Wednesday 11 December 2019

Neil Francis: Leinster will pay heavy price for not replacing Cullen's leadership

Leo Cullen was a master craftsman in the second-row and hugely under-rated at Test level. The void he leaves at Leinster is unbridgeable. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Leo Cullen was a master craftsman in the second-row and hugely under-rated at Test level. The void he leaves at Leinster is unbridgeable. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Autumn is upon us. The summer acts like a sorbet to cleanse our palates so we return refreshed and revived - curious to find out what our respective rugby teams have been up to in the off season.

Leinster stand at the intersection - hard to argue with the notion that there are fallow seasons ahead whichever step they take.

Let's remind ourselves that Johnny Sexton's deal is not even close to being signed - apart from that they have been pretty frugal with the chequebook and unfortunately they are bolt on annual subscribers to the chocolate teapot assembly line.

It could be argued that Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen were riding in the bus lane in the last season or so but whatever about their diluted playing inventory one thing that never diminished was that incalculable beacon of light when their leadership was required - and most often at the crucial juncture in a match.

Applied imagination and practical intelligence got them through. It is hard to go to the market and buy leadership. Leinster abdicated that responsibility but equally failed to land any star quality which would compensate - it will cost them.

Of all the areas in this team's ranks - they are weakest in the second-row. Leo Cullen was a master craftsman and a hugely under-rated player particularly at Test level - Donncha O'Callaghan is the luckiest second-row in the world. The void Cullen leaves is pretty much unbridgeable.


Mike McCarthy's three-year contract is inexplicable - even his finer characteristics of mettle and application have failed him now. Tom Denton has the engine of a lawn mower. Quinn Roux was mercifully farmed out to Connacht - for such a big man he had all the go-forward of Calista Flockhart. Whoever classified him as a project player needs to exhale. That leaves Devin Toner.

Whatever about his perceived shortcomings - I am struggling to find any - Toner has been a spectacular success in terms of schooling a player with ability into an international class player when it seemed that it might just not be worth the effort.

His story should be the industry norm template for a 'project' player. Toner's year-on-year improvements have been based on an aggressively competitive persona which belies an outwardly genial nature. Replete at tight, Toner now only needs to learn how to carry effectively.

A partner was required and in this instance a 'moneyball' approach was required. The search should have been evidence-based and majoring on objective knowledge - the term is we use is sabermetric. Just buying a big ol' unit because they were available was the worst thing that Leinster could have done - and yet they went ahead and did it.

What type of second-row did they need - a Brad Thorn and Nathan Hines hybrid? What these two did was carry intelligently, clean rucks aggressively, tackle ruthlessly and impose themselves on proceedings - that last term sounds very general, but the kernel of the point is that nobody liked playing against Thorn or Hines.

Messing with them was a short-term thing. Easier said than done to get someone like those two.

Leinster went and bought the antithesis of what they needed. When Leinster state that they aspire to be competitive at the business end of the elite competitions they must recognise that to do so they need a pack. They have the quality in the front-row and in the back-row.

The second-row, though, is bereft of quality and power. When the standard is set by Toulon with Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams and Jo Suta, you realise how far away Leinster are from being competitive.

I groaned when Leinster announced that they had bought Kane Douglas from the Waratahs. Why would a 25-year-old Wallaby lock with 14 caps give up his career to come over to Dublin and play in the Guinness Pro12 and ERCC? Maybe those 14 caps won is all he is going to earn in a Wallaby jersey.

I first saw Douglas play for the Wallabies in 2013 in the Lions series. My first impression was that in all three matches he was the worst player on the pitch.

Considering that there were a lot of poor players playing in that series, that was an indictment of his quality. I watched the recent Super Rugby final twice and the Lions series again just for confirmation. The empirical evidence here is that we are talking about Ballyfree's finest. Steven Sykes - another turkey - played in a Lions series for South Africa; it doesn't necessarily mean you are a good player.

In the first Lions Test, Douglas carried five times for six metres, made a respectable 13 tackles and won no lineout ball. In the second Test, he carried three times for eight metres, made four tackles and won one lineout ball.

In the third Test, Douglas actually did not touch the ball in 80 minutes - no lineout, no carries, zilch. A remarkable achievement. It is true that the Wallabies were overrun in the third Test yet that sequence of events only happens with your consent

In the Super Rugby final, Douglas carried three times for four metres, won three lineouts, gave away a rash of stupid penalties and only Kurtley Beale had a worse tackle rate of three tackles and four missed tackles.


The business end games of the Super Rugby had most of the commentators calling Douglas 'The Workhorse' which is normally a euphemism for someone who most of the time tries hard but has no ability - essentially a crap player.

I wonder if Mick Dawson or Matt O'Connor were to watch the Super XV final again how confident they would be that their investment would have been money well spent.

Douglas seemed to arrive two seconds late for every ruck and never applied his physique in a constructive way - when this is your stock in trade and you are paid big money to do simple things like clean rucks, close down space, tackle with purpose, carry for more than an average of 1.3 metres. Calista Flockhart, I note, is measured at 1.66 metres.

AIL-class second-rows can win you lineout ball in any Pro12 game. AIL-class second-rows could make a dozen tackles in a game and close down space and apply themselves vigorously.

When you spend money on a premium product (a Wallaby Test second-row) you have to be sure that there is added value in that player. Thorn and Hines were a premium product.

I see no evidence of this in Douglas, and if the Wallabies saw the 25-year-old as vital to their cause, they would not be letting him come to Dublin.

On a sabermetric scale, Kevin McLaughlin or Ben Marshall would consistently be superior components in a team game if they were played in the second-row - bulk is important but only if it moves.

If Douglas is not what he is supposed to be - and I'm saying he is not - I hope that Leinster don't waste two seasons on him before he joins Quinn Roux on the Connacht 'A' side. Kane is not able.

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