Leinster need new generation to start coming through ranks
ON RUGBY:As one suspected, they went out all guns blazing, but out they went all the same. As Joe Schmidt sensed, coming into the last two rounds on just 10 points was always going to leave Leinster in need of a miracle and Munster, more versed in these things, also had the advantage of kicking off a day after the champions completed their pool campaign.
As events transpired, awful as referee Romain Poite was again, even if Leinster had scored another two tries at Exeter’s Sandy Park for a six-try haul to set Munster a five-try target (which they reached with time to spare), they would have missed out on points difference.
To become only the second away team in 38 Premiership or European matches to score four tries at Sandy Park (Clermont being the other) was an achievement, but one ventures even if Leinster had set a target of six tries, roared on by a Thomond Park full house, Munster would have been able to tag on another try, all the more so against opponents reduced eventually to 13 men.
So Leinster become the first reigning Heineken Cup champions to fail to reach the knockout stage the following season since London Wasps in 2007/08. In truth, it’s not as ignominious as that suggests, for as in last weekend’s itinerary and much else, it seemed the fates were always conspiring against the back-to-back champions.
It’s just that with the final at the Aviva, and the last vestiges of a golden generation coming to an end (it remains to be seen whether Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll play beyond the end of the season), then missing out to Munster would have made the pain all the more acute for themselves and their supporters.
Such are the fine margins of the Heineken Cup that teams knocked out in the pool stages can often recount moments when they could have altered their destiny. Toulouse, four-time winners, will rue their selection away to the Ospreys and their lack of a goalkicker at Welford Road in a pool they initially controlled.
Had Munster, two-time winners, missed out, they would have had a host of missed chances to reflect on. That the three-time winners also missed out underlines how difficult it can be to reach the knock-out stages.
But Leinster actually don’t have too many incidents where match points went abegging. Sure, you could say last Sunday’s bonus-point win at Sandy Park perhaps showed that at their best Leinster could have scored four tries in their first game at the RDS, but the fact is they scored none and were indebted to Gareth Steenson missing a last-ditch long-range penalty for a 9-6 win.
Similarly, in only scoring one try at Parc y Scarlets, Leinster never remotely set themselves up for a tilt at a bonus point in round two. The one point, and possibly more, that eluded them was away to Clermont in round three. Who knows if Leinster would have earned a draw had Jonny Sexton not elected for a cross-kick off a kickable penalty at 15-9 down in the 48th minute at the Stade Marcel Michelin?
No blame should be attached to Sexton, who has had another storming campaign, not least as Leinster’s mindset was focused on having to cross the whitewash if they were to achieve anything in the Auvergne. But last Saturday’s lineout wobbles were a reminder they will also rue the three botched attacking lineouts in the final quarter in Clermont which, had they been executed, ought at least to have earned a penalty or drop goal to draw.
Glimmer of hope
And, one more point to take them to 21, would have put them through. Against that, the last-minute bonus point in defeat at home to Clermont was just that, and gave them a glimmer of hope that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.
Misfortune befell them on the way. They missed the first two ERC European Players of the Year, Seán O’Brien and Rob Kearney, for three and four of their six pool games respectively. Brian O’Driscoll missed both Clermont games in starting three of the six. Luke Fitzgerald, who has looked as fit as a flea in his comeback, missed the first four.
They were particularly unlucky with Quinn Roux in the secondrow, who hasn’t appeared since badly injuring his shoulder in the warm-up at the Sportsground last October, and then also losing Damien Browne for the last two games.
Roux, by all accounts a beast, might have been a younger replacement to fill the void left by Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn. Instead, it meant too much has been asked of Leo Cullen, who this season has been obliged to regularly play 80 minutes in contrast to how his game time had been managed in recent years.
Watching Simon Shaw stifle the Toulon maul almost single-handedly was a reminder how much Leinster lost in Hines and Thorn as Exeter drove through them. Hence the signing of Mike McCarthy, though it looks as if Leinster still need more there. Nor has Michael Bent augmented a recruitment drive which has lost some of its quality in the last year or two.
The only ever-presents were Isa Nacewa, Sexton, Mike Ross, Cullen and Jamie Heaslip, although this was partly due to squad rotation. Privately at any rate, Schmidt must wonder if he erred in not starting Cian Healy at home against Clermont.
They used 29 players, which for three-time European champions in the last four years, should not be as demanding as it proved. Admittedly, the quality of their casualty list was significant, but as significant has been the comparative conveyor belt of talent coming through the other academies – an area where Leinster set the benchmark for much of the noughties.
It’s time for another new generation to start coming through.