Tuesday 23 January 2018

O'Driscoll's disinterest sums up Leinster malaise

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Munster have it, Leinster will soon have it back, for Connacht it's a work in progress, and Ulster should have it in spades but as of now don't know who they want.

The 'it' to which I refer? A domineering out-half in the pivotal playmaking role.

Accuse me of bias here if you wish, but if there is one thing in the modern game that gets up my nose it's the buzz term 'first receiver'. Suddenly, we are led to believe the No 10 shirt no longer carries the weight of importance it once did.

I accept the notion of players being more freely interchangeable -- forwards are much more comfortable on the ball now than in days of yore -- but to suggest that everybody and anybody can fill the No 10 slot is beyond the comprehension of this blinkered 'has-been'.

The golden rule of rugby was, and still is, that no one but no one should get between the No 9 and his half-back partner. To hear coaches, particularly at grassroots underage level, espouse the concept of first receiver, makes my blood run cold. Show me a confident and successful team and I'll show you a pretty confident string-pulling out-half.

One player doesn't make a team in any sport, but in rugby the No 10 comes pretty close. And on the assumption that Jonny Sexton is available for Saturday's shootout against Munster at the Aviva, Leinster will be a team transformed.


Sexton will be ring rusty, but with him in the side there will be a discernible shape to the Leinster line-up which is currently lacking.

If there is to be a quick fix for a Leinster squad losing confidence by the week, then Sexton's eagerly awaited return will provide it.

New head coach Joe Schmidt needs time to bed down. He is under pressure to prove himself as a No 1 and not just the competent No 2 he has been heretofore.

Gary Ella, who coached Leinster for the 2003-04 season, was suffocated in his attempt at making that climb. In the end he was treated shabbily. I hope the Ella lessons have been learnt.

The enormity of Saturday's occasion ought to ensure a different Leinster mindset and with it a different level of performance entirely for what is the biggest game on the Irish rugby calendar outside of the Six Nations.

But that in itself is not good enough. Leinster should not need this sort of occasion to lift their game, and they have been nowhere near good enough so far. While not absolving Schmidt from his share of culpability, I would point the finger of blame firmly at the players.

Bad though defeats on the road in Glasgow and Treviso were ahead of the trip to Edinburgh, Friday's Murrayfield performance was the pits. Only when Jamie Heaslip entered the fray did last year's league-topping unit spark into any sort of meaningful action.

And by the way, this minute-minding madness whereby players are now scientifically managed ahead of possible World Cup fatigue -- despite the fact it's nearly 12 months away -- is fast becoming a bad joke.

The laugh is on all of us. Players want to play, period. I don't care what sports scientists say. As amateurs we couldn't get enough of it; now, as professionals, they pump iron, run around the training paddock and rest up -- and for what? A World Cup they may or may not be involved in a year from now.

Of more immediate concern for Leinster is the poor quality of defending since Kurt McQuilkin's departure. The Kiwi needs to be replaced and rapidly.

Right now, Leinster are going through the motions. Gone is the intensity and desire around the fringes and close to the gain-line. Individually and collectively they are all over the shop.

Apart from Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa (when playing on the wing), for most of the rest (scrummaging apart) the season has yet to kick off in earnest.

Both centres (Ireland's top pairing) were badly out of sorts. Gordon D'Arcy's inaccurate distribution and Brian O'Driscoll's general demeanour smacked of shoddiness and disinterest. It is the first time I have ever detected even the remotest sense of apathy from our greatest ever player. Usually he is the one to make things happen; in soulless Murrayfield, the desire wasn't there.

Eoin Reddan is also out of sorts and still taking too many steps in the direction of the receiver. Isaac Boss is a little less culpable in that respect and currently a tad more dangerous on the break, thereby making for an interesting selection for Saturday's head-to-head with Tomas O'Leary.

Apart from a try-saving Dominic Ryan tackle (on Tim Visser) -- and Heaslip in the final half-hour -- not a single Leinster forward made a profound mark against Edinburgh. Pointing to Leo Cullen's absence, however valid, is just not good enough.

Munster may not be hitting Heineken Cup pitch just yet, but even without Paul O'Connell they top the Magners table by three points with four wins from four.

Whereas Niall Ronan has stepped up to the mark for Munster, Shane Jennings has lost his way. The bottom line is that Leinster have been rudderless up front.

The same cannot be said of either Connacht or Ulster. Whatever the meeting at the Sportsground may have lacked in attacking quality was more than compensated through full-on, no-holds-barred competitive intensity. In the end the draw represented a fair result. Connacht's rise and rise under Eric Elwood continues, while Brian McLaughlin's Ulster are now a formidable competitive force.

Jamie Hagan, Sean Cronin and Ian Keatley (growing in maturity) all stood out. So too did Frank Murphy, who though perhaps fifth in the Ireland pecking order behind O'Leary, Boss, Reddan and Peter Stringer, is currently the most pragmatic and in-form scrum-half of the five.

Having to face Cardiff on Thursday is an unfair ask for Connacht, but it is imperative they perform to the level they reached at Parc y Scarlets and Firhill.

One final point: wasn't it great for once to hear 'The Fields of Athenry' being belted out by a half-decent crowd in a ground where the beautiful Pete St John folk ballad has much more meaning?

May it be the first western rendition of many to come.

Irish Independent

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