Leinster in Big Game Loss Shocker

So, triple European champions, unbeaten by all comers except Clermont under Joe Schmidt, where did it all go wrong? Granted, Leinster aren’t mathematically out yet, but to get through they will need to score four tries in both remaining fixtures – a number they have not yet reached in the four games to date.

What has been different this year? Why have Leinster, just the second team ever to win the HEC twice in a row, only managed to put away the lamentable Scarlets with anything approaching ease? There are a number of factors, but they essentially boil down to two – the set piece and injuries.

The half-time Hobson’s Choice faced by Joe Schmudt on Saturday – take off Damien Browne for Devin Toner to shore up your lineout, but essentially concede the scrum – encapsulated Leinster’s shortcomings this season. While the scrum ran out of steam, certain chickens came home to roost in the second row – let’s examine each in detail.

When Mike Ross was at Harlequins, he played 62 games in 3 seasons. In his first season back in D4, under Mike Cheika, he played 21 – that’s about 21 a season on average. These game were played in Oooooooooooohh the Premiership, a few HEC games, and mostly Magners League for Leinster – 21 a year is what Ireland’s cosseted centrally contracted players normally do in a year – it’s a manageable number.

Since Schmudt took over in Leinster, Ross has played 77 games in 2.5 seasons – 55 for Leinster (including 22 HEC) and 22 for Ireland – that’s an average of around 30, and at a much higher level. Its been noticeable this season how his energy levels have been notably below those of previous seasons – the sheer workload of two triumphant HEC campaigns, RWC11 and 2 Six Nations have taken it out of him. He has produced thus far when it mattered, against Clermont away, the Pumas and (ahem) the hard-scrummaging Scarlets, but he has begun to look exhausted. It rather puts Declan Kidney’s judgement that Ross needed more gametime this November in harsh light, and the fatigue reached its apogee as the Clermont scrum milked him for penalties (5 in total) prompting Barnes to threaten a binning, at which point he was withdrawn.

Ross has been run into the turf, pretty much out of necessity, and he had no more to give. Leinster signed Jamie Hagan in 2011 to lessen his workload – that didn’t work out – and Michael Bent this autumn, who can hopefully step in for the Pro12 fixtures between now and the next HEC game and give Rosser a much-deserved break.

In the second row, however, Leinster are largely responsible for their own fate. After Nathan Hines left in the summer of 2011, Leinster have resorted to increasingly desperate efforts to recruit a second row of top-class HEC quality. The likes of Ed O’Donohue and Steven Sykes came and went, Devin Toner failed to make a big push for selection, and Leo Cullen all the while has slowed down. Brad Thorn bailed out a tired looking sector last season (its hard to see them having won in Bordeaux without him) and Damo Browne is really a jobbing workhorse who gets found out at this level. Mike McCarthy can’t arrive soon enough – Leinster have the weakest second row of all 4 provinces right now, and it finally cost them in a big game.

On the injury front, Leinster have had something of a perfect storm this season, at some point or another being without Risteard O hOstrais, Sean O’Brien, Dom Ryan, Isaac Boss, Dorce, BOD, Luke Fitzgerald, Bob, Little Bob and Eoin O’Malley.  It’s not so much the count as the concentration; the majority are in the outside back division and under 26 years old – somewhere you’d expect to have a lower attrition rate.

Leinster are neither the biggest nor the fastest team in Europe.  What they rely on is accuracy, in particular in their passing on the gainline and at the breakdown.  They have not been at their best in either facet this season, but looking at the backline on Saturday it’s no surprise.  Of the five backs, only one – Goodman, who does not look tailor made to play Schmidt’s gameplan – was playing in his natural position.  Missing key outside backs like Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney is one thing, but when the first line of reserves (O’Malley, Dave Kearney) is taken out as well, Leinster were left with a pretty weird looking backline – a 10 at 15, a 15 on the wing, a centre on the other wing, and a 12 at 13.  Little wonder they played without cohesion – and it was doubly unfortunate that the likes of Fionn Carr and Andrew Conway had no form at inopportune moments when a more natural-looking back 3 was in order.

