Wednesday 13 December 2017

Neil Francis: Slip-up in Castres could prove very costly for Leinster

Absence of Sexton, O'Brien and Cronin didn't help but sloppy performance in final game puts Blues on wrong side of draw

Johnny Sexton’s experience was missed in the closing minutes of the game against Castres. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton’s experience was missed in the closing minutes of the game against Castres. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean Cronin. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The ankle bone connects to the shin bone, the shin bone is, I believe, connected to the knee bone, the knee bone, apparently, is connected to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone, we are assured, is connected to the hip bone. Oh dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.

So Leinster have qualified for a home quarter-final against Wasps some time at the end of March. That's the good news. The bad news is that the draw has been extremely unkind to them. An away semi-final against either Clermont or Toulon is an extremely difficult ask and after such high promise in the pool stages, Leinster could easily have avoided the predicament they are in.

We can all point to the fact that if Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa had stayed on the park last Friday night and Seán O'Brien and Seán Cronin had started, well then Leinster not only would have won a pretty open game but would have won by a distance. The team really did require their maturity, their strategic nous and their competitive experience in the tricky stages of the final pool game's play-out.

Most observers will agree with that summation but perhaps they would not ask the question why all of these players were not there to influence and guide Leinster.

Nacewa has been Leinster's chief influencer and their best player by a street all season. When he goes off, they really do miss his spark. The other three though, well sin scéal eile.


From experience you never know when you are being told the whole story about players' injuries. We are told that Sexton and O'Brien have calf injuries so I will take that as the case. Your sciatic nerve and your hamstring and your calf muscle and your neuro-skeletal system from your pelvis all the way up to the last vertebra in your spine (C1) are all interconnected.

I'm no doctor but I don't think it's a coincidence that O'Brien and Sexton are now struggling with calf injuries having recently done damage to their hamstrings.

Cronin is yet another Leinster player to suffer a serious hamstring tear and will be out for 10 weeks or so. A shrug of the shoulders and an evaluation of the length of time it will take to get him back on the park and, hey ho, we get on with the next solution to the next problem we have.

Munster, Ulster and Connacht all have the usual array of injuries with their squads but no serious hamstring injuries. Why is that? What are they doing that Leinster are not doing? Given the cost of not having three out of those four senior players on the park for the full 80 minutes, it may prompt an investigation. . . maybe it won't, but the bottom line is that Leinster won't be getting out of France and that will cost them.

The main reason Leinster did not win Friday's game was because mentally they were a long way off where they needed to be. They were sloppy, lacking certainty and made simple mistakes when gilt-edged opportunities came their way. It is nothing to do with luck, it is to do with mental preparation or mental conviction and their performance was symptomatic of that.

Let's start at the very end - at all stages management should be aware of all permutations as they play out in the game. The final 10 minutes of the game in Castres were like something out of the Keystone Cops. At 24-24 and three tries each, there was temptation to go and win the game from both sides.

Castres never seemed to have the cast-iron conviction that they wanted to do this because even if they did manage to secure a bonus-point victory they pretty much knew that it wouldn't be good enough to get them into the top eight.

Leinster were just making far too many mistakes at this stage but they should always be encouraged to play because defending a 24-24 draw with 10 minutes to play is one of their Achilles heels. After defending a series of lineout mauls where they were lucky to not concede, they watched as Mike McCarthy got binned for taking one of those mauls down.

You now have 14 men on the park with only minutes remaining and Michael Bent is your tighthead. You have no choice but to try and end the game as it stands. If you try and run the ball with only 14 men on the park and a flagging pack, you could easily turn it over and so the thinking is that a draw will do nicely because we know that Connacht do not have a prayer of putting 62 points on Toulouse in the Stade Ernest Wallon.

Leinster get a scrum penalty with 10 seconds left. Ross Byrne goes into hurry-up mode and kicks the ball to touch for the final play but if you have already settled for a draw why would you risk the chance of losing a lineout and giving Castres one last chance?

Leinster just about win their lineout and Jamison Gibson-Park eventually gets the ball and walks across the sideline.

Why was their out-half looking to attack from their 22 with a low-percentage chance of scoring and his partner aware of the real situation and took the correct course of action by walking across the sideline?

The obvious thing to do was tap it, go five yards, send the ball back to Byrne and he would have kicked it over the dead ball line. Muddled thinking in the final seconds, nobody really aware of what was required.

To get a flavour of just how poor Leinster were, think of their performance for the 10 minutes into the second half when they got themselves back on track through a Robbie Henshaw try to level it at 17-17.

Henshaw had a big, big game and paid a huge amount off in goodwill on his transfer from Connacht. In the blow-out against Montpellier he barely featured but then again he wasn't required but he had a big, big game in Castes; his influence, and indeed that of Garry Ringrose, shored up Leinster's performance.

His two tries last Friday night were crucial. But after doing the difficult thing, ie by scoring early and getting themselves back into the game, Leinster then went through a horror period of mistake after mistake.


Rob Kearney's tremendous break-out would have been enough to finish Castres off but his inside pass to Luke McGrath - a simple take - was knocked on, one of two crucial knock-ons from McGrath. From that scrum Leinster, who were in control in this area of the game, conceded a penalty by Cian Healy, who just dropped the knee.

They stole the lineout from that penalty but then James Tracy threw crooked. Leinster then conceded another scrum infringement and gave up a try based on just simple organisation as Castres moved themselves close to their posts. The two McGraths, Luke and Jack, decided that a pillar wasn't required a metre or two from their own line. Leinster were committing unforced errors at a rate of one per minute.

When a team is on song mentally they finish off try-scoring opportunities. Leinster had four which they managed to butcher in the second half. Nothing to do with execution; mentally they just weren't at the races and that is why they messed up those gilt-edged chances.

Castres were simply looking for a reason to run out the gate and when they were 10-0 down in as many minutes, that would have provided ample opportunity to do so if Leinster had kicked on. Similarly in the second half, the game on a knife edge at 17-all and those try-scoring chances, Leinster could have and should have stuck the knife in but their application and mental resolve just didn't allow it.

I am reasonably certain that Leinster will dispose of Wasps at home but when they are traipsing away from France after a sorry loss to either Clermont or Toulon, they might look back at this sorry episode and know why they didn't get any further. They know it themselves and the body language and the post-match interviews said as much.

Irish Independent

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