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Monday 18 December 2017

Brent Pope: Blues must get back to basics

Murray inspired Munster rattle inept Leinster

Leinster's Jimmy Gopperth
Leinster's Jimmy Gopperth

JUST weeks from the start of a new and more competitive European Championship, Leinster fans were shocked into reality on Saturday night as their team, despite having long periods of numerical advantage in the second half, slumped to a disappointing defeat against Munster.

Prior to the match it was the visitors who had already lost two home games and were struggling to look anything like a province that had once dominated European rugby.

When pushed however, it was the men in red who looked the far better team.

While Munster upped their game, based mostly around an organised and aggressive defensive screen, Leinster looked disorganised and bereft of any real discernible game-plan or creativity.

Rugby 101 dictates that when you have the opposition team down to 13 men you keep the ball in hand, look to create mismatches, and not kick the ball back to the opposition when it just becomes another 50/50 contest.

Leinster started the game reasonably well, dominating early possession and camping in Munster's red zone for large periods of time without being able to make that dominance count on the scoreboard apart for a couple of Ian Madigan penalties.

A seemingly endless list of injuries slowed the momentum of the game, but one thing was obvious, Anthony Foley had done his homework on Leinster.

AGGRESSIVE

Munster's defence was aggressive, well-organised and fanned out across the field, thus preventing Leinster from making any real inroads.

Leinster's big ball-carriers, apart from the dynamic Seán Cronin, failed to get going on the night.

Rhys Ruddock, so dynamic the previous week against Cardiff, hardly touched the ball on Saturday night, while captain Jamie Heaslip was another who struggled with the constant trickle of slow ruck ball that Leinster produced.

Leinster's main problem was their failure in the basics, always so good under their previous coach Joe Schmidt.

I counted numerous Leinster restarts, that not only did Leinster fail to contest, but they simply allowed Munster to run back at them gaining valuable yards.

If you have a winger with considerable height like Darragh Fanning, then to me, the instruction must be to at least give him free licence to go into the air and compete for the ball but they never did.

More troubling than that was the fact that Leinster were never given any guidance on the field to change the game-plan.

On another occasion livewire Leinster scrumhalf Eoin Reddan made a scintillating 50-metre break, but just when the crowd was screaming for him to look for support he just ran into another Munster defender.

Leinster's game-plan in Europe has always been about speed and continuity play, it was about their adherence to the basics of skillful passing, and to run bigger packs off their feet.

On Saturday Leinster, even with numerical advantage for most of the second half, just could not really create much and they looked far too predictable at times crabbing across field and forcing the game too much.

Certain things did not help Leinster's cause, Madigan's last minute switch back to No 15 in place of Rob Kearney did not help, nor did the loss of Jack McGrath or Fergus McFadden, after that Leinster's backs just looked lost for any real creative inspiration.

Munster, on the other hand, were fortunate in that Ian Keatley's intercept try when Leinster at last looked to be building something positive was really the hammer blow for Leinster.

The pass was badly telegraphed by Jimmy Gopperth, with everybody able to see that the pass from the Kiwi was forced and going inside.

That seven-pointer gave Munster the cushion they needed, and despite a succession of yellow cards in the second spell they managed to hang on, even after two late Leinster scores, that at one stage suggested Leinster salvaging an unlikely win.

The key performers in red, much to the delight of watching Irish coach Joe Schmidt who is already faced with the loss of many key players, were Munster scrumhalf Connor Murray and talismanic second row Paul O'Connell. O'Connell's was the chief organiser of Munster's stout defence, along with the impressive Tommy O'Donnell, but it was Murray who was the biggest difference, keeping Foley's men in the game with his excellent and pinpoint box kicking and his sublime passing.

The big question for Leinster and their coach Matt O'Connor is where to from here?

O'Connor has to go back to the basics for a start. When Schmidt first arrived in Leinster he made a poor start, people even doubted him, some pundits 'called for his head' but he said that "while Leinster maybe not able to compete physically with some of the French and even English sides, would become the best passing team in Europe" and they did.

SPEED

The speed of the pass will always beat the man and according to the likes of Shane Horgan and Brian O'Driscoll, Schmidt spent hours on the simplicities of the game.

All season Leinster have been missing that.

It's hard to create momentum and phase play when your passes go behind the player, no body straightens the attack, and your defence and speed in the tackle is too disorganised.

For the home side there was again encouraging performances from young prop Brian Byrne who more than held his own against World Cup winning Springbok prop BJ Botha, new Irish squad member Dominic Ryan who showed out in defence and Leinster's main ball-carrier Cronin, but other than that the other key Leinster players did not show up.

Can Leinster bounce back?

Absolutely, in fact it may be the annual kick up the rear that they need, but time will tell and they have a lot of work to do.

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