Thursday 13 December 2018

Neil Francis: 'How many English clubs would be confident of beating the Leinster second and third-string side?'

The gap between top and bottom of the Premiership is a sign of mediocrity, not competitiveness, and the punishing schedule which faces the top English players isn't Ireland's problem

Jimmy O’Brien (left) and Hugo Keenan are among the young Leinster players making the most of their chance to step up on to the big stage. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jimmy O’Brien (left) and Hugo Keenan are among the young Leinster players making the most of their chance to step up on to the big stage. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In breaking news today, the Leinster Branch has issued a statement addressed to Premiership Rugby prior to the resumption of the Heineken Cup.

In the statement the club issued a heartfelt apology for taking the mickey out of their own domestic league by playing a second- and third-string team against the Dragons and scoring nearly 60 points in the process.

The genuinely remorseful release also went on to say that player welfare was just really a buzz word and that, in the spirit of Anglo-Irish relations, Leinster shouldn't try and foster some of their own pretty average talent that was coming through their system.

Leinster would in future play their senior team in every Pro14 match because that is what happens in the Premiership and it is not fair that the Blues will be fresh and rested instead of in need of walking sticks when they come to play Bath at the Rec.

The IRFU also chipped in with an apology in deeply regretful tones for fielding a second-string team against the United States of America.

Citing 'fake news' and Trumphite philosophies they freely admit that they followed an 'Ireland First' agenda and said it was a disgrace that Johnny Sexton hadn't played a game of rugby since November 17.

In truly remorseful tones, the Union acknowledged that it was not the done thing to rest their players like that and took encouragement from the fact that all of England's players who played against Australia on November 24 played the following week in the Premiership - 'all' that is except Ben Te'o, Henry Slade and Ben Moon who were too badly injured to play for their clubs (Bloody Snowflakes - really what has the game come to?) - but hopefully they would be pressed back into service this week.

Owen Farrell did not play for Saracens last week, either, as he wished to concentrate on his new minority sport.

In a separate announcement and to counter speculation, the GAA stated that Owen Farrell had not in fact joined any hurling clubs in Ireland and noted that Farrell just liked hurling himself at people - no sliotar or camán is involved.

In a further announcement, the PRL issued a communiqué accepting all the apologies in good faith stating that "those boyos from éire certainly knew how to bend the rules".

The release also said that since the Heineken Cup had become the Heineken Champions Cup, the competition had become so much better by getting rid of Benetton.

The fervent wish was that the Paddies would now flog their players as much as the PRL players to make it a more level playing field - which is why the PRL hijacked the competition in the first place … oh and the extra money of course.

In a further development, the PRL were unwilling to be drawn on the fact that they have initiated talks to halt the possible relegation of any of their members from the Premiership - because, well, that would not be good for the club that was going down!

The benchmark for meritocracy, I thought, was that there was promotion and relegation from the Premiership - but now they are going to pull that one as well. At this moment in the Premiership, apart from Exeter and Saracens, there is very little separating the other 10 teams.

What, God forbid, would happen if one of the heavyweights were to go down? Simple - the malcontents in the monkey cage would just change the rules. The fact that there are so few points separating the bottom 10 clubs is as usual seen in England as a sign of how competitive the league is as opposed to acknowledging its unwaveringly mediocrity.

Apart from Saracens and Exeter (a new default setting), how many Premiership clubs would be confident of coming to Dublin and beating the Leinster second- and third-string side that stuffed the Dragons?

The Premiership is a mess and, while I was name-checking who played for their clubs a week after completing a four-Test programme against South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia, something struck me. There were enough South Sea Islanders in the 12 Premiership sides to fill two teams and there were in excess of 25 South Africans plying their trade last week.

The Premiership had huge bundles of players reared and brought through by other Unions - 12 Western Province, 10 Natal Sharks, nine Wellington, eight Auckland, eight Blue Bulls etc.

It is incredible to see that only three teams in the league have more than 50pc of their roster who are English - Sale 57pc, Saracens 57pc and Harlequins 54pc. Staggering.

Only 29pc of Wasps players are English and Bristol are lower again at 25pc. Why are the RFU subventing these clubs to the tune of £4m per year to produce England players for the national team? It is a deeply superficial arrangement - very few Englishmen playing for England these days.

I watched Bath play against Sale last week at the Rec and a very commendable 40pc of their roster are English or England-qualified. It was hard to gauge just how good or bad Bath were as the match was played in atrocious conditions.

Sale were surprisingly good and gave of themselves defensively. Neither pack could get a toe-hold or purchase to dominate in the tight exchanges and so there were plenty of scrums and resets and more resets.

Both sides tried to impose themselves but it turned into a liquorice all-sorts of a stalemate. The bad news is that it is due to rain heavily all the way to Sunday. The pitch was heavily cut up after the 7-7 extravaganza last Sunday and this will militate against Leinster - militate in the sense that, if it was a dry day, they would have a real chance of a bonus-point win.

A dogfight on a rainy day on a heavy pitch and anything can happen.

It is worth noting that this is a match that Leinster cannot afford to lose. Come away with nothing and Leinster have no margin for error in their remaining programme.

Todd Blackadder, the Bath supremo, may not make it to the end of the season and neither may his assistants.

The atmosphere is not Mourinho- esque but there are too many things wrong with the club for it to be conducive to be in a winning environment. The West country side are badly misfiring and lucky to be in sixth place in the Premiership.

They could lose Zach Mercer to injury. The very promising Mercer is third-choice No 8 for England behind Billy Vunipola (Tonga) and Nathan Hughes (Fiji) but he is an Englishman and he is a better prospect than the workmanlike Mark Wilson (Newcastle) who got rave international reviews last month.

If Mercer is gone, it will compound the loss of Toby Faletau.

Bath still have Francois Louw and the very impressive Sam Underhill but they have no one else in their back-row or on the bench and this is where Leinster will dominate and win.

If Leinster win at Rec on Saturday - and they will if they play well - then Bath are out and they will in all probability send a second string to the Aviva the following week so that they can concentrate on the Premiership match with Wasps the following Saturday.

That could make for a 60- or 70-pointer in the Aviva. Sending out a shadow string is not against the rules, but it's just not cricket - is it?

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