Friday 23 March 2018

Tony Ward: Leinster must start faster to go any further

Munster show lethargic Blues the way forward with return to old-school intensity

Devin Toner rises to take possession in a lineout against Castres on Sunday – Leinster need to play with more intensity from the start if they are to win the Heineken Cup
Devin Toner rises to take possession in a lineout against Castres on Sunday – Leinster need to play with more intensity from the start if they are to win the Heineken Cup
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

For the third time this season, Irish rugby is basking in a Heineken Cup green sweep. Irrespective of the problems bedevilling this great competition, a record that shows 16 Irish wins from 20 games in this campaign is definitely something to write home about.

It is very likely that there will be three Irish provinces in the last eight as, barring an extraordinary turn of events in the final match against the Ospreys, Leinster should join Munster and Ulster (both already qualified) in the knockout stages.

Connacht too are in with a mathematical chance of qualification, and though that is unlikely, it is still a remarkable achievement for the men from the west to return their highest points total in this competition, with three victories in Pool 3 so far.

So for all four provinces and for Joe Schmidt ahead of the Six Nations, it was a weekend to savour.

Honourable mention goes to Ulster and Connacht for doing what they had to do and what we expected of them (bonus point shortcomings aside) on home soil against Montpellier and Zebre.

But for now I will concentrate on the last two into action over the weekend, the two on the road, Munster and Leinster.

Kingsholm is still the most hostile of venues even if not defended by Gloucester warriors as talented or as uncompromising as in times past.


All that said, this was the collective performance of the weekend by a distance.

Despite the Reds' excellent record this season in both Pro12 and Heineken Cup (14 wins from 17 games) I cannot recall a performance that was as reminiscent of the controlled intensity of Munster of old.

I'm still not convinced there is a third Heineken Cup in this squad but after this Kingsholm tour de force, led by the incredible double act of Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony, I sure as hell wouldn't bet against it.

I fear they will come up short in the backline when they meet their match at the breakdown, scrum and maul -- I am thinking specifically of the French giants Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont,

But when it comes to maximising more limited potential when it really matters on the big stage, the Munster beat goes on.

Yes, the line-speed in defence left a bit to be desired on occasion, with Billy Twelvetrees, Jonny May, former Blackrock man Shane Monahan (most impressive) and Charlie Sharples threatening to break clear down the outside channel or when cleverly using the inside pass against the drift.

Either way, whether it took a hand trip in desperation from the excellent James Downey or a scrambling tackle from any one of the sweeping front five, this was Munster men playing for each other with passion and desire.

For Rob Penney, it represented the consummate team performance reminiscent of body-on-the-line stuff from times past. We can now banish talk about new and varied game plans moving away from north-south and concentrating instead on east-west running and lines of support. That is not the Munster way. Yes it was tried -- and it failed.

Penney has had the good sense to accept that, to listen (I suggest to Niall O'Donovan, Anthony Foley, O'Connell and one or two other pragmatic Munster men of that ilk) and to cut his cloth and adapt accordingly.

What is new -- and was particularly effective at Kingsholm -- is the emphasis on offloading closer in, whereby instead of testing the tackle, the ball is being moved at or just before the point of contact.

The bottom line sees Munster reverting to type, and while it might never match Leinster's total package it still has an aesthetic appeal all of its own. I doubt I am alone in appreciating Munster's unique brand of winning rugby.

In individual terms O'Connell and O'Mahony were stupendous. Leaders who walk the walk , then talk the talk.

So long as he avoids serious injury, O'Mahony is destined to become one of the all-time Munster forward greats. He needs to curb that temper and channel it more productively at times but that will come with experience.

He already reminds me of Pat O'Hara, Ken O'Connell, Colm Tucker, Christy Cantillon, David Wallace and Alan Quinlan all rolled into one.

Ian Keatley produced a ROG-type European performance in terms of game management; the Daves -- Kilcoyne and Foley -- were just about everywhere; while Felix Jones at last played with the type of balanced full-back discipline that is essential if he is to move his game on to the next level.

Put simply, when those charged with wearing the red shirt combine fire in the belly with ice in the mind, the cocktail is irresistible.

Trying to assess Leinster's equally meritorious win in deepest France, when invading the lair of the reigning Top 14 champions and coming away with the spoils, is more difficult.

Here again, on the upside was admirable resilience and a winning return on a par with Munster.

But there were faults, serious faults, and failure to recognise and address them before the quarter-final (yes, I am assuming the three-time champions will seal the qualification deal at home to the Ospreys on Friday) could mark the first knockout fixture as the end of the road.


They say you learn much more when you lose, but the little I already know about Matt O'Connor suggests he will recognise Sunday's failings and address them accordingly.

While nowhere near as lethargic as they were against Northampton at the Aviva (following on that Franklin's Gardens super-show seven days before), they were slow out of the blocks at Castres.

For the best part of 40 minutes, they were low on intensity, high on missed tackles and struggling to stay alive in the scrum.

Yet twice they struck for typical Leinster tries, both scored by Jimmy Gopperth.

The final two minutes before half-time, culminating in the out-half's second touchdown, was nigh on flawless.

There's the rub for O'Connor and his back-room staff.

Resilience apart, it is imperative everybody concerned is self-critical to the nth degree.

Sean O'Brien's loss is massive and could actually be the difference between winning and losing a fourth title.

Yet, when this squad clicks, the balance is there to go the whole way.

Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D'Arcy and both halves (Gopperth and Eoin Reddan) had their moments, with Fitzgerald and Reddan particularly sharp in terms of line breaks at critical times, Gopperth too.

And of course the biggest plus of all Cian Healy's match-winning contribution in the final quarter.

To win in France is fantastic and far be it from me to knock that achievement, but keeping a lid on the level of performance and make-up of the opposition line-up is essential in order to move it on.

But equally, let's not lose the run of ourselves on this little island either. Well done to all four Antipodean coaches and to their squads. A great weekend for everyone concerned with much done, but still so much more to do.

Irish Independent

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