Sport Rugby

Friday 18 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Too many of Leinster's stand-ins are not semi-final standard'

Ulster's Jacob Stockdale in action against Adam Byrne of Leinster. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ulster's Jacob Stockdale in action against Adam Byrne of Leinster. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

When somebody comes to your back yard and thinks they have a chance of winning, you have to disabuse them of that notion straight away. Perhaps Garry Ringrose's two blocked kicks gave a snapshot of just how loose Leinster were yesterday. His first blocked kick was charged down by Rory Best, who is no Usain Bolt. The ball bounced up and Kieran Treadwell was in the right place at the right time - 7-0.

There was no panic in the huddle under the posts but Leinster had just missed their first marker: don't give Ulster any nourishment or the flicker of a thought that there might be an upset on here.

Romain Poite let Ulster wander offside all evening and in the second half it became a joke but that should not explain away Leinster's lack of invention or the stunning surfeit in accuracy. On a dry night under the floodlights Leinster should have been alive to all possibilities.

The teamsheet told us that there was quality there but my God they were lacking. Two offloads all night. They looked like one of those Kinder Eggs with no toys inside. The fact that Leinster had to grind this one down, ride their luck knowing that Ulster's lack of big game rugby would count against them told you all about the ebb and flow of this game.

Leinster won because their two second rows put in truly outstanding performances. No one has ever drowned in sweat but the colleagues of Scott Fardy and James Ryan will secretly acknowledge that if Leinster's engine room had not performed as they had, they would be staring down the barrel of one of the worst defeats in the franchise's history. It was a meaty contribution from both, with some lung-sapping interventions.

It is true that Leinster's senior side has not played together for nearly three months and that showed, but unless they get all of their quality players back they are not going to retain their title. Noel Reid, Mick Kearney, Edward Byrne, James Tracy and Adam Byrne are not Champions Cup semi-final standard.

It was the Leinster system and culture which saved them from an ignominious defeat.

A strong first-half showing and a little bit more surety and Leinster could have powered away and everyone could have breathed easily.

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That would be unfair to Ulster who gave a performance which was one of the most resolute I have seen from the province in quite a while. Billy Burns and John Cooney outplayed Leinster's decision makers and if they'd had a little bit more front-foot ball they could have changed the complexion of the game. The lack of front-foot ball was down to Fardy and Ryan.

Ulster, though, were able to compete in all phases. They were very good in tight and they were able to look after the ball pretty well, and their outside backs caused a little bit of trouble for a Leinster side whose line-speed was lacking and who were blowing a bit in the second half. Leinster's physicality in contact was the difference.

In the wide outside there were some Keystone Cop moments. Adam Byrne, brilliant in the air and going forward, was once again exposed defensively, missing three tackles.

That was only bested by Jacob Stockdale, who missed four and somehow managed to drop the ball in the act of scoring. In the Finisher's Manual, section 6, sub-section 3, it clearly states that when you are in contact but you have possession over the line, fall on the ball. Two hands good, one hand bad. It was a dreadful mistake to make. When you have Leinster on the rack, drive the knife clean through the heart. The Ireland winger will rue this one.

Congratulations to Ulster, though. Their performance merited so much more than a heroic defeat.

Some of Leinster's stocks are pretty low, with Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier out for the rest of the season and Jordi Murphy playing in white against them last night. It just demonstrates the folly of letting go some of your better players.

Leinster need a little bit of luck, and I have a funny feeling that Toulouse will beat Racing today.

It is the only chance Leinster have, based on that performance. Home advantage and get some of their quality players back and try and string a little bit of familiarity into proceedings.

* * * * *

In news just in, Munster have decided to change their name from Munster Rugby to Typical Munster. This decision has been taken on the basis of what they did in Murrayfield yesterday, and over the course of the years.

Richard Cockerill expressed the sentiment that his Edinburgh side were going to out-Munster Munster. They did not even come close to achieving their stated aims.

While the stats and the quality of their play suggest Edinburgh should have won this match, they walked off the field like one of those dupes at a fairground three-cup trick. Done again, and no way back, even when you can see what is happening in front of your eyes.

In a match of this calibre, adversity and opportunity are almost indistinguishable, and the result can come down to the arbitrary bounce of an oval ball.

These games are down to patience and precision, discipline and durability. It looked like the key moment would be what took place in the 53rd minute. Munster were pounding down the door. Edinburgh prop Pierre Schoeman came in from the side close to his own line, but you were certain that the Reds would get over anyway, but John Ryan knocked on.

They opted for a scrum and you thought this would be the time to close it out but they forgot themselves at the engagement and Edinburgh pushed them off the ball. If ever there was a moment that would fortify you, this was it. Edinburgh got their penalty and cleared their lines, but seven minutes later we had a moment of high farce.

Edinburgh were going through their phases in midfield and Munster were dutifully knocking them down. Rhys Marshall hit Jaco van der Walt a millisecond late but was committed, and rather than following through he gave him a gentle shove - 99 times out of 100 it is not a penalty. Pascal Gauzere gave it. Seconds later Schoeman, who had a forceful game, stood his ground but proffered a shoulder as Tadhg Beirne followed play out to the wing. There was contact but most of it came from Beirne's own player, Jeremy Loughman, who was just as eager to cover space.

I have been queue-jumped in the fruit and veg section by little old ladies with more vigour at my local supermarket. Beirne went down as if he had been caught flush right in the kisser by Mike Tyson. The dutiful Munster doctor and physio came on with a defibrillator and some holy water for the last rites. Beirne got up two minutes later and the penalty was reversed. I can't say I'm enamoured with that type of behaviour.

The former Leinster player had seen yellow after 10 minutes when he killed a promising Edinburgh attack at the ruck. By raising their hands in the air, players think that they can claim diplomatic immunity from some of their crimes at the breakdown. Gauzere amazingly had to get outside help before he gave the yellow card.

Less than 10 minutes later Edinburgh got 'Typically Munstered' again as they were forced to carry the ball over their own line - Typical Munster probably didn't have much more planned than a series of close-in drives as Chris Farrell had been co-opted into their scrum as an openside flanker. For some strange reason Henry Pyrgos decided from an offside position at the scrum to slap the ball out of Conor Murray's hands. Pyrgos got an MMA tackle for his efforts by Murray.

Keith Earls, whose presence of mind was on another level from anyone else on the pitch, tapped the ball from the mark and was over the line before any of the Edinburgh players could complain. Earls has been electric all season and is so sharp to all possibilities that he has become Typical Munster's most important player.

I wonder, would anyone else have finished off that opportunity in the 71st minute to put Typical Munster ahead? For once the passing was reasonably crisp, and Earls' diagonal line and his speed and his jump in the air before the touchline tackle came was of the highest quality - this in contrast to Pyrgos' suicidal dash out of the line, which Typical Munster took full advantage of.

There will be joy in overcoming this tricky hurdle but now they face a semi-final against a very powerful Saracens side who can score tries from anywhere; you sense they could be too much for the men in red. A semi is as good as it is going to be.

Typical Munster.

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