Saturday 21 September 2019

Rivals struggle to settle in new order

Leo Cullen and Anthony Foley have changing roles in changing times

Leo Cullen’s vast experience as a player at the top end of the game will be useful, but he is leading a group whose mileage on the coaching road is the stuff of 'once around the block' Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Leo Cullen’s vast experience as a player at the top end of the game will be useful, but he is leading a group whose mileage on the coaching road is the stuff of 'once around the block' Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

One of the better lines on Twitter last week had it that Ben Te’o leaving Leinster for Worcester was like Hugh Grant ditching Liz Hurley for Divine Brown. If that was a bit of an insult to Worcester, then it paled compared to Te’o’s albeit unintentional put down of his current outfit. “It is clearly a club which is on the up,” he said of his prospective new home. “Everything is in place for Worcester to become a successful club competing in the top tier”. Oh dear.

In fairness to Te’o this has been coming ever since he said that he quite liked the idea of playing Test rugby, and that he is England qualified. That too wasn’t a bad line (“I’m not sure for who, but I’d love to play it”) and the chances were remote of him hanging around until 2017 to become Ireland-qualified through residency.

So it concluded a rough few days for Leinster coach Leo Cullen, though he has been wearing it well. At the post-match press conference in the Aviva Stadium last Saturday night he didn’t sound like a man devastated by his team’s exit from the Champions Cup. Rather he referred to the significant tilt in the European rugby axis, which has skewed the playing pitch.

Cullen maintained that this was not just financial — that fundamentally it was about job descriptions: so Bernard Laporte need only think about what’s best for Toulon in the Top 14 and in Europe, while Cullen has to tick the box marked ‘Ireland Development.’ But it has always been that way. The clubs of England and France are not underwritten by their parent unions in the way our provinces are, so independence has always been the ethos.

Instead the key ingredient is cash. Laporte can wedge great big doors open with the folding stuff at his disposal. And since tv companies have come to the table to compete there are a fair few Laportes running around France and England. This doesn’t mean Leinster will not be able to trade, but we will never again see the dominance they enjoyed in the 2009-2012 era.

The prospects of them winning the Champions Cup again in the near future are remote. And if they are serious about it then they need to optimise the twin tracks of growing their own, and sourcing new cash to buy top of the range recruits, as well as retaining what they have.

Cullen’s vast experience as a player at the top end of the game will be useful, but he is leading a group whose mileage on the coaching road is the stuff of ‘once around the block.’ Moreover there is the issue of dealing with so many players with whom he shared a dressing room.

When Joe Schmidt started with Leinster in 2010 there was a gap on his cv under the ‘head coach’ column, but he had already clocked up significant air miles as an assistant in New Zealand and France. And he didn’t have to manage a transition in relationships either — with the exception of Isa Nacewa they were all new faces. And it wasn’t as if he had played with Nacewa.

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Coincidentally, when it was getting off to a false start under Schmidt it was Cullen and Johnny Sexton who went to the new coach and told him to hold tight, and ignore some of the half-cocked criticism that was landing at his door. You wondered in Toulon two weeks ago if Cullen had the coach/player relationship at the forefront of his mind when deciding to leave his good friend Sexton on the field despite the outhalf’s struggles. Whatever Cullen’s rationale, it was the wrong one. 

His opposite number this evening, Anthony Foley, has his own troubles. As players this pair were probably too polarised at the height of the Red versus Blue saga to be close but you’d imagine they could swap some interesting notes now in their new roles.

Typically when Munster and Leinster meet over the Christmas season the backdrop is one of rude health at home and abroad. Uniquely they are both focused almost exclusively now on the Pro 12, though in Europe Munster have the lifeline of their rearranged game in Paris, and with it the prospect of getting a runners-up spot if they can complete the programme with three big wins.

The way the pool has unfolded has been an exercise in frustration for Foley. The tom toms have been beating over Ian Keatley’s shooting stats, but over the course of the two legs against Leicester Munster played lots of good rugby with ball in hand. While Leinster looked clueless against the Toulon maul, the Tigers didn’t have anything like that kind of dominance in any phase — and yet came out of the back-to-backs with a whopping 23 points to spare.

If Foley was apoplectic with referee Romain Poite over his game-swinging decision to penalise James Cronin in the first leg then it was mostly Munster’s own shortcomings that unseated them in Welford Road. The ease with which Tigers captain Ed Slater got over from close range for the first try was hard to fathom. You don’t need great skill to defend from that distance, and for a team under pressure like to that to appear so passive was remarkable.

Munster should have their biggest crowd of the season to see what kind of resolve they bring to this evening’s game. Between players leaving the scene, and wins being as hard to come by as a white Christmas, these are changed times for what’s supposed to be festive stuff. Not a lot of ho ho ho in either camp just now, but consider that even in dark moments you can find some light. Hugh Grant’s career as an awful actor picked up where it left off, and Divine Brown made over $1.5m from publicity arising from the incident. Happy Christmas.

Munster: A Conway; K Earls, F Saili, D Hurley, S Zebo; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; J Cronin, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D Foley, D Ryan; R Copeland, J O’Donoghue, CJ Stander. Replacements: N Scannell, D Kilcoyne, J Ryan, Bi Holland, T O’Donnell, T O’Leary, R Scannell, LG Amorosino.

Leinster: Z Kirchner; F McFadden, G Ringrose, L Fitzgerald, I Nacewa; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong, D Toner, T Denton, D Ryan,  S O’Brien, J Heaslip. Replacements: J Tracy, C Healy, M Moore, R Molony, J van der Flier, N McCarthy, C Marsh, D Kearney.

Munster v Leinster, TG4, Sky Sports 3, 5.15

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