Monday 19 February 2018

Neil Francis: Leinster have no BOD and they will now be in the POD (pool of death)

Luke Fitzgerald in action during training ahead of Sunday’s clash with Toulon
Luke Fitzgerald in action during training ahead of Sunday’s clash with Toulon
Wayne Barnes will referee the game
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

There is that word again - meritocracy. Matt O'Connor mentioned it in an interview last week. "From that end we have to review things, make sure we are better because the league has grown enormously on the back of meritocracy and we probably haven't mirrored that."

Yep, me too, I have read it three or four times and I still don't know what he was trying to say.

Last Sunday Leinster played well for about 30 minutes and then stopped playing well and started playing badly and continued to do so until the final whistle. Leinster have only won nine of their 19 Pro12 matches this season so maybe it wasn't a surprise that they lost.

They rotated the squad and rested their main men. That is the correct decision, provided they rested them from training as well. An 80-minute match pales beside the drudge of training; if you are resting your starters, you rest them. We can now expect them to stay the full 80 minutes in Marseille.

There were many points to be taken from the weekend. Prime amongst them was missed in the resigned aftermath of another underperformance. We can deal with the irrelevant points first.

The top four sides in the Pro12 all won last weekend, and picked up bonus points.

Leinster, after scoring three tries in 50 minutes, lost in Newport. We heard the familiar refrains: "We're not gelling"; "We're close to getting it right"; "Injuries"; "No game-time with our internationals"; "We are training well. . . but". We have been getting that all season.

Leinster are eight points behind Ospreys and 10 points adrift of Ulster. Both of those sides could be caught. Ulster have Leinster, Munster and Glasgow to negotiate. I suspect that Ulster will do enough but the Leinster game at Kingspan Stadium, five days after the Toulon match, will tell a lot about Leinster's state of mind.

Leinster will miss the play-offs and so we have to examine the consequences of that.

You might remember those brigands who hijacked the Heineken Cup last year and a term they used - meritocracy! The reason they did what they did was because they objected to sides like Leinster fielding their reserve squad in their league because they were guaranteed a place in the competition no matter what happened - their seeding based on the previous year's Heineken results. Zebre too.

Leinster won't move out of fifth position in the Pro12; the penalty for missing the play-offs will be that they will be third-tier seeds in next season's Champions Cup, so they could in all likelihood get Clermont or Toulon plus Sarries or Northampton in their pool.

The consequences of failure and underperformance this season will come home to roost when the draw is made in June. Can it get any worse? No BOD and they will now be in the POD (pool of death).

A five-pointer from Rodney Parade - it seemed like a small ask - and they would have had a chance to sneak into the top four - that is now unrealistic.

That gamble pre-supposes that there will be a performance in Marseille. I think the cotton wool option doesn't suit Leinster when they rest their players, and irrespective of how tired they are, I thought it would have been more important to kickstart a bit of momentum because their starting squad's last tangible match memory is that faltering performance against Bath.

If the team was coached by Joe Schmidt and had an international-class second row at No 4 and I suppose Johnny in as well, they would be closer than even money on Sunday.

None of those are available but this is the frustrating thing - the team they have now is capable of winning in Marseille. I am as cynical and sceptical as the next critic but Leinster just about have enough quality to win.

This side has not played well all year; they have been scratching and scrabbling for form. There has been no constant graph of improvement.

Yet you look all around you and see teams in other leagues or other sports and recognise steadfast improvement and measured progression. After a horrible start Louis Van Gaal has got Manchester United back to where they belong.

After an unsteady and uncertain start Anthony Foley has Munster where they want to be. Most of my friends in Munster told me that the Pro12 wasn't worth winning last season when Leinster won it - but now it seems like a good deal more than a handy little bauble at the end of the season.

Look at teams in other leagues and see what can be done. The hitherto unrated Exeter Chiefs are in fourth position in the Aviva Premiership and will, I am sure, beat Gloucester in the Challenge Cup semi-final. The unfashionable and almost unheard of Oyonnax are sixth in the Top 14.

Both of these over-performing and stubbornly progressive teams have strong coaches, focus, direction and a real sense of team.

Leinster are a very fashionable team with real pedigree but have lost their identity and heritage. They find themselves in the semi-finals of the biggest competition in Europe almost by misadventure and by virtue of any easy pool - something they won't have next season.

Maybe they should look at these smaller teams who are playing above themselves to get a sense of perspective. Maybe Leinster should look back at some of their great adventures and borrow from them to see the way forward. You can achieve anything if you have a clear line of vision and some willing soldiers. Leinster without question have the soldiers.

Back to that word 'meritocracy'. I described it thus "as those most deserving and those who had consistently demonstrated advancement in competition and had their competency and ability tested by the company that they keep."

So how come Wayne Barnes and George Clancy get the top matches in Europe this season?

Nobody told me that Pope Francis had conferred the rights of Papal Infallibility onto Nigel Owens. Yes, the Welshman does make mistakes from time to time - but the reason he is the best of the bunch is because he has empathy - empathy with the players. He talks the game through with the players - talks them out of committing penalties and he tries to make the game flow - always aware that there are paying spectators and paying television viewers who didn't turn up to watch him warble his way through the match .

Clancy lacks that empathy and hasn't really amended his style of arbitration to let a game flow. He has improved, though, and probably deserves a World Cup appointment.

Barnes' appointment was met with mild apoplexy. Nowhere in any sport would the man in the middle here have a greater influence and attention than the Englishman.

Teams simply cannot engage in their normal pre-match preparation without having to take into account the influence of Barnes. He has, in every Test, made several match changing or controversial decisions. His performance in Cardiff this year when Ireland were going for the fourth leg of the Grand Slam was mystifying, almost as bizarre as his performance in the 2009 Grand Slam finale.

Maybe Toulon will just blow Leinster away and the referee won't be a factor. Maybe, just maybe, it could be a tight game that could merit a game-changing decision from the man who just cannot be ignored. Leinster's mountain just got an awful lot steeper.

Irish Independent

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