by Frank Schnittger
Tue May 23rd, 2023 at 10:08:47 AM EST
Leinster have been hailed by many as the world's best club rugby team for some time now, an assessment which failed to take account of their failure to win a European Cup for 5 years, which is half a professional rugby player's average lifetime. True, they were beaten by a last minute try in the final in Marseilles last year, and La Rochelle were again twice within the width of a post of losing this year.
Munster also required a last gasp drop goal to seal the deal against a largely second-string Leinster side in the Semi Final of the URC, and the loss through injury of Sexton, and during this year's final, of Ryan, Furlong and Henshaw should not be underestimated. These are the leaders of the team, and without them Leinster became increasingly defensive and negative in their mindset, hoofing the ball out of defence with no thought of a more creative (and brave) approach.
After an outstanding start, Leinster started to lose the set piece and collisions, and with that, gradually, the psychological battle as well. It can be incredibly difficult to win a rugby match if your scrum and maul defence is under pressure, if you can't win any opposition line-outs, and if you are losing the collisions and battle of the break-down as well.
In all of this you have to give due credit to La Rochelle, an absolutely outstanding team, which has acquired a ruthless winning mentality under the astute leadership of Ronan O'Gara as well as the extraordinary physical attributes of their monstrous pack. Will Skelton once again dominated line-out and maul. Danty, Atonio and the rest of the pack put huge pressure on the Leinster defence, and Hastoy hardly put a foot wrong. La Rochelle have improved significantly over the past year, while Leinster haven't, or at least not to the same degree.
The worrying part is that this gives opposing teams in the world cup the blueprint to beat Ireland. Beirne, Bealham , and O'Mahony may improve the Ireland pack at the margins, but they do not provide the size and physicality which France (or South Africa) can bring to the table. Leinster tried to address this problem by recruiting Jenkins from Munster, and while he has been a limited success, he isn't world class like Skelton. Leinster's goose was probably cooked, or at least in the oven once Ryan and then Furlong had to go off.
Leinster could, in theory address this problem by recruiting another giant tight head and second row - and another loose head as Healy retires. But players of this quality are rare indeed, and generally contractually tied up this close to a World cup. And neither would the IRFU allow them to do so, with Ala'alatoa and Jenkins already non-Irish qualified within their ranks. And whatever about Leinster recruiting from outside, this is not an option for Ireland. We simply have to be smarter in how we play the game if we are to have a chance at the world cup.
This is easier said than done if you are being smashed in the collisions and beasted at the breakdown. But we saw little of the Leinster backline in attack, and they are, after all, more or less the Irish back-line. It would be easy to blame Ross Byrne and Gibson-Park for their failure to set the Leinster back-line in motion, but when you are defending a lead the tendency is to play it safe and cut down the risk of errors. The problem was that in kicking the ball downfield to the brilliant Brice Dulin, they merely delayed the next attack by a few seconds. Where were the cross-kicks to Lowe and O'Brien which could have outflanked the La Rochelle crash defence?
But the biggest problem was perhaps the negative mindset which pervaded the team once they had a significant lead to defend and which allowed La Rochelle into the game after what must have been - for them - a devastating start to the game. That was the time when Leinster should have turned the screw by trusting their skill set and outside backs more. It is difficult to believe a Leinster led by Sexton, Ryan, Furlong and Henshaw would have conceded the initiative, and the psychological edge - to the same extent. La Rochelle were allowed to fall back on the physicality at close quarters which makes them such an outstanding team.
It is a bitter lesson for Leinster to learn, but hopefully Ireland will benefit at the World cup. Players are terrified of making the mistake that yields an intercept try or gifts the opposition an easy score. But without risk there can be no reward, and in becoming risk averse at the individual level, Leinster merely increased the risks for the team at as a whole. You need a player as insouciant as a Dupont or an Ntamack to try the outrageous when the opposition least expect it, - or as cussed as a Sexton who refuses to concede the initiative to the opposition.
You could say Leinster lost that match at the end due to La Rochelle's unrelenting physicality. However, it would be equally valid to say they lost the match when they lost their psychological edge once they went 17-0 up twelve minutes into the match. La Rochelle had nothing to lose at that stage. Leinster played as if they were defending a lead rather than building on what had got them to 17-0 in the first place.
It would be easy now for Leinster to sink backwards next season with the loss of Sexton and Lancaster and the disappointment of losing at the last hurdle once again. Instead, they must be bold and build on what was, after all, an incredible season with only 3 defeats. Recruiting South African Head coach Jacques Nienaber is a good start, and perhaps he can bring a couple of South African giant forwards in tow after the World Cup.
But the bigger battle is getting the psychology right, and that means a braver approach to building on a lead at 10 in particular. Ross Byrne is an excellent player, but he needs to step up to another level if he wants to retain his place. It's too early to say whether Sam Prendergast is the answer, but he must certainly be given an opportunity to bring another dimension to Leinster's play in the post Sexton era.
Meanwhile Munster must travel to Cape Town again to see if they can build on the recent upturn in their performances. Their win against Leinster was their outstanding performance of the season after some indifferent displays against Glasgow in the URC regular round 16, and Sharks in the European Cup. They followed that up with a good, if fortuitous win against the Stormers and draw against the Sharks in April followed by a mixed performance against 14-man Glasgow. They will have to be at their very best to prevail against a fired up Stormers team defending their crown, but at least they should have a full deck of players to choose from having just named a very strong travelling squad.
Such is Munster's need after a trophyless twelve seasons, they will not lack for motivation. Many of their players have never won a major trophy, and for some this may be their last chance in their careers. They have begun to show a good balance between forward aggression and a more inventive style in their backs and should give the Stormers a good run for their money. The Stormers, too, were far less than impressive in their previous performances against Munster and Connacht but should have the edge in the front row. Let us hope it is not a repeat of the Leinster La Rochelle final!
PS Connacht's signature of JJ Hanrahan from Dragons for next season looks like an astute move given Carty's inconsistent kicking form. Together with their other major new signings of Santiago Cordero from Bordeaux, Joe Joyce from Bristol Bears and Sean Jansen from Leicester Tigers, they look to be well positioned to build on their excellent season of qualifying for the Champions Cup and reaching the Semi Final of the URC.
Ulster have signed world cup winner Steven Kitsoff from Stormers, Dave Ewers from Exeter and have promoted some excellent prospects from their academy. However, it remains to be seen whether they will have adequate cover at tight head and the outside backs having let experienced players Gareth Milasinovich, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Craig Gilroy, and Rob Lyttle go. With Marty Moore injured and Aaron Sexton showing mixed form to date, they could be a little light in those positions in the early season, especially if Tom O'Toole, Stockdale or Baloucoune make the world cup squad.