Peter Jackson: Leinster’s unexpected demise may do deeper damage

Peter Jackson: Leinster’s unexpected demise may do deeper damage

Jonathan Sexton queries a decision during the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Of all the painful images from a Champions’ Cup weekend of double Irish capitulation, the most revealing centred on Leinster’s unmasking as the best team in Europe.

Johnny Sexton, arms stretched wide in supplication, a bewildered look on his face, may have been doing more than appealing for justice, having taken a shot to the head in the course of Saracens doing to the Dubs what Buster Douglas did to Mike Tyson in Tokyo 30 years ago.

The referee, Mathieu Raynal, offered a compassionate response after a re-run of the Michael Rhodes hit but had some trouble locating the captain on the receiving end. He wanted to tell him that the illegal tackle had been punished, albeit leniently without the offender being binned.

“Captain, please,” said Raynal, trying to find his man. “Johnny? Where’s Johnny?”

Momentarily, Leinster’s bruised ringmaster could have been forgiven had he been lost in his thoughts. His expression suggested something more profound about the bigger picture, a cri de coeur provoked by a grim realisation that if the game wasn’t up at that precise point, it soon would be.

A team that had swept all before it since running into the same opponent on Tyneside last year had broken itself on the rocks of Sarries’ mental fortitude. Sexton, no slouch himself in that respect, had ample reason to look suitably perplexed.

How could they play like that after all they had endured? The humiliation of relegation over the salary cap scandal? The loss of 12 Test players as a consequence? A 13th (Owen Farrell) to suspension? And still they rose to match their status by playing like champions of Europe.

In doing so, they may well have left Sexton delving into the deeper recesses of his mind and dredging up an awkward question: “Will I ever get another shot at beating this lot?”

It cannot happen again for another two years at the earliest by which time Leinster’s ringmaster will be into his 38th year. Even for one whose competitive ferocity is a thing to behold, that will require pushing his luck to the nth degree.

His admission that ‘everything had been about this game’ since the draw in January suggests that the damage will take some repairing, not least to a mangled scrum. Leinster’s demise, ironically, puts the game in danger of lurching into further disrepute because Saracens refuse to bend a knee, unlike Andrew Porter in one of those ghastly set-pieces.

At least the Londoners are allowed to defend their title, unlike Muhammad Ali. ‘The Greatest’ got a five-year prison sentence in 1967 for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War on moral grounds: ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong’.

What kind of tournament has the nerve to call itself a ‘Champions’ Cup’ when the champions are excluded? The question will be asked ad infinitum should Sarries retain their title and take it with them into the comparative wilderness of the English Second Division. It is, of course, all part of the punishment for persistent salary cap breaches, serious enough to have brought a fine of €6m and a deduction of points (105) great enough to condemn them to relegation. The rules decree that only clubs from the top tier of their national competition can qualify for Europe.

The same rules also state that the winner of the second-string Challenge Cup is given a passage into the main event. Should Leicester negotiate a semi-final at Toulon, nothing like the test of survival it used to be, they will be one more win from rejoining the elite.

Like Toulon, the Tigers aren’t what they used to be, either. They are bottom but one of the English Premiership with only the Heineken Cup holders beneath them, guaranteeing their status for another season.

An event supposedly reserved for champions could soon find room for a team from the depths of the English Premiership but none for the champs. Sarries may be the team neutrals love to hate but even they will have a grudging respect for their winning mentality.

Irish interest now turns to Paris and Devon

Donnacha Ryan: At 36, still going strongly enough to be an integral part of Racing’s 23.
Donnacha Ryan: At 36, still going strongly enough to be an integral part of Racing’s 23.

Finding the last Irishmen standing in Europe’s blue riband event has suddenly become a challenging exercise. The inquests beginning in Dublin and Belfast this morning ought not to obscure the quartet of 30-somethings who have made it into the last four.

Pride of place deserves to go to a second row from Tipperary who has gone a long way towards reaching his first Heineken Cup final at an age when most players have retired.