That sequence of long stretches without key players was something they managed to avoid for 2010/11 and 2011/12, and that little bit of fortune deserted them this season – there is a reason it’s so hard to win the HEC twice in a row, and you need a little bit of the rub of the green to do it. When you consider the great teams that haven’t done it – Munster, Toulouse, Stade Francais, Wasps, even Oooooooooooooohh Bath in the early days – the magnitude of Leinster’s achievement is more obvious.

So where to now for Leinster? As we said above, they are technically still in the competition, but they are currently ranked 5th of 6 second place sides, and are behind Munster and the Saints as well – progress is unlikely (more on this later this week). Saturday had an odd fin de siecle feel about it – BOD is probably in his last season, Dorce and Leo Cullen are getting on, and the talk is that Joe Schmidt will be going back to New Zealand at the end of next season. Winning the Pro12 (and preferably handing a hammering to those pesky Ospreys), the only trophy yet to be captured by Schmidt,  is likely this season’s new target. Leinster, when fully fit, have huge strength in depth in the backrow and the backline – but a re-tread of some of the tight 5 is necessary.

It says it all that, in 2.5 seasons, only Clermont (3 times from 5) have bested Joe Schmidt’s Leinster, and the teams they have beaten is a veritable who’s who of HEC history – Leicester, Toulouse, Northampton, Ulster and Saracens. They have been the best Irish rugby team we have seen and have opened new and tantalising possibilities for all Irish rugby fans – the idea that a team of Irish players could play with the skill, handling and verve that Leinster have since 2010 would have been so far from the collective rugby conciousness in 2010 as to have been just a dream. That’s what Schimdt’s Leinster have really done – made that dream a reality.

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  1. Morton Slumber

     /  December 17, 2012

    Do you mean that Joe goes back to NZ at the end of this year or next? -I thought he had signed on for another year (ie 13-14)

  2. Len

     /  December 17, 2012

    We can make all the excuses we like regarding the injury list and the issues in the second row or with the failure of the lineout but in the end we we’re beaten by a team who displayed a level of hunger that surpassed anything Leinster have brought to the table this year. Clermont looked sharper and clearly their fitness levels surpass those of the Leinster players (although I’d say that it’s harder to put in a performance like Leinster did in Clermont, loose and then pick yourself up for the return fixture six days later). Their defence looks fantastic ever time Leinster go the ball the Clermont line rushed up about five paces effectively denying Leinster any room to work with. In contrast the Leinster defence line invited Clermont to run on to them. I won’t discount this team until the finale pools match is done but they’ve left themselves a very hard task. Some new blood will be required over the summer and McCarthy is only a start. IMO Browne and Cullen and potentially even Toner (failing some major improvement by the end of the season) need to be replaced. Its clearly one season too many for Cullen, Browne just isn’t up to the level that Leinster want to play and Toner has been given so many chances and failed to capitalise. It been a while since I left a Leinster game feeling so low. We never managed to play to our potential during the game and even when the pick and go option showed up a dint if not full chink in the Clermont armour in the first half we failed to utilise it until it was too late. What are the chances of Amlin qualification?

    • Agreed Len – not that we’re making excuses. Having a mediocre second row isn’t so much an excuse, just a weakness to be exploited. You’re right, this match was lost on the gainline as well as the set piece. It reminded me a bit of the Ireland-Wales match in the Six Nations. Leinster looked passive on defence, and Clermont could amble over the gainline at will. Leinster, on l’autre hand, were struggling to get any go-forward.

      This is very unlike Leinster, as we know, and is less of an endemic issue, in particular when BOD and Kearney are around, than their weaknesses in the set piece and second row in particular.

      We’ll be posting on the various permutations and combinations tomorrow, so hopefully that’ll help with the picture of what Leinster’s chances are of qualifying for either tournament – but let’s just say for now that the Amlin looks the more likely destination.

  3. LPO

     /  December 17, 2012

    Nice piece- agree with the greater extent of this. Had been very doubtful of the patchwork back-line with so many players out of position before the Stade M. Michelin match. You’re also correct about Rosser getting flogged, of course. Must take you up one point, though- if you concede that the problems in second-row are a) Toner not making the grade and b) the MASSIVE HINESY-SHAPED HOLE, how does that add up to this being a problem of Leinster Rugby’s own creation, since the I.R.F.U. forced the sale of the Beast of Wagga Wagga when everyone (coach, staff, supporters and significantly Hines himself) wanted him to stay?

