Wednesday 12 December 2018

Neil Francis: Yesterday further proof that Leinster vs Munster rivalry has fallen off a cliff edge

Conor Murray of Munster dejected in the final moments of the Guinness PRO14 Round 6 match between Leinster and Munster Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray of Munster dejected in the final moments of the Guinness PRO14 Round 6 match between Leinster and Munster Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A low-quality game between two sides in a rivalry which has become just a little tiresome. Is there a premium to be paid for endeavour alone? Attitude is one thing; aptitude is what we expect in a match where there are so many quality players.

As the game made its way into the final quarter, it became nebulous in every respect. Even the man of the match, Johnny Sexton, was infected by the mediocrity happening around him. His kicking, so good in the first half, became poor as he lost his concentration. The amount of forward passes and ball on the ground, particularly in the outside channels, was embarrassing. Munster were the bigger culprits as they were unable to get beyond four or five phases to build anything.

Surely this game should be about a whole lot more than just exploiting weakness? It became pretty obvious from the fifth minute onwards that JJ Hanrahan was going to be targeted at fullback. The quality of the kick was very good and all the chasers had to do was stay onside and time their arrival into the jump.

Adam Byrne was the beneficiary here. He had five good catches in the first half. At 100 kilos and 1.93 metres, you could suspect he would have a good day in this department. He did, and Leinster looked like they could boss the game for long periods using this tactic. Hanrahan is not a fullback and I am fairly certain he will not be used in that position in Europe. Munster may have a few injuries in their back-field but Andrew Conway or Simon Zebo will need to be wearing the number 15 shirt when the European circus comes to town.

Still, Munster scored three tries to two. When Leinster were as dominant as they were all afternoon, you need to take a look at how they managed to leak three tries, only one of which came from concerted and constructive Munster pressure. The first came from a loose ball in midfield from Robbie Henshaw. Ian Keatley latched on to it to score and you can file that one under 'shit happens'. The Munster player got into his stride too quickly and the Leinster chasers were left with too much to do.

It didn't seem to bother Leinster and they got back into the rhythm pretty quickly afterwards.

Defensively, they were organised and it took something like a loose ball or an unexpected chain of events to unsettle them. Munster took a swipe at one of their own lineout throw-ins and were under pressure immediately. Tommy O'Donnell latched on to it and instead of finding resistance at the scene of the lineout, he managed to charge straight through it and gallop up the field with Keith Earls as an out-rider. He shaped to go inside as Joey Carbery came to close him down. Carbery was on his toes and the feint didn't trouble him.

At this stage Adam Byrne was marking Earls and was directly in line with him and facing him. Players will tell you that defence is all about trust and understanding - it doesn't have to be a telepathic arrangement as most players know what to do instinctively at the given time. Carbery, you have to trust, would make his tackle. If he missed that was his fault and the system failure is down to him. Inexplicably, Byrne drifted in towards the tackle scene and as Carbery made sure of his tackle, O'Donnell's pass went directly to Earls who was left unmarked. Byrne was caught in no-man's land. Breathtaking naivety.

The Leinster winger still had the chance to try and stop Earls' charge for the line. Earls was less than a metre from the touchline. Earls is 14 kilos lighter than Byrne and the nature of the tackle was a hard drive into touch to try and get the Munster man over that line.

He had the angle, the pace and the strength to do it and yet he ended up making a common or garden tackle around his chest. Your second option is to tackle the ball - either way, Byrne did neither. Any other Leinster player in the back-field could have prevented that try. . When it is easier to tackle an opponent into touch, that is what you must do.

Leinster took their penalties as the game progressed and it was a clean-room, laboratory-type close-out.

If we are to believe anything about the hype of this fixture you would have expected that neither side would give their opponent anything. With the game at 23-12, the attitude should have been 'don't let Munster even have a bonus point'. With about two minutes on the clock, Munster tried a bit of rinky-dink from a five-metre lineout.

Leinster switched off mentally at this point and nearly got caught cold but saved their line and Munster spread it. From the last recycle in the phase Leinster were caught defending too narrowly and the ball was spun out to Conway. Hard to know whether Leinster play a system where the fullback takes the last man but Carbery made the tackle on the second-last man and Byrne, who had been in the line, had to loop out of it and chase around to try and prevent Earls from scoring a try. The Leinster winger had a far better angle than the previous time in that corner when the try was conceded. An aggressive hit would have been enough and as Earls began his run in to touch down, Byrne seemed to pull out of the tackle.

Munster got their bonus point and had a window of opportunity to go and win the game from deep in their own half. This would have been a truly farcical sequence of events if it had transpired. It is, though, symptomatic of what this fixture has become.

If it is what the players say it is - do or die, no quarter given, the big one - then Earls should have been buried into the west stand and the score would have stayed 23-12. Byrne has to make a decision about his career and Leinster will have to shuffle their back three.

It was a good result for both provinces in the sense that it will have left them with no illusions about themselves. Munster, in particular when you look at what was left on the field in the 80th minute, would make you fear for their prospects next week in Castres.

Leinster have a huge examination themselves next week but the strong vein of quality players dotted throughout the side will only be able to do so much for them when Montpellier come to town next week.

This fixture has fallen off a cliff in terms of prestige and standing - time for the marketing men to take a break - we are not buying it anymore.

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