Fur­ther proof that neb­u­lous ri­valry has fallen off a cliff edge

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - NEIL FRANCIS

ALOW-QUAL­ITY game be­tween these two sides 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 game where there are so many qual­ity play­ers.

As the match 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 of all that was 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 here as they were un­able to get past 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 in the first half 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 would sus­pect that 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 that 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.

The score­board says 23-17 and 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. Mun­ster’s first try 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 ‘s**t hap­pens’. The Mun­ster player got into his stride too quickly and the Le­in­ster chasers were left with too much to do. Mun­ster seemed to pick up a lot of sim­ple tries from cap­i­tal­is­ing on their op­po­nents’ mis­takes or weak­nesses. It didn’t seem to bother Le­in­ster and they got back into the rhythm pretty quickly af­ter­wards.

De­fen­sively, Le­in­ster were very 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. O’Don­nell man­aged to latch 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 Keith 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 would have to trust, would make his tackle. If he missed the tackle 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 turn and 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 back­field could have pre­vented that try. Rob­bie Hen­shaw, you were cer­tain, would not have let his Ire­land team-mate score or score it that eas­ily. Rory O’Lough­lin or Johnny Sex­ton would also 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 of a Mun­ster side that were putting them­selves un­der pres­sure ev­ery time they at­tempted to run the ball.

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 Adam 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 in­cred­i­bly pulled 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 at 23-12. Byrne had noth­ing to do all sum­mer; does that mean you do noth­ing? He 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. They were a lit­tle bit sharper than they have been all sea­son, but the strong vein of qual­ity play­ers dot­ted through­out the side will only be able to do so much for them when Mont­pe­lier 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.

If it re­ally is ‘do or die’, Earls should have been buried into the West Stand

Rob­bie Hen­shaw is tack­led by Dave Kil­coyne and Tyler Bleyen­daal dur­ing yes­ter­day’s PRO14 clash in the Aviva Sta­dium. Photo: Bren­dan Mo­ran

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