At 36, Donnacha Ryan is still going strongly enough to be an integral part of Racing’s 23. The Parisians needed his reassuring presence for most of the second half to knock Clermont out and secure a home semi-final against Saracens.

Ryan’s suitability to sit some of the best benches in the game goes back a long way to arguably the best bench of all, Munster’s on the occasion of their last final, against Toulouse in Cardiff 12 years ago. For a while, Ryan was good enough to lock the scrum as Paul O’Connell’s junior partner instead of the formidable Donnacha O’Callaghan.

That O’Connell’s team regained the trophy without requiring more than two subs (Tony Buckley and Mick O’Driscoll) reduced Ryan to track-suited invisibility. A better fate awaits him in the final next month should Racing succeed where Leinster failed.

Another Munster émigré, Simon Zebo, will expect to keep his place at full-back if only because the club’s Australian import, Kurtley Beale, is in a state of suspension serving a three-week ban.

The other Irish survivors are to be found in Devon, each long-serving members of Exeter’s rise from the second-tier to the top of the English pyramid. Ian Whitten, good enough at 33 to command a starting place in midfield, won a cap yesterday marking his 50th European appearance.

A centre whose Ireland career began in Canada one week 11 years ago and ended in the US the next, Whitten left Ravenhill for Sandy Park eight years ago, doubling the Chiefs’ Ulster contingent in the process.

Gareth Steenson, a late sub yesterday as Exeter clinched their first semi-final, retires next month at 36, one of very few in the professional era to rattle up 3,000 points without being capped.

Ulster stay true to French form

Dan McFarland: ‘We got punished and we deserved it.’
Dan McFarland: ‘We got punished and we deserved it.’

The best that can be said of Ulster’s latest misadventure in France is that they refused to throw in the towel at the final bell.

With the clock in red and the game long gone, they kept trying to run from deep rather than take the soft option of hoofing the ball into touch.

They won a penalty for their enterprise whereupon Michael Lowry unwittingly brought the match to a suitably anti-climactic end by over-clubbing his kick into touch-in-goal.

Those pundits who talked Ulster up as potential semi-finalists paid scant heed to their recent track record.

In their four previous mismatches in France, against Racing, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, and Clermont, Ulster had shipped 156 points, losing by an average of 39-15. What transpired in Toulouse, therefore, was nothing more than par for the course.

Head coach Dan McFarland deserves credit for telling it as it was. He could have highlighted the disruption caused by Billy Burns’ early loss but went straight to the point, telling BTSport: “We got punished and we deserved it. In some parts of the game, we weren’t at the races.”

Brace gets lost in translation

In the last minute of the worst game of the weekend, Toulon’s Challenge Cup bore against Scarlets, Andrew Brace warned the French pack as they manned the barricades: ‘Discipline.’ At that point, Sergio Parisse might have been tempted into a riposte, pointing out the irony of the advice. 

Toulon conceded 10 penalties, Scarlets almost twice as many without the faintest trace of a yellow card. And that included allowing Scarlets to get away with a deliberate knock-on. 

Brace did not appear to attempt any French throughout the match, neither did former Munster scrum-half Frank Murphy in his handling of Bordeaux’s home Challenge Cup win over Edinburgh.

The grudge match to beat the all could become a reality this weekend: Saracens v Exeter for the Champions’ Cup. If they win the first all Anglo-French semi-finals, the holders will meet the Premiership leaders who believe that Sarries’ salary-cap shenanigans robbed them of English titles on each of the last two seasons.

My team of the weekend:

15 Stuart Hogg (Exeter)

14 Damian Penaud (Clermont)

13 Duncan Taylor (Saracens)

12 Pita Akhi (Toulouse)

11 Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse)

10 Alex Goode (Saracens)

9 Antoine Dupont (Toulouse)

1 Mako Vunipola (Saracens)

2 Camille Chat (Racing)

3 Vincent Koch (Saracens)

4 Maro Itoje (Saracens)

5 Bernard Le Roux (Racing)

6 Michael Rhodes (Saracens)

7 Jacques Vermeulen (Exeter)

8 Antoine Claassen (Racing)

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