Wednesday 23 January 2019

Neil Francis: Krusty the Clown or Pee Wee Herman would do a better job at Leinster than Matt O'Connor

The suffering of the Leinster players under Matt O'Connor is increasing with every game, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that there was very little point in replacing Matt O'Connor as Leinster coach until they found someone better, but with every passing performance from this Leinster side the entry level for new candidates gets lower and lower.

After Friday's arcane performance against Benetton Treviso, we have four new candidates who are qualified on the basis that they could do a better job than O'Connor did on Friday night. Krusty the Clown, Panti Bliss, Pee Wee Herman and the Grand Old Duke of York could not do any worse than the shambles we saw at the RDS.

If it has come to pass that Leinster are reduced to fumbling their way past a side like Treviso at home, so that they can be assured of Champions Cup competition again next year, then we have reached the low watermark in Leinster's halcyon dynasty.

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The new candidates could point out that a growing injury list, the retirements of key players and the never-ending demands from the international side make it a difficult job, but there is something that Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika managed to do with ease - get the shadow squad to perform to the level that is expected of them.

Iain Henderson and Keith Earls race for the ball in their PRO12 clash yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Iain Henderson and Keith Earls race for the ball in their PRO12 clash yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy

The third onerous imposition I suspect will not have so much of an influence next season as I anticipate that all the fringe Leinster players who are currently in the squad will, on the back of such a stagnant season, be no longer required for international duty as the Ulster and Munster players begin to make their performances and their season count.

The fan base has been falling off incrementally and the doleful and morose renderings of 'Come on ye Boys in Blue' are symptomatic of what is happening on the pitch and is at an adjunct of what we saw at a full and vibrant Kingspan Stadium yesterday.

Should the Leinster faithful elicit a tantrum of entitlement at their reversal of fortune, how many more of them will say they are just not going to watch the rubbish on offer?

The error count, the handling mistakes, the aimless kicking, the inability to give and take a pass even in wet conditions, the evisceration of their tight platform in the Pro12, the mistakes that are made week in, week out without recognition or correction. Do we think that a new season or the June break will mend things, give management time to think things through, maybe understand that their strategy or the way that they want to play the game just isn't working?

Can they examine how the team is playing without ambition, imagination or guile and recognise what this still-capable side have become, without the ability to think on their feet, recognise the trend of a game and turn it around?

In one season, Matt the Thrasher has turned Leinster into the Newcastle United of the Pro12 and asking him to fall on his sword at this stage might present a problem - he could knock the sword on or miss the spot completely.

The most disappointing thing revolves around next season and the lack of hope. In this instance hope is merely disappointment deferred. Leinster must now watch as Munster and Ulster vie for home ties and the fervent hope that an Irish side can win the Pro12.

Yesterday's crucial game at the Kingspan was an enthralling episode and although there were mistakes made and ball went loose all over the park, there was enough quality and direction and purpose in both sides' performances to suggest that they will both at least make it to the final.

You suspect though that Ulster will have to travel and this will not suit them as they have not developed enough or matured enough to do what Munster and Leinster have routinely done in their pomp - win away from home when they need to at the business end.

This game turned a number of times but the key moment was the introduction of BJ Botha in the 53rd minute and almost by magic with all those loose balls being lost in midfield, the scrum became a factor and Munster's scrum managed to pick up enough penalties to keep their scoreboard rolling and give enough bad ball so that the Ulster three-quarters had to adjust one step backwards before they went forward.

Paddy Jackson
Paddy Jackson

Iain Henderson, the man of the moment, had a notable game yesterday. His brilliance brought Ulster back into the game after being nine points down and yet again, just like the Heineken Cup final, mad things happen in big games.

On the stroke of half-time, and as Munster kicked off and put the ball yet again into Paul O'Connell's imperious reach, he won yet another kick-off, but Rory Best had been standing round like a mongrel scrounging scraps at the back door of a kitchen and he cleverly locked on to O'Connell's tap back and managed to get a good 10 yards down the park.

As the ball went through phases the difference in quality between good teams and pretenders became obvious. When forwards and backs are mixed up in the field of play sometimes it is the quality of passing from tight-five forwards that makes the difference.

The good teams have forwards who can put the ball out in front and get it to skilled players without having to check or reach for a pass and Ulster's passing, through Tuohy and all the way out to Henderson on the wing, was impressive and the big man pulled off something that most forwards in his class just cannot do. He managed to square up to Ronan O'Mahony on the wing, fix him and take the tackle on his terms.

At this stage CJ Stander was coming in from the outside to also join in on the tackle. Henderson's under-handed pea-flicker out to the right was brilliantly read by Tommy Bowe who burst on to it, accelerated away and then cut back outside - a thing of beauty.

The thing is that of all the brilliant things that Paul O'Connell can do, he can't do that and neither can Devin Toner and no matter what happens in any disciplinary committee in the next week or so, or what happens in the run-in to the season finale, Henderson must play in Ireland's second-row.

Henderson was red-carded with seven minutes to go and I do think that Nigel Owens has become a little bit too finicky in this area of the game and the clear-out which was responsible for him leaving the field I thought was rash.

The big back-rower had effected six or seven similar aggressive clear-outs and it did look that he led with the forearm followed by the head. He was also guilty of going off his feet.

It probably falls into the category of reckless endangerment because he could have done some damage to the Munster player but at all stages the intent was to clear out and I felt that there was no malice in the way he went about his action. On that basis, a yellow card only was merited.

I suspect that his sentence will reflect that, but Ulster will miss their star player coming into the final games and that will have a hugely detrimental effect on their ambitions to win it.

Munster looked efficient and semi-clinical and I think they will make the final on the basis that no one at this stage of the season will travel to Thomond with pretensions of winning.

Meanwhile, all of the contenders for the World Cup squad advance their cause to the detriment of Leinster players.

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Read more: Jackson holds nerve to deny Munster vital win

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