Monday 21 January 2019

Neil Francis: Joe Schmidt has missed a trick by omitting pass-master Luke McGrath

I can’t, for the life of me, understand how Kieran Marmion and John Cooney get to go to Australia ahead of Leinster’s Luke McGrath (pictured). Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
I can’t, for the life of me, understand how Kieran Marmion and John Cooney get to go to Australia ahead of Leinster’s Luke McGrath (pictured). Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A lot of rugby to absorb last weekend. The game at the Aviva, however, was the one to watch and admire. Two skilful teams playing the game beautifully. If there were three PRO14 teams in the Champions Cup semi-finals, am I wrong in saying that the PRO14 is where it's at?

What we saw was real - it was relevant because the skill levels were too much for any other side in Europe. If Saracens or Exeter turned up outside the Aviva for one last go, they would have been sent packing by Leinster or Scarlets. The PRO14 is real.

In the U Arena last Saturday something happened which confirmed what I have just said. In the last play of the Top 14 semi-final, Racing were losing 14-19 to a Castres side who are not really a***d about the Champions Cup but are marvellously competitive when it comes to the Top 14.

They beat Toulouse 23-13 away from home - but the rugby world sensed that the trip to Paris would be a journey too far.

As the hooter sounded, Racing were hammering down the door looking for the winning try. They had previously been called back on tries which were adjudged forward passes.


Five metres from the line and Wenceslas Lauret goes forward in a triple pod like the ones we saw in Bilbao. The ball is sitting up like a freshly laid egg. Cedate Gomes Sa couldn't resist it and he came in and tried to pick and go.

That is the problem with crash-test dummies when the line is within sniffing distance - they can't resist it. The big lug knocked it on - game over! A bunch of Sunday drivers had just won the Monaco Grand Prix. If you were asked to pick a composite team you wouldn't pick one Castres player in the Racing side.

What does this loss illustrate? Well for Leinster, it's a reflection of their mental strength and it demonstrates what is required to do the double. Racing at home, with pretty much the same team that played in Bilbao, just didn't have the mental or spiritual fortitude to press on from the big day in Spain.

Yes, they lost the European final, but it was there for them to pick up a fairly tasty consolation prize - the Bouclier de Brennus. It would take a tad more than just turning up to do it as Castres would be difficult opponents.

The semi-finals in their respective leagues emphasised, in a stark manner, the difference between Leinster and Racing.

Munster travelled up to Dublin to play the newly crowned European champions spitting resentment and harbouring ill will. The semi-final would be horribly tricky. Leinster got the job done because losing wasn't an option.

Elsewhere, Racing floundered. How can you reconcile this Racing side with the one that took the field in Bilbao? Jackals to Jackasses within two weeks. Winning one final is one thing, but getting back up to win a second shows that Leinster are made of the right stuff.

One other thing that differentiates Leinster from Racing was what the French side did in the Top 14 semi-final. They threw the ball around and scored a hatful of tries - although quite a few were called back.

It underscored the mindset of Racing's thinking in the European final. The rationale behind the dogfight was simple: Racing believed Leinster were far too good for them. That is why they opted for the arm wrestle. It didn't work. They were quite happy to throw the ball around against Castres. It didn't work either.

This is what has evolved, my friends. A French team with heritage and tradition of running rugby didn't have the courage to play against a far more skilful Irish side.

The standard in the PRO14 is better and will get better incrementally every year as more of the PRO14 adapt and adopt the Leinster, Scarlets and Glasgow style.

Leinster's class and resilience brought them to the top of the food chain. And so, to the victors the spoils. Well, most of the spoils.

There were many big performances for Leinster in their last three games of the season. Up at the top of the list was Luke McGrath.

He was unfortunate to miss the Grand Slam and lucky to get back in time for the finals. McGrath outplayed Teddy Iribaren, Conor Murray and Gareth Davies in all those matches.

The Leinster No 9 gave a performance of measured calm and intelligence against Scarlets. I think his pass has improved to the point that he is the best passer in the league.

Yes, that means he is a better passer than Murray but is still behind the Munster man in his overall game, although he is catching up rapidly.

Maybe McGrath's ankle is not right but there are quite a number of players travelling to Australia who are a long way off being 100 per cent fit. I can't, for the life of me, understand how Kieran Marmion and John Cooney get to go to Australia ahead of him. Sometimes even Joe gets it wrong.

If you managed to watch another game last weekend, the Waratahs played the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton. Brodie Retallick was simply sensational in the second row.

There was nothing that he couldn't do. If you remember when Ireland beat the All Blacks in Chicago, Retallick and Sam Whitelock were watching the game. Jerome Kaino and Patrick Tuipulotu were in the second row that day. No need for an asterisk to be put beside the result. It is, however, the difference between New Zealand and the rest.

Their two second-rows do so much damage in offence and defence that the unit wins games on their own. New Zealand, because of Retallick and Whitelock, are the team to beat.

That said, given the performances of our second rows and the success it has brought over the last few seasons, if we have James Ryan and Iain Henderson in our second row, we can win the World Cup.

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