending Castres home with a big margin on the scoreboard came in the 29th minute and it came at scrum time. At least Leinster were trying to play by the rules.

Referees have been told to come down hard on halves who feed their second-row. Most serious teams comply with this and feed the scrum straight and this is what Isaac Boss did. Cronin didn't get a clean strike on the first attempt and with his second attempt stabbed the ball clean out of the tunnel. Boss got caught trying to rescue it and Castres swept down the field. The neglect and the poor execution were unforgivable on a scrum five metres from the Castres line and it gave the French side encouragement. This was the moment Leinster should have chosen to utterly emasculate them. Instead of hope vanishing over the horizon with her arse on fire, the French along with a few South Africans and South Sea Islanders were fortified – not by their own resilience but by Leinster's ineptitude.

Only minutes later Leinster tried to recover themselves 40 yards from their own line. They got a legal mini wheel on and a good drive but Antonie Claasen extricated the ball adroitly from the retreating scrum and found Kevin McLaughlin still stuck to the advancing Leinster scrum. He took off down the left wing and timed his pass perfectly so that McFadden was caught between the two. Rory Kockott accepted the feed and strode into the left-hand corner to score a try and get back into the game – something that they had been threatening to do while Leinster were faffing around waiting for their set-piece to work properly. Kockott got the conversion and it was game on.

Suddenly Castres were getting men into the air at lineout time and defending their ball better at the breakdown and chasing their kicks with real intent. At this stage you needed Zeus to come down from Mount Olympus to show Leinster what needed to be done. Unfortunately, he was in the stand injured. Leinster's passing was poor, never to hand and never in front of its intended receiver and the only time that they made it stick was when they scored.

Eoin Reddan for the second week in a row found himself on the bench, which must have been disappointing for him. Boss had a mediocre game and was replaced after 47 minutes. One of the things you cannot question is Reddan's resilience. As Castres attacked down the right, Devin Toner put in yet another tackle on his opposite number Christophe Samson – the quality of the tackle wasn't especially great but Samson's body position made it difficult for him to recycle. Reddan, six stone lighter and eight inches shorter, went in and ripped the ball from the French second-row. As the ball popped out, he actually managed to pick it up and to pass it again to Quinn Roux and he did the smart thing by immediately transferring it to Sean O'Brien, who bulldozed for about a dozen metres. The clean was quick and suddenly something was on.

If you can't win your own set-piece, quick turnover ball from one quick recycle will do. Even though the passing was far from fluent, Dave Kearney got away and their option-taking was poor and it seemed on the day that was in it that they would mess this opportunity up too – until Jack McGrath went the direct route and took Claasen and Karena Wihongi with him over the line. The game was far from over at that stage and Jamie Heaslip extended a little bit of charity as he inexplicably knocked on from the kick off. He made 13 direct tackles for Leinster but he was asleep from that particular kick-off.

Then came the moment when the new rules had to be observed. Leinster's scrum was under pressure because they had to strike for the ball. In the Top 14, they are still feeding it into the second-row and Julian Thomas right in front of the referee fed it crooked and got pinged for that and shrugged his shoulders and gave some verbals. So the referee warned him that if he did it again it would be a yellow card. In the 70th minute, with at least a bonus point still on the cards Thomas did it again and got binned and that was that.

Hopefully this is Leinster's poor performance out of the way. They always manage one sub-par performance in the pool stages. They were awful yesterday and were lucky to be able to close the game out with a weak bench. Whenever I see Michael Bent and Quinn Roux on the paddock, I get nervous. Luke Fitzgerald did look sharp though and when O'Driscoll, Ross, Cullen and Kirchner return, Leinster will be a handful and I would back them to beat Northampton home and away.

Jimmy Gopperth wasn't as assured as he was against the Ospreys and hopefully Ian Madigan can recover his brio. His benching was a significant kick in the conkers for him but I think it will spur him on and he could use the international series to kick start his season. Hopefully the Ospreys, who are very much still in this competition, can do a bit of damage to Castres because on yesterday's performance Leinster won't be coming out of the Stade Pierre-Antoine with too many points.

Sunday Independent

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