    • Leinster Leo

       /  December 17, 2012

      Could be wrong but think Nathan had to go cos they (IRFU) want Irish only second rows but then Leinster had to bring in Brad Thorne last year so that pretty much sums it up. Bring in a “foreigner” at 2nd row and win stuff or stick with Irish born & get bloody minced

      • We’ve never full been able to get to the bottom of the conflicting reports on Hines’ departure, but our understanding of it was that the IRFU would only offer him a one year contract and Clermont offered him two. Suffice to say, letting the big Wagga-Wagga man out of the country has benefited precisely no-one. The number of great Irish second rows that Ireland would have missed out on had he stayed is precisely zero.

  4. TJ Hooker

     /  December 17, 2012

    The second-row was always going to be a problem for Leinster this season and against Clermont’s powerhouse pack it came to pass. But the second-row is also potentially a problem for Ireland (with POC’s ongoing injuries, Ryan and McCarthy no spring chickens) so I think the IRFU are right to forbid a NIQ player. There must be some youngish fella out there standing 6’6” or more with a bit of potential. And sure there’s always Donncha…

    • Leinsterlion

       /  December 17, 2012

      Shortage of props and second rows. We are going to turn into a poor mans Australia at this rate. Countless flankers and utility backs, an issue for a director of rugby to sort out methinks. Maybe we need to introduce doping into schools rugby like the Saffas, or start selective breeding so we can produce the big units from 1 to 5 which we dont have. Hopefully some of the eastern Europeans start playing rugby and we get some Polish beef in the pack. Where are our Brodie Retalliack’s and Eben Estebeths?

    • zdm

       /  December 17, 2012

      The IRFU haven’t enforced the quota, they have shifted it west by ignoring connacht and allowing Leinster to poach McCarthy. A NIQ will fill the space at connacht.

      • Not sure about a shortage of second rows at Ireland. For sure, POC will leave a massive hole when he retires, but we won’t count him out just yet. Locks have a decent shelf-life (look at Hines!) so Ryan and McCarthy can be a high quality partnership for at least three seasons, and Tuohy is agood squad player. Toner needs to break through to offer a good alternative in the middle of the lineout. Last year it looked like he was set to do it, but he has not really got going this year at all.

  5. Ken Owens

     /  December 17, 2012

    Another pile of smug manure. Yawn. The Ooooooooooh indulgence just never stops being funny, no matter how often you use it, and Risteard O’hoStrais is, like, hilarious because he is actually South African. Sure why not have a cut off Rala?, That was genuinely funny, got a great response…

    • Are you Ken Owens the Scarlets hooker?

    • Leinsterlion

       /  December 17, 2012

      Matt Banahan has the turning circle of an M1 Abrams……….yet he plays on the wing. Ooooooh is very appropriate when referring to Bath (a team that kept the glacial Grewcock gainfully employed long past his sell by date).

  6. insertnamehere

     /  December 17, 2012

    Hi guys. I was at the game and, really, Leinster never seemed to maintain their normally agressive defence for anything but short periods of time. Clermont could just run at them and make half the length of the pitch. Compare that to the previous week where Leinster were ferocious and it was a very different picture. This week they just stood off the Clermont players. Between that and the penalties from the scrum, and the continuing problems at critical times in the lineout, we lost the game. I do believe that if we had been more agressive in defence, we could have won the game… The only time the defence seemed agressive was the period building up to Jennings try, where they were magnificant, and put Clermont under all kinds of pressure.

    The atmosphere was really awful for the second half, with the French fans singing it was like an away match, I’ve never been at such a match where we were so quitened.

    • insertnamehere

       /  December 17, 2012

      Sorry, in that second paragraph I meant that the with the Clermont fans singing I felt like *I* was at an away match.

      • Anonymous

         /  December 17, 2012

        I think most people were a little shell shocked by the terrible performance hence why it all went a bit quiet. The prematch buzz seemed to fade quite quickly as the nerves set in and never really recovered.

    • Jim Glennon gave us all 7/10

       /  December 17, 2012

      The atmosphere at the Leinster/Munster match earlier in the season was even worse – and we won that one. Also, what has happened to the pitch? It’s been a disgrace all season. Time to lay down some astro turf before the 6 nations and HEC final?

