At least both Irish provinces put in performances that, with a bit more accuracy, discipline and execution could have generated wins over Leicester Tigers and Toulon last weekend. Not so Toulouse. The former standard bearers and only four-time European champions were nothing short of embarrassing in their utter annihilation by a very polished Ulster side in Belfast on Friday night.
That victory, coupled with Connacht’s third win on the bounce in the Challenge Cup, provided the perfect start to the weekend for the provinces. Unfortunately that was about as good as it was going to get.
Of the two defeats that followed, Leinster have more reason to be positive despite the fact that they are all but mathematically out of Europe at this stage. Yet they showed enough in defeat at the Stade Felix Mayol to suggest they are capable of reversing the tables when Toulon visit the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
The biggest worry facing Leo Cullen - and by extension Joe Schmidt — heading into that game is the form of Johnny Sexton. He appears a pale shadow of the dominant presence that adorned the Leinster No 10 shirt before departing to Paris over two years ago. He looks a troubled soul at present and the harder he tries, the worse things appear to be getting.
He appreciates better than most that he was seen as the catalyst for better things from Leinster this season but, apart from a brief glimpse of the real deal against Ulster in the Guinness Pro12 a few weeks ago, we are still waiting for the Sexton we have grown to respect and admire over the last five years to reemerge.
The one thing we know about Sexton, however, is that he is a fighter. Right now he appears to be more in need of reassurance and support than ridicule and reprimand. A known advocate of sports psychologist Enda McNulty, it strikes me that a few hours spent with the former Armagh footballer might prove more beneficial than time on the training paddock. I look forward to seeing him work his way back into form.
Things are not much rosier further south as Munster absorb the lessons of three competitive defeats on the trot. With a return visit to Welford Road next Sunday followed by key derby games in the Pro12 against Leinster and Ulster over the festive period, things aren’t about to get any easier for Anthony Foley’s men.
Foley’s post-match outburst against referee Romain Poite has attracted a lot of comment as the Munster coach gave full vent to his anger at not just the result but, one suspects, the inadequacies of his side.
There is no question that Poite’s decision, taken in consultation with his TMO Gilles Cogne — you have to wonder how he could have missed Dan Cole’s push on James Cronin — was a very poor call yet Foley needs to park the persecution complex that Munster have played on for years and examine the reasons for the crucial 12 points registered by Leicester in that key period before the break.
Poite’s shambolic call set up the attacking opportunity for the Tigers but thereafter should not be used as an excuse for some very poor play by Munster. From that penalty, Leicester secured an attacking lineout right on the 22 leaving the Munster forwards with a decision to make. Do they compete in the air in an effort to disrupt the throw or set themselves up on the deck to resist the inevitable driving maul? They went with the former, with two pods propelling Donnacha Ryan and Dave Foley in the air. Nothing wrong with that call.
To their credit, Leicester executed perfectly with a risky throw towards the tail and set in motion a perfectly choreographed maul repelling Munster back 15 metres. The problem here was that Cronin, Niall Scannell, CJ Stander and Robin Copeland all stood off the initial drive, leaving just four forwards trying to repel the entire Leicester pack.
Munster were then offered a lifeline by another poor decision from Poite in that he should have awarded a penalty try to Leicester as Foley and Cronin, who had joined the fray by now, illegally collapsed the maul within touching distance of the try line.
Even then, Munster should have stopped the try with three defenders manning the blind side against two attackers. Ben Youngs’ looping pass to Goneva was delivered behind the winger, forcing him to take a step backwards. However Ian Keatley hesitates for a split second when he should have smashed Goneva into touch and the winger scores. In fact Leicester should have had two more points on the board as the penalty try would have yielded a conversion under the posts.
The second try concession during that period can be traced again to Munster shortcomings rather than anything inventive from the visitors. That defensive five metre lineout needed to be executed far quicker. It took 32 seconds from when Scannell first set himself up to throw to his final delivery with Foley complaining to Poite that Leicester were not offering the one metre gap in the lineout.
Munster were far too hesitant and created indecision. That put more pressure on Scannell who was starting a Champions Cup match for the first time, but was playing well. Ryan or Foley needed to take ownership of that situation, get the ball in quicker and if Leicester were encroaching in the tunnel and, as a consequence, interfered with the jumper in the air then it would have been a penalty out.
Ask yourself: if Paul O’Connell was part of that lineout, would Leicester have scored? The fact is though that O’Connell is no longer part of the set-up and that necessitates others to step into the leadership breach. That is the real issue here and not the terrible decision taken six minutes earlier by Poite.
Like Leinster, Munster also have issues surrounding the form of their out-half. Keatley is no longer a rookie and must take responsibility for his actions. The simple fact is that he is missing far too many straightforward kicks in competitive games. Who is his kicking coach? Why has his inconsistency not being addressed at this stage? I am led to believe by someone far more knowledgeable in the art of place kicking than me that his problem can be traced directly to issues with his technique.
It struck me watching Racing 92’s impressive win over Northampton in Paris how much more assured both JJ Hanrahan and Casey Laulala appeared for their respective sides compared to their time with Munster.
I always felt that Munster never got the best out of Laulala, in particular, and to see him perform at such a high level with Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko for Racing was instructive. It was as if he was surrounded by kindred spirits who knew instinctively what he was going to do. Likewise Hanrahan looked far more composed in Northampton colours despite the fact that they were under pressure from a very impressive Racing outfit from the outset. He always looked as if he had something to prove playing for Munster and hence tried to do something magical every time he got his hands on the ball, which inevitably led to some poor decisions.
Watching him perform so well in difficult circumstances last weekend only served to highlight the fact that it should never have reached the point where he felt it necessary to leave for first-team action.
Munster would be delighted to have him now.