Sport Rugby

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Neil Francis: Leinster's way or the highway for Kidney's empty strategy

Ireland need to play the same game as the European champions, says Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The walk from Twickenham station to the stadium is never less than interesting. All the way up the banter between Leinster and Ulster supporters was good-natured and gregarious. Sometimes you tune into what people are saying in the group in front or behind you. Half-way there and it took me three or four goes to connect with a conversation -- Deutsche? I had bumped into a Portuguese sevens team and a goodly amount of SANZA at last year's final in Cardiff -- but Germans?

I looked back at the walkers and in one of their rucksacks they had a rubberised foam blue hand with 2011 Heineken Cup Final inscribed on it.

"Hiya lads -- are you going to the match?"


With the blue hand in the rucksack it might have been a stupid question, but I inquired just the same.

"Who are you shouting for lads?"

"Leinster ovv co-orse."

"Great -- what part of Leinster are you living in?"

"Vee don't live in Ireland -- vee from Dortmund."

Huge rugby supporters. They have been to Croker in 2009, Cardiff in 2011 and like heroin addicts needed a fix. They were hooked on the Heino. Leinster too.

They knew their stuff. Leinster were a 'different dimension' to anything else in Europe. Leinster uber alles, I suppose. Quite apart from the expanding paradigm that is the Heineken Cup this was proof positive of its extraordinary appeal to people outside of your normal rugby parameters. Funny, though, that they had no real interest in the Six Nations championship. They were meeting other Germans at the stadium. They were happy on another front too.

"Vee got here vor €80 danks to your Michael O'Leary, but vee know you paid about €400."

Fair point, I thought.

"Will you watch Bayern later on this evening?"

"Vee hate football. Borussia Dortmund von der Bundesliga this year beating Bayern into second. Vee f***ing hate Bayern Munich. Most Germans hate Bayern. Vee hate Bayern more than Irish people hate Ryanair."

Heinz and Gunther headed off into the hubbub. I bade farewell and sat down to watch Ulster get absolutely guntered.

On the way back to the station I got a quick tap on the shoulder. "Vy don't Ireland play like zat?" The Germans are already running our monetary, fiscal and economic policy -- would it be too much to let them organise our national side as well?

There is an enormous amount of pride inside the province of Leinster. Outside may be a cocktail of envy, exasperation and empathy. Leinster's achievements are laudable for more than merely picking up a trophy. What crowned their achievements is the brand of rugby they chose to play. Leinster embrace risk because they have absolute confidence in their skill levels and they have a broader range of vision than any other team in Europe. Anybody who watched them play in this year's campaign could not but have been drawn to the game that they espouse.

A little piece of me died when Chelsea beat Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final but Leinster were not to be denied. This team know how to play at another level -- how come they, as a majority component, can't bring their game to the international level?

The garden gnome is at a crossroads in his career and with only one year left on his contract, Declan Kidney will have to embrace what he has seen with his own eyes. The man who has to forcibly tell Kidney what has to change is his captain. Brian O'Driscoll must, in the next week or two, impress upon Kidney that things will have to morph strategically and tactically. Kidney's game-plan as it now stands is as empty as Munster's trophy cabinet. Top of the list is personnel. Moses was a brave fella coming down from Mount Sinai and saying to the Israelites: "I've got Him down to ten." The monsignor will have to have more than ten Leinster starters whether he likes it or not .

If you are going to try and play the way Leinster play, then you are going to have to pick an awful lot of Leinster players. The truth is that Tony McGahan left Munster in a heap, they have no idea what type of game they need or want to play. His reign was a let down to a squad that still had plenty to offer. Currently, Leinster have three non-Irish-qualified players in their starting XV -- Brad Thorn, Isa Nacewa and Richardt Strauss -- the hooker will be eligible in September though. So who fills in the gaps?

The most obvious choice is Stephen Ferris. Kevin McLaughlin, Leinster's blindside, had an impressive showing in the final and is a far superior player to Chris Henry. McLaughlin embodies what Leinster are about and is unlucky not to go to New Zealand.

Ferris is a fit for the Leinster brand of rugby because he has football, he is exceptionally quick, he has great hands and can adapt to what is put in front of him. He also has the added advantage of having the destructive capacity of a category-five tornado.

Rory Best can adapt too, but will now come under pressure from Sean Cronin and, in particular, Strauss. The place that you are going to have enormous difficulties is in the second row. Paul O'Connell's credentials are undoubted. He is an icon and one of Ireland's best ever players. It remains to be seen whether he goes to New Zealand or not. I think he could do with a summer off. Ireland might suffer in his absence but for him there are bigger issues to address. Two medial tears/strains on the same knee in one season is too much.

However, it remains to be seen whether O'Connell can channel his person into the way this team needs to go. For all his impressive abilities, O'Connell spends an enormous amount of time playing man-out rugby close to the breakdown, taking the ball up, going into contact and going to ground. Very rarely does he offload the ball, stand big in the tackle and transfer or look to pass before contact. O'Connell is a product of his environment. That is the way Munster play and because he is such a commanding figure of respect, not many people will argue with him about what he does when he gets the ball into his hands.

What he is doing, though, is counter-intuitive to what the rest of the team are trying to do. I wouldn't class it as a boulder in the stream. There should be about a dozen Leinster players starting in New Zealand and he needs to learn the game they are playing.

Kidney, too, needs to realise that Jonathan Sexton is his linch-pin and he needs to play him for the full 80. Ronan O'Gara only gets on the field now when Sexton gets injured. Leinster purr when Sexton is pulling the strings. He has not looked anything like the player he can be when he plays for Ireland. Kidney has never come close to empowering him, giving him licence. O'Driscoll, who plays outside Sexton, is the beneficiary of his passing largesse. That point should be impressed upon Kidney by his captain.

Conor Murray has played well for a Munster team that has been at odds with itself this season. That, though, is not an imperative for selecting him to partner Sexton.

Sexton plays best when he is served by Eoin Reddan. If you need any references, send all enquiries to J Schmidt c/o LBIRFU, D4. Passing a ball to an outhalf who attacks the gainline is a completely different skill to one

who doesn't. Murray's sense of where to put the ball when Sexton needs to run is not on the money. Reddan knows instinctively when and where to put it. Breaking up a half-back partnership makes no sense.If Kidney thinks Murray is, say, two per cent better than Reddan, then the thinking is misguided because Reddan's value is in the team dynamic and his knowledge of what the most important player on the field wants. If you asked Sexton who he would prefer, maybe now he'd be less shy to say, if O'Driscoll doesn't do so in the meantime. He should also have told him to pick Ian Madigan to travel to New Zealand. A very short-sighted omission.

Kidney is hamstrung to a certain extent by provincial quotas and his own personal favourites. One of the fundamental differences between provincial and international selections is that a provincial coach will pick his best side where an international coach will have to ensure that there is a mix of the top three sides.

The problem Kidney faces is that Leinster could/should provide a dozen players depending on injuries and that significant majority have been playing a very successful brand of rugby which is pretty far removed from the game that Kidney conceives. Ireland have not been as successful as they can be. Something will have to give in the very short term or Ireland will be kaput.

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