    • Agree completely, LInsertnamehere. We tweeted aftwards that the match was lost on the gainline. When you’re struggling under the high ball, losing in the scrums, the lineout is rickety and going backwards in contact… well, there’s not really many other places you can win the ball!

  7. Jim Glennon gave us all 7/10

     /  December 17, 2012

    We need to sign another lock in truth. Caldwell would be perfect, though I think he has a year or two left on his contract at Bath.

    Having said that, the real issue is all the injuries this season. Not much you can do when that happens.

    • Not sure Jim. The difference between this season and last season is that we were extraordinarily lucky with injuries last season and unlucky this season. However, the squad had a thin look to it last year (which Thorny masked) and has an even thinner look this season. Injuries don’t really explain why we have no ‘a’ grade second row. The IRFU are to blame there.

      Still, the future is good.

      • Leinster had their share of injuries last season too. BOD was missing for the entire group stage, and Shaggy was on the books but never played. Luke got injured for the latter stage. If anything, it was the timing of when Leinster ran into Clermont – by that stage everyone was fit, Brad Thorn had arrived and the Leinster machine was humming…

  8. Leinsterlion

     /  December 17, 2012

    When Toner ambled onto the field I knew all was lost. We were underpowered all night and getting blown up all over the park, how Toner was supposed to stem the tide was beyond me.
    Our defense was passive all night giving up yardage in exchange for making the easy cover tackle. We had zero belligerence or physicality all night. I could play captain hindsight and go through Schmidts team and claim my own selction would have played better, but that would have been akin to moving the deckchairs on the titanic.
    Clermont knew Leinster couldn’t live with the grinding physicality they brought from 1-23. Cotter has bigger players, he used them in a gameplan tailored to put Leinster on their arse, he succeeded, we got hammered.
    Injuries are no excuse, our backups were found wanting physically at pro12 level at the start of the season. There is something drastically wrong with the S&C at academy level that we are producing such underpowered players. How has Toner been allowed to morph into Ireland’s version of Issac Ross?
    Its time for Leinster to cut their losses on certain members of this squad, we have the skills to beat 90% of the teams on the planet but without pace/aggression/physicality it means nothing. We need a team of Seán Ó’Briens and a fluke to get into the next round.

  9. Leinster owe their fans nothing. We have had a great ride – particularly for the last 5 years.

    The squad has always been too thin. The difference was that, last year, we were very lucky with injuries and this year we were very unlucky. Add to that the fact that core players are getting older and performing at a lower level (Cullen and D’Arcy being top of the list), expectations should never have been high for this season – and Leinster’s form has been very patchy.

    The good news is that there are lots of good young players coming through everywhere (except second row and, perhaps, centre).

    You mention the Pro12, however Leinster will get a home quarter final in the Amlin if they finish second AFAIK. With the final of the Amlin in the RDS, that should surely be a target now. What odds an all-Ireland final with Munster?

    • Ciaran

       /  December 17, 2012

      Heineken Cup imports get away quarter finals in the Amlin. quite rightly too as the Amlin group winners deserve the home ties.

      I think Munster will likely qualify for the Heineken quarters as a best seond place team for what it’s worth too.

  10. Yer Man

     /  December 17, 2012

    The HEC dropouts into the Amlin will be AWAY from home in the Quarter Finals.

    • ORiordan

       /  December 17, 2012

      Yup, ACC QFs are:
      ACC 1st v ACC 5th
      ACC 2nd v HEC 11th
      ACC 3rd v HEC 10th
      ACC 4th v HEC 9th

      In the first year that HEC teams dropped down to the ACC, the ACC team got home advantage for an ACC v HEC semi final, however now I believe the ACC semis are an open draw.

      • Regardless, still a good chance of an all-Ireland final. Not sure if my ticket includes the Amlin or not. As I will be making the trip home to Dublin, I certainly hope one of the Irish sides is in one of the finals.

  11. Leinster Leo

     /  December 17, 2012

    Has anyone mentioned the absolute ridiculous performance out of Wayne Barnes last Saturday. As stated above Clermont’s defence was all over Leinster all day, very easy to do when you’re offside by 4/5 yards EVERY single time. Penalties given out that clearly weren’t & one in particular given to Leinster for an offence that doesn’t even exist.

