After blowing the Scarlets off the pitch and out of the competition, Connacht send a reminder that it’s not only about how good you are on paper, it’s as much to do with attitude on the pitch.
Leinster’s collective attitude in Galway yesterday, admittedly in a dead rubber game having qualified for the semi-final already, and with Connacht out of the running for play-off spots, was not even close to what is necessary to win games at this level.
We were supposed to believe that the Leinster second string would be eager for the chance to be involved in the close out games of the season. That they would come with as much dogged determination, cold blooded accuracy and clinical finishing. It was the Westerners, however, that showed all these features.
They said that the men in green had nothing to play for. How wrong they were.
John Muldoon played his final professional game in a remarkable career. You could tell the entire team was going to give him the send off his years of committed playing deserved. But that wasn’t all.
Conncacht were unlucky losers in the RDS earlier this year, and the last few minutes was a battlefield, as I recounted here. This was their chance for revenge. They took it. It was said that revenge is a dish served cold, but seeing as Leinster seemed to not want to win and Connacht gain little, it doesn’t feel the phrase holds in this case.
Then again, the Irish squad will be announced in a few weeks time. There are now a number of Connacht players who have to be considered. The entire back line could be in with a shout; some of the interchanges between Carty and Adeolokun were especially noteworthy.
Contrast that to a Leinster team that missed and unheard of thirty tackles. Carbery alone, who I’ll say yet again does not look match fit, missed a handful of bread and butter tackles. I cannot believe he is Ireland’s back-up full back. While an expert out half, he is only a journeyman full back.
So what happened this week to Leinster? They clean the floor with Scarlets. Is it simply a matter of the divide between the firsts and seconds being too wide? We used to say that the step up from the Celtic League to Europe was large and the step up from Europe to Test matches was even larger. The second string have a huge leap to make if they are to break into big day match squads.
Let’s consider the scrum yesterday. Leinster had a terrible day at the office. This was shocking to behold and it is difficult to tell what exactly was going on. I’m no scrum connoisseur.
The look on Cian Healy’s face in the last few minutes told a lot. He came on as a substitute and looked abrasive as ever. But you could see the disgust in his expression at Andrew Brace’s interpretation of the rules.
That’s a major part of the game, one might say. Acting is how you avoid getting a yellow card. “Who me, ref? What did I do?”. But Healy does not veil his emotions that well, he won’t be transferring to Broadway anytime soon. And his confusion at the decision can’t be put down to the usual thick headedness of front rows. No. He was angered by the decision.
So Leinster lost the scrum battle, and let’s give it to the men in green. If they took advantage of the referee, exploiting his interpretation, well done them. You have to be able to adapt. But more than anything the eight up front showed a togetherness and collective effort, striking and stealing at the perfect moment each time. But that wasn’t enough to win the game alone.
Leinster lost this one in the backs. The old cliché says that forwards win games and backs decide by how much. Well the forward battle, scrum aside was close. Possession and territory in the match were close; the territory statistic largely thanks to James Lowe’s massive clearance kicks.
Cannacht tore us apart out wide. They offloaded beautifully. And they got a cheap intercept for seven under the sticks from a hapless Lowe pass - you could see it coming a mile away. Seven tries to one. How did this happen? How did we get away with it last week?
We didn’t give the Scarlets the ball last week. They got into our half three or four times in the first half, mostly only getting three pointers. Leinster dominated the possession stakes. And when the Welsh men did get the ball, it was deep in their own half.
The battle of the forwards was completely different also last week. Rather than being an even battle Leinster gave almost nothing away. They were relentless and the Scarlets started to look tired and scared before the first half was out. The try at half time was a punch to the stomach and they struggled to get up from it. The try after half time was the knock out blow.
Can we learn any lessons? Probably not. The teams were too different. It looks like James Ryan might be the big difference in the scrum. Outsiders often miss that a good lock makes the scrum, thinking it’s all about front row power (and skill?), but if you don’t have a stable base you can’t push forward.
The back row last week were insatiable. Murphy (oh how we’ll miss him next year), Leavy and Fardy had a terrible impact on the Scarlets, totally keeping the men in red off the ball. This week Conan, Timmons and Deegan did not have the same impact. More game time will bring them on, but it will be next season, I reckon, before they will have another opportunity.
The backs last week were on top form. There is no better centre partnership than Ringrose and Henshaw. It was tough for Cannacht to lose the Galwayman a few years ago but the right move for Irish rugby. Leinster fans should remember this given that either Carberry or Ross Byrne may be forced to move. If it’s for the benefit of the player and his country to allow him more game time then we should all stand behind it, no matter how bitter a pill to swallow.
The Leinster back three last week, Kearney, Nacewa and McFadden, were in top form. You couldn’t say the same about Carberry, Lowe and Daly yesterday. They have not played together much recently but were shown up defensively.
Nick McCarthy didn’t have his worst game yesterday, but he still has a lot to learn. When the more experienced Gibson-Park came on his impact did not matter much to the game at that stage. It looks like McGrath will be back in time for the final - a risk we may have to take putting him back in the starting position to allow Fardy and Lowe to appear.
The team will have a weekend off to brood and plan for the final in Bilboa. Topping the conference is largely down to the same second string set of players that failed miserably yesterday and also at home to Treviso recently. The win and draw against Scarlets during the Six Nations in particular helped to generate enough of a gap that these last few fixtures should not rest too heavily on the squads shoulders.
The mission has been accomplished. We have a place in the European final and a bye into the semi-final of the domestic league. What more could Leo Cullen ask for?
Oh he’ll want more. Be sure of it.