Friday, September 28, 2012

Connacht-34 Leinster-6

In a bizarre way, this game reminded me of one of the iconic opening scenes in the first Star Wars movie, only with a twist.

[For the pedantic among you, by “first” I mean the first to come out in the cinema]

I'm talking about the scene where the rebel ship had been captured and its soldiers positioned themselves waiting at the cargo bay door, each one primed for battle, yet each one equally fearful of what lay on the other side.

And so with an almighty bang the door gets blown to smithereens and through the thick camouflage of smoke comes the enemy they have been preparing to confront.

Only instead of a battalion of stormtroopers and a giant black-clad Sith Lord with chronic bronchitis crashing through all laser-guns blazing, the rebels discover their foes are nothing but a dozen or so baby Ewoks, who then proceed to inexplicably knock-on their weapons, wasting what had been a strong attacking position.

Think a comparison to the Galactic Empire is too strong an analogy for Leinster? Think again. Remember how we perceived Munster and their fans after they had won their second Heineken Cup? Well beat that record we may have done, but with it comes a similar (probably 1.5 times worse) infamy, and we have to accept that this result would have been met all around Europe with much glee.

Let's face it, we're seen as Vader now. Thankfully, at least we fans know there is much good still in us.

Ok, enough of the nerdy metaphors.

Connacht were of course amazing on the night, and full credit to Eric Elwood and Dan Parks for having them well primed to make full use of every advantage we gave them – sadly it turned out to be a lot! And on top of the experience and guile that Parks has brought to the table, they certainly have much talent coming through the ranks with the likes of McSharry (main pic), O'Halloran and Henshaw.

But last week I spoke about standards at Leinster rugby, and this match cannot be reviewed through blue goggles without trying to understand why a 23-man squad could collectively fall so short of them. The stats had some telling irony...the halftime score matched that from the 2011 Heineken Cup final, while the resulting losing margin was the same as that by which we defeated Ulster in Twickenham only last May.

So before I start going through what Leinster Rugby have gotten wrong, allow me first to go through the few bits of bad luck we had, for while it's not an excuse, it can't be ignored. The biggest sign that our goose was well and truly cooked was when Rob Kearney went off shortly after Connacht's second try.

This meant that just half an hour into the contest, we had already been forced into as many as four changes from the side originally announced Thursday lunchtime. The bench has become a powerful weapon in the modern game and with all due respect to both Jordi Murphy and Luke McGrath, the only viable game-changing bench options we were left with for the remaining 50 minutes were our marquee front-row trio, and our problems on the pitch were anywhere but there.

As much as we want our youngsters to develop, the Reid-Macken centre axis is just not able for this level yet and ideally should not be re-united this season anywhere but the B&I Cup side. Please note that I say YET. Both are quality players and they have had their moments in the senior lineup but the way they were sold down the river for the opening Connacht try (screengrab) shows that as a tandem they’re not far off sitting ducks defensively.

But don't think for a minute that all my blame is directed towards them, or indeed the coaching ticket for having them out there. It certainly wasn't the two youngsters who were solely responsible for the litany of errors that took place in the second half. Missed tackles, dropped catches, over-thrown lineouts, poorly judged offloads, restarts that didn't go ten, the list goes on and on, and I doubt Leinster fans need nor want me to focus on them individually.

The fact remains we had every opportunity to get back into this contest in the third quarter and even though Connacht defence was resolute, it still has to be said that we very much blew it.

And we can't go blaming pre-season jitters or even player protection anymore. This was game five, so the cobwebs should be well and truly gone at this stage. What, then, has quickly turned Leinster from a team that earns three stars to one with a defence that is even ranked lower than the rookie striped ponies?

I'm sure there are many factors behind the scenes of which we will never know, but one stands out more than any other for me. A commenter on the HarpinOnRugby Facebook page left this comment on Saturday :

a bit off subject but does anyone know what is happening with Joe's contract as in has it been signed or is it still going to be?” Robert Walsh

I'm not so sure this is off subject at all.

I have spoken before about my annoyance at how we handle the transition of our provincial coaches on this island. The successor is usually announced halfway through the season, with the incumbent left to run out the clock during the most critical months, and however professional an organisation may be, it has to have an effect on squad performance.

History can be called on as evidence...Cheika's imminent departure was a factor in the end of Leinster's 2010 campaign, while last season it certainly played a part in Munster's and possibly even Ulster's April & May. The last thing you need at this time are head coaches with half a mind on the time beyond their contract.

The Ospreys' success in the business end of last season further proves this. When news of Scott Johnson's poaching by the SRU had been announced, they didn't let his tenure at the Liberty Stadium stagnate; instead they immediately appointed a replacement who regrouped and the RDS faithful got first-hand evidence (twice) of the resulting confidence throughout the squad.

And judging by the mantras emanating from Carton House recently, we are duly informed that the national team is more important than the provinces. Doesn't matter how the mother ship's actions affect the Pro12 and/or Heineken Cup campaigns, we just have to take our medicine, whatever it may be, for the “common good”.

Putting aside the fact that this edict from on high heaps even more pressure on the national team for good performances at a time they need less, where exactly does it leave Joe Schmidt?

He has diligently done his job at the RDS and then some, delivering two European Championships as well as raising the bar in terms of professionalism throughout an organisation that you can see other teams across the continent are aiming to meet.

Yet five matches into the season, one which is to be his final according to his contract, we still know nothing of his future. And you know that for each passing day without a definitive answer, the speculation in the media is just going to grow.

Forgive me for not accepting the reassurances of IT columnist/IRFU apologist Gerry Thornley that Joe will sign a 1-year deal any more than I accepted the claims in the Daily Mirror that every top footballer in Europe was on the move over the summer.

Look, as for the whole “Ireland > Leinster” thing, I get it. I certainly don't need it rammed down my throat at numerous press conferences. But at the same time provincial fans are spending good money every year on season tickets, new jerseys and what-not, and they deserve at least a bit of recognition.

Surely there's enough resources to both restore pride in the green jersey AND make one of the most successful provincial coaches in Irish history feel a tad appreciated?

Of course I'm not suggesting Leinster would have won in Galway if Joe had a new contract. It's just that while the boys are working hard this week analysing their individual performances for the big derby clash in the Aviva and the two Heineken Cup openers to come, the powers that be can definitely play their part by putting this issue to rest once and for all.

Joe Schmidt has priorities too, and if this uncertainty goes on much longer, few could blame him for paying more attention to the offers outside the Irish goldfish bowl which surely must be coming his way.  JLP
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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019