    While Leinster were definitely below par & have been all season in my opinion, it’s very hard to get any momentum in a game like Clermont with a referee who ruins the match, awards penalties for stuff that doesn’t exist & clearly has no idea of the basic rules that a 10 year old could explain.

    • Barnes was shocking but he wasn’t the reason we lost. We came up against a superior side and squad, who we didn’t match in intensity. I guess the point of the post is to analyse that.

      You could definitely have another thread on Barnes – allowing constant offside, both defensive line and in the rucks, the latter being particularly scandalous in the run up to Jennings try (which wasn’t a try as he never grounded the ball). They should’ve had a player in the bin after that. His reffing of the scrum was also very suspect. However, despite all of that, Clermont beat us in every area.

      • We weren’t thrilled with Barnes, but didn’t want to mention it because we hate the idea of trying to blame the ref for the result, and give out about other people doing it! As Curates Egg says, Barnes wasn’t the reason Leinster lost, and Clermont were dominant in every facet of the game.

  12. In truth this was a result that had been coming all season. Leinster now remind me a little of England Post 2003 RWC (I know!), they have played at an incredibly high level for 3-4 years. Murrayfield in 2009 might have been a slightly scrappy win but it was the foundation for what was to come. Cardiff in 2011 was fairytale stuff and last year demonstrated that we had a team with talent all over the park playing a game that few could live with. Perhaps even more importantly (as WOC suggests) it proved that Irish teams could play fast paced skilful rugby (contrary to the archaic views of RTE’s lineout throwing expert). Twickenham might have been the crowning achievement of this team but even at the time I felt the win in Bordeaux would be the pinnacle for this team, not just in terms of performance but in displaying a sheer refusal to lose….and so it looks now. The current team (players and coaches) owe us nothing and many will be part of a rebuilt team that will hopefully match the achievements of this team.

  13. Mary Hinge

     /  December 17, 2012

    It isn’t necessarily all over yet goys. With players to return, Leinster should be looking to accumulate 19 points. With Montpellier being guaranteed one of the two runners-up slots, Leinster will have an outside chance of bagging the other. If not there’s always the Amlin which would be a good tournament to win, and in which you’ll have Munster and hopefully Connacht for company in the quarters.

    • You’re quite right Mary, but Leinster are up against it. We’ll be going through the permutations and combinations in more detail this week.

    • Ciaran

       /  December 17, 2012

      Montpellier have to beat Toulon (who’ll be looking for a home quarter) to qualify so they’re not nailed on either. Munster and Northampton are my picks for the best 2nd place teams.

  14. That the right team won on Saturday is without question and that, to my mind, concludes what has been an incredible series against Clermont ASM. For the record its 3 wins each (2 home & 1 away) with a combined aggregate score of Leinster 118 – ASM 114.

    Its also quite likely that ASM will win this year’s HCup now, so add 4 wins in 5 years to the list of stats. As they say on MasterChef “rugby does not get much tougher then this”. Both sides should take a very well deserved bow.

    And a Pro12/Amlin double is still a pretty acceptable season for us. Onwards and, sortof, upwards.

    • Yes Brian, three wins each including the 29-28 under Michael Cheika. It’s been a hell of a rivalry alright, let’s hope when they do come together in the future it’s later in the tournament than the group stages.

      There’s still plenty at stake for Leinster this season, and they will certainly want to try and win the Pro12, after losing three successive finals. There’s a long way to go though before they can think about silerware.

    • I hope Clermont win but Toulon look pretty breathtaking.

    • Not sure that I’d say Clermont are more likely than not to lift the cup this year (as an Ulster fan I still hope there’s some life left in us! Plus Toulon, a roused Toulouse, the strongest English teams all have a shout) but, if an Irish team is not to lift it this season, I personally would be delighted to see ASM as victors.

      They’ve been great to watch for years, have had some huge battles with Munster, Ulster and (especially) Leinster, aside from whom (as BPD above implies) they have been the finest side in Europe for the past three seasons.

      • Indeed, LarryMilne. So many imponderables in the Heineken Cup, just one of which is the venue of the semi-final. They’re certainly favourites, but Toulon, Ulster and Harlequins would all be formidable opponents.

