By Kieran Rooney
IRISH rugby coach Declan Kidney should be feeling pretty satisfied about how the season has started.
Three of the four Irish provinces, after all, are in the top five of the Magners League with Munster heading the table. But there is a considerable and somewhat unexpected problem for Kidney as he looks forward to an autumn program that includes matches against South Africa and New Zealand.
That problem is Leinster. They have simply failed to get going under new coach Joe Schmidt, losing three out of their opening four Magners League matches to lie fourth from bottom of the table.
Their most recent defeat, a 32-24 away loss to Edinburgh last Friday night, was perhaps the most worrying. Edinburgh went into the game having lost their opening three games.
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Yet, they were able to pick up a bonus point for scoring four tries against a disorganized Leinster outfit. While some of the big names were missing, particularly from the pack, this Leinster side should have been capable of much better.
There were lots of the international squad involved. Brian O’Driscoll, for example, partnered Godon D’Arcy in the centre. Rob Kearney was at full-back, Luke Fitzgerald was on one wing with Eoin Reddan at scrum-half.
If the pack wasn’t quite as strong, they should have been capable of better. Jamie Heaslip did make some impression when coming on as a second half substitute, scoring a try, but there were very few encouraging signs for Kidney.
Yet another concern for the Irish coach was the fact that Jonathan Sexton had to withdraw shortly before the kick-off. Kidney needs both Sexton and Ronan O’Gara in top shape for the four match autumn programme but the Leinster out-half has yet to manage a competitive fixture.
Hopefully, Sexton’s leg injury will improve sufficiently for him to line-out against Munster in Saturday night’s big Magners match against Munster at the Aviva Stadium.
Very obviously, he badly needs games if he is to be in top shape for those November outings against South Africa, Samoa, New Zealand and Argentina.
Leinster’s problems at the moment, however, stem from a lot more than the absence of Sexton. Quite clearly, the new coach Schmidt is taking time to settle into the job following the departure of Michael Cheika to Stade Francais.
Schmidt, to be fair, hasn’t been helped by a number of factors. The most obvious is that the enormously successful defensive coach Kurt McQuilkin also departed at the end of last season.
Leinster, with McQuilkin around to organize matters, were very hard to break down. Now they appear to be all over the place in defence.
One thing Schmidt is not going to do is to press the panic button. He said: “We definitely won’t do that. At the same time, we know we haven’t performed as we would like and must rebound pretty quickly for the Munster game.
“We couldn’t get position in the Edinburgh half and seemed to be backpeddling for a lot of the match. The defensive problems are disconcerting.
“We gave them too much space, and, if you do that, they are dangerous. The last minute change at out-half, which saw Isa Nacewa come in for Johnny Sexton, didn’t help but we needed more than him tonight.”
“Now it’s a matter of rolling our sleeves up for the Munster game and giving a performance that we can be a little bit more proud of.”
In recent seasons, Leinster have had the edge over their great rivals but, on the evidence of the season to date, Munster will be starting this game as warm favorites. In complete contrast to Leinster, they are humming along nicely.
They were also in Scotland, taking on Glasgow at Firhill. But everything ran smoothy as Munster secured their four successive victory, and gained a bonus point for scoring four tries.
In the continued absence of Sexton, Kidney must have been relieved to see that O’Gara was in such good form. He was responsible for 23 points with five penalties and four conversions.
Furthermore, Denis Leamy appears to be back at his best following last seasons injury problems. He scored one of the tries, the others coming from Johne Murphy (2) and Niall Ronan.
Murphy, signed from Leicester Tigers, is proving a very good capture. He was back in his normal position on the wing after a number of useful performances in the centre and now could well in in Kidney’s plans for the autumn programme.
As things stand, Munster are three points clear of Llanelli Scarlets at the top of the table. Ulster and Connacht are in four and fifth spot respectively after a hard fought 15-15 draw at the Sportsground in Galway on Saturday night.
The game confirmed that Connacht are a much improved outfit under their new coach Eric Elwood. Although there were no tries, this was a very good contest.
Interestingly, the Irish management had asked Ulster to include Paddy Wallace at out-half. He played reasonably well, but then so did Connacht’s No 10 Ian Keatley.
Keatley landed five penalties for Connacht with Wallace getting four for Ulster, and the other coming from substitute Niall O’Connor. A draw was a fair result.
Normally, Connacht would expect to lose this game, so it’s perhaps a sign of the times that Elwood was somewhat disappointed. “Well, I was a bit disappointed with the way we played in attack. We turned over ball very cheaply.” he commented.
To the disappointment of the crowd, Connacht’s star wing Fionn Carr didn’t get enough opportunities in attack and was taken out on one occasion by a dangerous late tackle from Ulster’s American back Paul Emerick.
But Connacht did defence superbly throughout, with no one better than Gavin Duffy at full-back.
Trap welcomes Duff’s return
THE return after injury of Damien Duff to the Republic of Ireland squad is good news for Irish soccer fans.
But it could leave manager Giovanni Trapattoni with a selection headache for the European Championship qualifiers against Russia and Slovakia. The difficulty is that Aidan McGeady has played well in Duff’s absence.
“Yes, McGeady played very well last time. But it’s good to have players who force you to make difficult decisions.” said Trapattoni.
Encouragingly, Duff came through a second outing for Fulham in their 0-0 draw against Everton at Craven Cottege on Saturday. He lasted the full 90 minutes, although the Premiership encounter, it must be admitted, was disappointing.
Midfielder Keith Andrews is also back in the Irish squad following his injury problems. He came off the substitutes bench in the second half of Blackburn Rovers 2-1 Premiership away victory over Blackpool.
But it does appear that Trapattoni may well stick to Derby’s Paul Green ahead of both Darron Gibson and Andrews. The Irish manager has spoken highly of Green’s contribution against Andorra, arguing that he was unfairly cricticised.
Cork get 11 nominations
CORK, as expected, are the best represented on the Vodagone All-Star football nominations.
The All-Ireland champions have 11 players nominated. But the big talking point is that the four provincial champions, Kerry, Tyrone, Meath and Roscommon have managed just 12 out of the 45.
No surprise really that Roscommon should get only two, while Meath have three. The shock is that Kerry have also just three, defenders Marc O Se and Tomas O Se and forward Colm “Gouch” Cooper.
Tyrone are the best represented of the provincial winners with four, all in defence. The are goalkeeper Pascal O’Connell, Justin McMahon, Joe McMahon and Philip Jordan.
Dublin have four players nominated, headed, not surprisingly, by Bernard Brogan.
[PHOTOCALL Brian O’Driscoll is tackled by Edinburgh’s Scott MacLeod.]