Leinster's shattered invincibility was bruising wake-up call after PRO14 cakewalk
It’s a good job that Dublin was in lockdown this weekend with its pubs shut due to the Irish capital city’s latest pandemic restrictions. Otherwise, Alex Goode might have been tempted to make a mighty fine time of it after Saracens’ latest Champions Cup victory over Leinster.
Sixteen months ago there was no stopping his liquid festivities after the Champions Cup final win in Newcastle. Bum bag, boots, full match kit and lashings of Guinness. He famously partied for days.
Now, fresh from scoring 19 of his team’s 25 points in an assured display that made light the absence of the suspended Owen Farrell, Goode would have been more than deserving of a celebratory tipple and another few lively nights on the tiles.
That bender will have to wait, though. Aside from the Dublin vintners forcibly having had to shut up shop under governmental health diktat, there was the small matter of Goode now having a semi-final to prepare for in Paris next weekend.
Racing vs Saracens under the La Defense Arena roof is the Champions Cup fixture no one anticipated materialising. Leinster and Clermont were instead expected to rendezvous at the Aviva Stadium, but that duo now have a free week to chastised themselves as to why they didn’t progress and set-up a repeat of their 2017 last-four encounter.
"The whole rugby infrastructure built over the last 150 years is under threat"
– Dire warning coming out of Dublin about the health of Irish rugby's bottom line https://t.co/1vQpEgbrdZ
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 18, 2020
It’s said that a week is a long time in politics – and the bungling Irish coalition understands this very well as they have stumbled from one virus PR disaster to another in recent days. But that time measurement is just as applicable to Irish rugby.
Last weekend Leinster invincibly stood tall as the greatest team the PRO14 had ever seem, their comfortable win over Ulster wrapping up an unprecedented third title on the bounce. But now this Champions Cup post-mortem will be brutal on so many levels for Leinster and, by extension, Irish rugby.
Down on their uppers, they would have hoped some European prize money would help alleviate the penury attested to on Friday when claiming these behind close doors matches for their provinces (a situation that is also coming down the line for their Test team) were sucking them dry of the revenue needed to pay monthly bills of up to €5million
It all sounded a bit dramatic, the IRFU even suggesting that rugby as a professional sport in Ireland could be a dead duck by 2021 if crowds weren’t allowed to soon return in significant numbers. Now they also have navel-gazing to do about the calibre of the product on the pitch as Saturday illustrated how the maligned PRO14 isn’t intense enough to fully tool its teams up for European combat.
Leinster had done well in recent times, their presence in the last two Champions Cup finals interrupting the Anglo-French dominance that had seen three France clubs (Toulon 3, Clermont 3, Racing 2) and one English (Saracens 4) dominate the list of teams who reached the past seven showpiece deciders.
The hope was that winning a league title in recent weeks would have gotten Leinster up to the necessary European mark but their first-half passiveness against Saracens shone a blinding light on how the cobbled together five-nation PRO14 doesn’t sufficiently deliver on a week to week basis.
With this in mind, how apt was it that just over an hour before kick-off that it emerged the Southern Kings, the pub team-like South African franchise that had won just four of its 55 games, had gone bust. That’s hardly a positive reflection on the credibility of the PRO14 and how it compares to its Premiership and Top 14 rivals.
Playing activities were suspended in August, now they have gone bust! https://t.co/9hMkcf1p7f
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2020
Television pictures didn’t do justice to the impenetrable moving wall Saracens confronted Leinster with. Watching from the media box, their line speed movement was like a squeezebox playing sweet English music, their players connected and stepping forward and back in unison that was a defensive masterclass in how to win collisions, indomitable players like Maro Itoje timing interventions to perfection.
Their starting forwards contributed a whopping 126 tackles, Itoje topping that chart on 19, while their midfield partnership added another 32 for good measure, repeatedly snuffing out Leinster coming down the channels.
Then there was the scrum, Saracens winning seven penalties from their dozen put-ins. Rather than just simply lay the blame squarely at the hips of combustible props, though, Leinster must wind the tape back further and sift through the reasons why they gave the opposition that amount of set-piece in the first place.
They won’t like what they find. Leinster, who conceded an unusually high total of 15 penalties, were spooked from the off, Jack Conan sloppily spilling the first catch, and the errors continued from there. Jordan Larmour was unreliable under box kicks, knocking on two, and he was then guilty of forcing a second-half pass instead of going to ground and calmly recycling the ball.
Their sacked maul gave up three possessions in the red zone while the sight of Johnny Sexton horribly scuffing a restart kick that didn’t go the requisite ten metres was quite horrific, resulting in another penalty scoring scrum just seconds after Elliot Daly had just knocked one over from another wilting set-piece.
You can say what you like about Saracens' achievements in the Premiership, but their European legacy will live on, undiminished.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 20, 2020
It was the scrum that contributed to Leinster being 16 points behind to Northampton at the break in the 2011 final, an issue which their then scrum coach Greg Feek fixed on the fly during the interval. Mike Ross was tighthead that day and he tweeted around the half-hour mark in Saturday match, “Leinster back rows need to stay stuck to the scrum, creating a 6 vs 8 situation.”
The fact that Caelan Doris was penalised on 78 minutes for breaking his bind and allowing Goode to seal the result was indicative of how these necessary on-field adjustments to solidify a wounding area of weakness didn’t happen and it will be an uncomfortable few days for current scrum coach Robin McBryde, who arrived in after last year’s World Cup with Wales.
Not since last November’s South Africa vs England decider had the scrum been so influential to a result, but here was a bruising Aviva Stadium reminder that the eight-man shove remains of such vital importance.
That’s twice in a row now that Leinster have been smothered by Saracens in different ways in the Champions Cup. In May 2019 they failed to cling on to a ten-point lead in Newcastle. Here they didn’t have the necessary composure to finish the job after cutting the 19-point interval margin to five with 17 minutes left.
“We need to be better, we need to figure out how to we can be better,” rued Leo Cullen in the aftermath. “It’s frustrating.” Sure was. From league champions to European also-rans… a week is definitely a long time in Irish rugby.
Barnstorming game at the Aviva! https://t.co/WGeWO27biy
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2020
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