Sport Rugby

Monday 19 November 2018

Neil Francis: Leinsterfication of provinces continues - and it will soon extend beyond these shores

Jordan Larmour. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jordan Larmour. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Jordan Larmour's rather good try in Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day was a signal moment in the affairs of rugby in this country.

It is so not because it copper-fastened a win for Leinster against Munster but because it confirmed the inexorable Leinsterfication of the provinces on this island. The IRFU see it as a positive - I am not as enthused.

Soon Leinster players that are surplus to requirements or are more ambitious for game-time will form a blue enclave in every squad in this country and the likelihood is that they will have to go further afield. They will become the Pacific Islanders of Europe - soon nearly every team in the northern hemisphere will have one.

Most commentators will have pointed to Larmour's ability to beat defenders. There are very few players in the world who can change direction so quickly and so close to the tackle. Three, maybe four, to my mind - a precious commodity.

Munster's chase and the integrity of their line was poor - still and all, the quality of the footwork was so good that all Munster could do was watch and applaud (silently).

What I found fascinating was the manner and the determination of just one pursuer. Scarcely have I seen Simon Zebo attempt to chase someone down with such steely resolve. The reason for this was a soupçon more than trying to stop a match-winning effort and bonus-point try.

Zebo leaves for Paris in the summer. Peter O'Mahony stays - so too does CJ Stander. Conor Murray, most assuredly, will do the same. No mass desertions. Just Zebo leaving. In isolation.

Zebo was cut from the Ireland squad in November. The Carton House get-together in December barely mentioned Zebo's absence and when the squad is named in January there will barely be a ripple in the notes accompanying the squad selection - his disappearance a fait accompli.

One of the things that will sustain Zebo - apart from the extra cash and the favourable tax treatment of his salary - is the forlorn hope that Joe might just pick him for the Six Nations or the tour to Australia or further on the World Cup squad in 2019.

Zebo's attempt to stop Larmour's try was at once the realisation that two careers were planing in difference directions. Zebo's international career shuffling off into the mundane reaches of the Top 14 and Larmour's on the cusp of something special. That try marked the changing of the guard.

Zebo has the ability to dazzle. Some of his performances for Munster and Ireland were compelling and now that he has chosen to go abroad, irrespective of how aware he is of the practicalities of a move away from Ireland, those days are over.

There is always the chance that you might get a call out of the blue. A hope to cling on to while you ply your trade in the Top 14. There might be a "look at what you're missing" video clip which will appear on the net - a try scored by Zebo somewhere in France but we watched what Larmour did against Ulster and we watched what he did against Munster and the scene has changed.

The new guard have arrived. Zebo would have to stew on the fact that even if he stayed, the game was probably up. There are no Usain Bolt theatrics when Larmour scores a try.

Now it looks like Zebo has made the right call - assess the scene and make a pure business decision; make the move while there is an (I) beside your name.

Whatever about Larmour, there is also the case of Andrew Conway whose irresistible form and continued excellence is a boon for Munster and Ireland. Conway's two tries in the same game may have been overshadowed by the sensational nature of Larmour's opus but is there a better finisher in the domestic game?

In an era where kick-chase and ability to challenge in the air are a prime requirement for selection very often a nose for the line is ignored. In a frenzy of the try-line zone quite often you have half a dozen options - quality finishers always seem to pick the best one, all of the time.

Conway chooses correctly time after time. The options for Joe Schmidt on the wing have so little to differentiate between them that I think he has a coin in his office which he flicks when he has to make these calls. In the meantime while he waits for the plane, Zebo has minor indignity heaped upon indignity. Player rotation and player management does not apply to him anymore and so he plays in matches that may have been seen as inconsequential until the season ends.

That moment last week gave us a glimpse of the future and maybe now players start to look backwards to see what is in the rear-view mirror rather than getting a view from the front.

I look at the Aviva Premiership in England and see London Irish struggling badly at the foot of the table. They will be relegated at the end of the season.

Last season Bristol RFC lost 19 of 22 matches in the Aviva, conceding 94 tries and 707 points. Irish are well on their way to emulating that.

Bristol are 13 from 13 this season in the Greene King India Pale Ale Championship and look likely to gain promotion. Ian Madigan has played in 10 of those matches and has done well. I thought long and hard about his move to Begles-Bordeaux and then Bristol!

Was it the worst move of all time or the best? Madigan and his advisors may have looked in the rear-view mirror and saw what was coming. As we speak, if Madigan had stayed he would probably be vying with Cathal Marsh for the fourth-choice out-half slot in Leinster behind Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery and the highly impressive Ross Byrne.

It doesn't get any easier when you examine the centre or full-back position.

The Ireland situation would be even worse and you would have to conclude, after 31 caps and some significant silverware, that picking up £500,000 for performing in front of some AIL crowds and no guarantee of staying in the Premiership for more than one season is a fantastic deal.

Madigan more than anyone would know that when he togs out against the Cornish Pasties or Ealing Trailfinders that he won't wear green again and so he is that trail-finder who has a five-year international career and is a victim of the success of the schools and academy systems and is probably happy to have had the glory he enjoyed and then make an easy commercial decision.

What effect the burgeoning stock of surplus Leinster players have in Munster, Connacht and, holy God, Ulster, remains to be seen.

Training grounds, dressing rooms and stadiums may never be the same again - d'you know wot Oi meeeeeen!

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