Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

On form, it has to be Leinster and Glasgow for the Pro12 final

... but Ulster must believe in themselves

On edge: Brian O’Driscoll and Cian Healy warm up for the Ulster battle
On edge: Brian O’Driscoll and Cian Healy warm up for the Ulster battle

If momentum in the penultimate game ahead of the PRO12 play-offs was the primary objective then it was reasonable for Leinster, relatively meaningless for Ulster and downright disastrous for Munster in a much-ado-about-nothing weekend for Irish rugby.

Leinster beat Edinburgh, as expected, to finish top of the table ahead of Glasgow, but it wasn't impressive. Still, all smart money indicators signal a shoot-out between the top two in Dublin on May 31 to determine the title.

Taking up the Leinster reins from Joe Schmidt was never going to be easy. Matt O'Connor is no one's fool and overall has managed to make a fair fist of the job. Yet there is something missing.

The precision handling that marked Schmidt's tenure is no longer there. Now, for every opportunity created, there is another botched. The talent is still present in abundance and when they click, they are irrepressible, but overall this season, the level of performance has been underwhelming.

The best farewell they could provide Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen is a two-match finish to the PRO12 season garnished by Leinster's unique brand of total rugby.

In Limerick, Munster and Ulster just about managed to make it out of neutral. Even allowing for the soft conditions, the level of skill was abominable. Credit to Ulster for the win and spirited level of performance, bearing in mind they fielded just five of their first-choice 23.

I cannot see any direct relevance to this weekend's play-off joust with Leinster in Dublin, but it will have lifted morale in the camp and provided valuable experience.

For Munster, it was a display to rank with the very worst. Of course, they will lift their level appreciably for Scotstoun, but factoring in the post-Toulouse debacle against Glasgow, coached by Gregor Townsend, such extremes in intensity are simply rather unacceptable.

Fail to deliver in Glasgow on Friday and head coach Rob Penney will have a closing chapter to his Munster career he does not deserve.

Some will say that if Munster produce two big performances on the road to take the title over the next fortnight, Penney's tenure will have been a resounding success.

Call me a cynic, but I don't quite see it as clear-cut as that. Even if they win the PRO12, watching Munster rugby in its present guise leaves me bemused.

In contrast to Ulster, Munster fielded 18 of their first-up 23 on duty in Toulon in that Heineken Cup semi-final defeat.

Again on Saturday, Munster's back-play was abysmal.

And while neither Ian Keatley nor out-half rival JJ Hanrahan could claim to be remotely close to Ronan O'Gara in terms of consistent tactical influence, they are both talented footballers both; it is the lack of balance in midfield that sees Munster rugby way behind where it should be.

The simple stereotype that Munster breed forwards and Leinster breed backs no longer holds. Where Leinster have long addressed the forward issue, Munster have not tackled their problem.

Bear in mind that just two – Williams (CBC) and Simon Zebo (PBC) – of the starting backline on Saturday came through the Munster system from underage up.

In opting for Foley to be main man alongside Niall O'Donovan (as manager), Munster appear to have got it right, but the next move, in replacing the laid-back Mannix, is a massive call.

While Leinster need a return to old ball handling, Munster require a surgeon to implement major three-quarter line surgery if they are to challenge for the top European prize with conviction again.

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