Absent-minded Armitage sums up home failings

London Irish 11 Leinster 11
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The Independent Online

Looking on the bright side, England's elite clubs can still claim to be better than the Italians, although there are teams in Outer Mongolia who might have fancied their chances against Viadana just recently. Looking on the dark side, as we surely must, given the carnage inflicted on the Premiership community, this Heineken Cup pool phase has been excruciating. With only one of their seven contenders left standing – a survival rate of 14.28 per cent – the English would have made more impact on the tournament had they staged another of their boycotts.

When London Irish followed Harlequins, Bath, Gloucester, Sale and Leicester out of the competition, watched by the best part of 40,000 spectators at Twickenham, the nature of their exit was instructive. The Exiles are nobody's pushovers; indeed, they play better rugby than anyone in the country, with the possible exceptions of Northampton, the only Premiership concern to have withstood the cull, and their aforementioned East Midlands neighbours. They certainly had the beating of Leinster, the reigning champions, to the extent that they dominated the second half of a profoundly physical contest and were leading five minutes into injury time.

What happened during the remaining two minutes was a depressing reflection of the current standard of living in what is meant to be the world's most prosperous union nation. Leinster, behind for the first time as a result of Chris Malone's late penalty, were accurate enough with their restart routine, but a fully tuned-in Delon Armitage would have dealt with it. Unfortunately, England's first-choice full-back had spent the entire match on a wavelength all of his own, and it was no great surprise when the visitors relieved him of the ball and allowed Jonathan Sexton to square the argument with a drop goal.

Even then, the Exiles had opportunities to save their skins, but their thought processes were so frazzled, they could come up with nothing better than two ridiculously ambitious drop shots of their own, the first of them from a position just to the west of Canterbury. The way Malone was kicking – that is to say, badly – there was no prospect of either hitting the mark.

So it was that one of England's top-of-the-bill acts finished the game the way they had started it, lost in a fog of muddle, indecision and error. Armitage's performance was so far below par, it was tempting to wonder whether he was playing injured. (Not so, according to his head coach, Toby Booth.) In addition to the full-back's many faux pas, there were mistakes from people who never make them, like Paul Hodgson, and daft drop-goal attempts from people who never kick the ball, like Seilala Mapusua. And to think Booth had preferred Malone's mature level-headedness to Ryan Lamb's youthful pyrotechnics at outside-half!

"I think the energy tank took over," admitted the coach as he sought to explain his side's harum-scarum approach. "The players knew they'd mucked things up in Llanelli in the previous round and they overcompensated. I'm proud of how we've performed against the holders: we beat them in their own back garden and we had opportunities to win again here. That says to me that we can survive at the top table. But we've been taught lessons in this tournament. In the Premiership, one or two bad performances can be lost over the course of a long competition, but in the Heineken Cup there is very little chance to recover. We have a great sense of ambition at this club, but we have to match that with a stronger mentality on the big occasion."

It was a fair and reasonable assessment: teams playing catch-up from the first whistle, as London Irish were at the weekend, frequently allow themselves to be carried away by the moment, to forget that control is the better part of commitment. But what of the bigger picture, so gloomy it might have been painted by Rembrandt at his most dejected? Why should England's clubs choose this moment to deliver their worst return in Heineken Cup history?

"You can look at it two ways," Booth responded. "Either we're not good enough, or the attritional element of a tournament as tough and relentless as the Premiership is taking its toll. There is a matrix of factors at work here but, on the whole, I'd go for the second answer, especially when you add in squad sizes, the constraints of the salary cap, the injury effects of the current breakdown law and other bits and pieces. It's clear to me that if you're playing in the Magners League rather than the Premiership or the French Top 14, it's easier to manage a European campaign."

Needless to say, the Leinster camp were having none of it. "You have to roll with the punches," said Booth's opposite number, the razor-sharp Australian Michael Cheika. "Is it better to have players not playing enough games, rather than too many? There are downsides and upsides to both systems."

Cheika has other, more pressing problems to ponder. For all the brilliance of his back division, in which Gordon D'Arcy performed quite beautifully and Brian O'Driscoll made some telling defensive contributions, it is becoming ever clearer that Cheika's countryman Rocky Elsom took much of Leinster's close-quarter authority with him when he left for home last summer. Unless the Dubliners get themselves sorted in the arm-wrestling department, they can kiss goodbye to their title.

That said, they are still in the tournament, which is more than London Irish can say. "It's a big disappointment, clearly," acknowledged the England scrum-half Hodgson, who must now turn his thoughts to Six Nations business. "We don't know how long our side will stay together: it's the reality in professional rugby, especially when you have a lot of guys from overseas. It's natural that they'll want to go home at some point, so we have to start taking our opportunities."

London Irish: Try Malone; Penalties Malone 2. Leinster: Try Nacewa; Penalty Sexton; Drop goal Sexton.

London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; C Malone, P Hodgson (P Richards, 35-h-t); C Dermody (D Murphy, 77), D Paice, F Rautenbach (P Ion, 63), N Kennedy, R Casey (capt, G Johnson, 86), R Thorpe, S Armitage (K Roche, 63), C Hala'ufia.

Leinster: R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healey (S Wright, 53), B Jackman (J Fogarty, 31), C Van der Linde (M Ross, 57; Healey, 60), L Cullen (capt; M O'Kelly, 64), N Hines, K McLaughlin, S Jennings (S O'Brien, 60), J Heaslip.

Referee: N Owens (Wales).