DONAL LENIHAN: Leinster’s biggest threat in Europe? Complacency

Leinster celebrate a try against Wasps.

The challenge for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster is to keep players firmly focused on the task at hand in the face of the inevitable plaudits that will accompany last weekend’s incredible performance, says Donal Lenihan.

“The chase is on.”

So says the captivating BT Sports’ rugby promo, screened in advance of the first round of Heineken Champions Cup action last weekend, with players from the participating teams chasing Leinster’s Rob Kearney as he sprints away with the trophy.

After witnessing what transpired in the tournament’s opening game at the RDS on Friday night, with the holders registering eight tries and 52 points against former champions Wasps, nothing short of signing Usain Bolt will catch Kearney or his Leinster
team-mates.

While acknowledging Wasps were short a number of frontline players — an ongoing problem across the board as the increasingly physical nature of the game continues to impact on all squads — the visitors were made look like a disorganised rabble as Leinster sniffed weakness and went for the jugular.

Such is the competition for starting places in this Leinster line-up that, once you get a call from the bench to make an impact the ‘finishers’ — as Eddie Jones calls them — are gunning to make a positive impact with a view to making the starting line-up for the next game.

It’s a measure of the province’s amazing strength in depth that their ‘finishers’ against Wasps included two British and Irish Lions in Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath who featured in the series draw against New Zealand last year along with two more Irish internationals in James Tracy and Andrew Porter.

Add in two Wallabies in Scott Fardy, who started for Australia in the 2015 World Cup final against New Zealand, and the 17-times capped Joe Tomane and you get a flavour for what Wasps faced.

Leinster were awesome. The quality of their passing, from backs and forwards alike, their support lines and composure on the ball sets them apart from the vast majority of sides in the competition.

The challenge for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster is to keep players firmly focused on the task at hand in the face of the inevitable plaudits that will accompany their incredible performance last weekend.

A visit to the only other side in the tournament with four stars on their shirt, Toulouse on Sunday, will help in that regard.

Leinster’s scintillating performance also served to shine the spotlight on the English Premiership whose sides, with the obvious exception of Saracens, have failed to make any serious impact on the tournament in recent years.

After the humiliation suffered by Wasps, the defeat of Leicester Tigers by Ulster and the draw fashioned by Munster over current Gallagher Premiership leaders Exeter at Sandy Park, a venue where the Chiefs stand unbeaten in their last 23 Premiership games, perhaps it is time for a little introspection from the money men cross-channel.

Last season, clubs from England’s domestic league enjoyed a paltry 35% success ratio, winning only 12 of their 35 European games.

To think that not so long ago those same club owners were deriding the quality of the Guinness PRO12/14!

The more you observe the English clubs in action, the more you begin to understand why Eddie Jones pays lip service to the performances of some contenders for an England starting slot in their domestic league.

He has argued for some time now that the quality of the Premiership does not adequately prepare players for the demands of international rugby with Europe a more reliable barometer. I’m beginning to appreciate where the under-fire England coach is coming from.

Quite where the French Top 14 sits after the Gallagher Premiership’s basement side Newcastle Falcons enjoyed a shock one-point win over Toulon, who had only lost once in their previous 24
European outings at the Stade Felix-Mayol, makes you wonder.

With just two wins from seven outings in this season’s Top 14 and their owner Mourad Boudjellal in the wars with the EPCR, Toulon are a pale shadow of the star-studded side that won three European titles in a row between 2013 and 2015.

How quickly things change.

Munster will be happier that Gloucester managed to beat current French champions and fellow pool contenders Castres at Kingsholm on Sunday even if the losing bonus point secured will keep them focused for their home game against Exeter next weekend.

That match will tell us a lot about the Castres mindset and approach to Europe this season and will prove instructive on what Munster can expect for the key, back to back, encounters in December against an age-old European rival.

The fact Munster face them first up in Limerick is a bonus given Sunday’s latest defeat on the road to Gloucester means Castres have only won four of the 41 away games they have played in Europe.

That’s an appalling record for a club that has shown remarkable consistency in the Top 14.

Right now Munster have every reason to feel pleased with themselves after their opening effort in Devon yielded two very valuable match points in what looks like developing into a straight shootout between them and the Chiefs for ultimate Pool 2 honours.

Not unlike the Guinness PRO14 the previous weekend, the quality and consistency of refereeing across the opening weekend of action left a lot to be desired.

In games as tight as the vast majority of those clashes that’s not good enough.

While Munster had every reason to feel aggrieved with some of the calls made by Ben Whitehouse against Leinster the previous week, they might admit privately that fortune favoured them on two crucial occasions last Saturday.

Andrew Conway’s ‘over-enthusiastic’ chase of Gareth Steenson’s conversion on the stroke of half-time not only warranted a yellow card but could also have resulted in a penalty from halfway after Steenson’s successful conversion.

With a gale behind him, an additional three points would have undone all of Munster’s excellent work to that point.

How French referee Jerome Garces took no action was a mystery.

Some of the Munster supporters who were tuned into my RTÉ radio commentary during the game and didn’t agree with my call on the incident raised the point during some good-humoured banter on the journey home.

I asked them to imagine for a second if Mathieu Bastareaud, playing for France against Ireland in the Stade de France, did likewise to Johnny Sexton while attempting a conversion. “Ah, that would be different”.

Indeed.

Let’s just say objectively was in short supply!!

Likewise, on another day with another referee, a retreating and clearly under pressure Munster scrum, straight in front of their posts with just 10 seconds remaining, might well have been
penalised.

Instead, Garces instructed the Chiefs’ scrum-half Stu Townsend to play the ball from the base of the collapsed scrum and Munster immediately went into defensive mode.Twenty two phases later, Exeter knocked on a metre short of the Munster line. It was that tight.

These games, involving the top sides, tend to be decided by the smallest of margins. Munster’s performance deserved a minimum return of two points.

Chances are when these two sides meet again, with a 5.30pm kick-off scheduled for Thomond Park on January 19, everything will still be on the line.

If so, what another great evening of European drama lies in wait for the famous Limerick venue.

One suspects, however, that there are still a few tricky assignments to be negotiated before that point is reached.


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