  15. Len

     /  December 17, 2012

    Personally speaking if Leinster are out (and I’ll wait to pronounce judgement on them just yet) then I’d like to see Ulster win. Given the performance they put in last year, the abuse from certain parts of the media and the tragedy at the start of the season. It’s hard to see past Toulon and Clermont and I’ve a feeling I’ll be going to my second all French finale in four years. At least the traveling this year will be easier.

  16. Outside chance

     /  December 17, 2012

    all not done:
    Pool1:need saracens to win last 2 games; then Castres to beat munster. Munster and castres 1 win and 1 defeat each=no runner up out of that group
    Pool2:similar need Leicster to win both;toulouse and ospreys 1win and 1 defeat each=no runner up there
    Pool3: Connacht have knackered biaritz so hopefully no one from there
    Pool4:Ulster to romp home,might be northampton are biggest threat to finish on 20 if they bonus point their last 2 games
    Pool5:Claremont to finish top- biggest problem will be trying to get a bonus point away to exeter,possibly the biggest challenge to getting to quarters!
    Pool6:Montpellier and Toulon look like they both might come through

    so leinster need some(a lot!) of results to go there way but not totally improbable. could come down to munster or leinster getting out though leicster group could well see toulouse come out bringing leicster in as a 2nd spot team.

    can leinster start scoring tries on a regular basis?exeter have been tough at home,with players back it is(remotely) possible.

  17. zdm

     /  December 17, 2012

    After a few days to let the national depression settle, I think the double headers can be broken down thus:

    Connacht: mugged foreign exchange students at The Dogtrack – won deservedly. Got drenched at The Eagles Nest and went in to their shells.
    Overall grade: B+ showed signs of potential for much better things but confidence and final execution is not of high enough standard to take them to the next level.

    Leinster: left it all on the field in pursuit of a home-quarter-gaining bonus point in the Stade de Goodyear, forgot to leave enough in the tank to ensure a qualification-gaining home victory in the Pallindrome.
    Overall grade: C- must not forget the basics in pursuit of higher goals

    Munster: came up against a well matched opponent. Took the home leg, as expected, got taken in the Vicarage Township, as expected.
    Overall grade: B- met expectations. With a less cautious approach, more could be achieved in the future.

    Ulster: absolutely dominated The Choirboys away but frustratingly talked themselves out of a gimme at Le Bastion de Humphree.
    Overall Grade: B+ could easily have been the star pupil but too much talking up early achievements only served to motivate opponents for easier second leg.

  18. Sam.

     /  December 17, 2012

    Our second row and inside centre are huge problems in the immediate term.
    McCarthy won’t be enough on his own, we need to sign another and hope Flanagan isn’t a perma-crock. What’re the details of Samu Manoa’s contract? Was he just signed?

    Outside centre is covered. I think Macken has quite a bit to offer there. His rep, especially defensively, has suffered more than it should’ve from being outside Reid, who’s too weak to play 12 at pro level. Some people are extremely harsh on Macken on the boards I post on. There’s also Fitz for the centres, that always sparks debate.

    Kearney Jr. on the other hand is overrated by some. He plays with great power and footballing skill in certain matches/cameos, and then he looks very ordinary in other matches. There are serious question marks over his pace.
    Conway can’t get a decent run of games injury free.

  19. Rich

     /  December 20, 2012

    Great piece – nail on the head with the second row issue. The wagga wagga strangler left, then panic button hit and thorn arrives, but nothing is done over the summer to fill that gap? I don t get that at all – Cullen is doing a cracking job for an old fella, what on earth was D Browne doing in there? I only noticed him when he was subbed off.

    Barnes as usual has to make himself centre of attention at some point, but the scrum pens i have to agree with. The French clubs are all the same, couple of Georgian props who could wrestle your heed off and 2 units in the 2nd row, Cudmore and Hinds vs Cullen and Browne? Game over right there, the engine room powers a team and Leinster were done from the start.

    Injuries have ravaged that team fair enough but i suppose our budgets cant compete with the big French clubs anymore, Clermont have Regan King and Skrela on the bench who are prob on higher wages than all the Leinster players, as well as having Malzieu, Frosh, Williams and Benson Stanley unavailble. Quality of the backup is essential but no excuse i suppose.

    Bringing in McCarthy prob 6 months too late but they ll need another to kick on again.

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