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Friday, April 11, 2014

Ospreys-25 Leinster-19

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TOUGH AT THE TOP

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What would we as Leinster fans have said about Joe Schmidt immediately after the 2011 Heineken Cup final had that historic second half turnaround in Cardiff not happened? And by the same token, what would we say about Matt O'Connor after this match at the Liberty Stadium had Dave Kearney held that pass on the way to a victory?

Impossible questions to answer I know, but still I feel they are ones we need to ask, particularly now as despite being top of the Pro12 by 4 points and having won the toughest pool in the Heineken Cup, O'Connor finds himself firmly under scrutiny after two away defeats in a row. And it's not as though being in first place did much good for Rob Penney down in Munster either.

Of course I wasn't 100% happy with Leinster's display on Friday night and I think my record on this site is decent enough when it comes to pointing out things I reckon we have done wrong over the years. But on a broader scale I think we need to be mindful of just what exactly our provincial coaches are being asked to do with their squads, plus we could do without being so self-absorbed and perhaps give our opposition more credit when they find a way to come out on top.

With that in mind, I have chosen to look at the factors which I feel contributed to this result every bit as much as things like tactical errors on Leinster's part before I address them.

OSPREYS PLAYED WELL

I first coined the term “Those Pesky Birds/Ospreys” after the 2012 Pro12 final and when I tweeted it during the week, it was RTed by both prominent Welsh journalist Simon Thomas and the official Ospreys account itself. I hope they all realise I mean nothing by it but respect.

Amid all the palaver that Welsh rugby has endured off the field in recent years and this season especially, the Ospreys have remained, in my opinion anyway, a leading light, whether their fans choose to recognise this fact or not. They have won multiple trophies and despite being mostly formed by the controversial merging of two intense rival clubs, they have managed to establish a culture of rugby of their own in this much-maligned league.

And even though the conveyor belt of players heading to France keeps on rolling, each season, particularly after Christmas, they seem able to put a string of good results together thanks to players who haven't yet made it at test level. On Friday night there were standout displays by names we wouldn't know so well here in Ireland such as Richard Fussell, Jeff Hassler and most of all number 8 Dan Baker.

Though I will deal with how they got into attacking positions later, when they had them in this match, especially in the first half, they were well able to turn them into points. Their lone try courtesy of Hassler was the result of some slick play through the backs including a flick by Fussell which if a fraction of a second out would have butchered the whole move.

On top of this ability going forward there was also the quality of placekicking from Dan Biggar, which Leinster fans well know can do some serious damage, and there were key contributions by the more household names in the squad, particularly the Bristol-bound Ryan Jones who forced a massive turnover in the closing stages.

Some Leinster fans may point out things like Ospreys players & fans alike bullying the ref throughout but I reckon this is part of the game and and something visiting teams have to deal with, so I’d count this as a positive for the home side.  Wouldn’t hurt to crank this kind of thing up more often at the RDS if you ask me, once it’s not too over the top.

LEINSTER PLAYED WELL

Sorry, but I believe we did, even with a makeshift back line, and what's more, for long periods as well!

First there was our only try from Cian Healy which demonstrates our lineout-maul option is still alive and kicking and it came shortly after the home side's 5 pointer thus we still have the ability to react when scores go against us.

But our best spell by far was at the start of the second half when both Healy and Jamie Heaslip both played out of their skins like the Lions they are. Strong bursts going forward, forced turnovers by both stripping and by choke tackles, it was all there and it is great to see them hitting form at this stage of the season.

And it wasn't so bad on the defensive front either as much like Toulon we were able to scramble with effectiveness on several occasions as well. Plus there were “only” the 16 tackles missed this week, well down on Toulon so that has to be a good thing (ok...maybe that last bit comes with a side order of tongue-in-cheek!)

THE REF

Sigh. I hate singling out the man in the middle but in this case I'm not doing it so I can have a go at the opposition more than I am trying to defend Matt O'Connor for copping complete responsibility for the loss.

Much has been made about the Pro12 refs when it comes to both consistency and accountability. We can go into that in depth another time but in this match there were several things blatantly missed by Marius Mitrea that either led to scores for the home side or prevented ones from the visitors.

  1. 20140414_054158~2Ryan Jones was obviously on his knees praying the ref wouldn't notice when Screengrab 1 happened, and his prayers were answered when the ref awarded the pen to the Ospreys because a Leinster player went in from the side. (Ball had broken loose but Jones was playing the man rather than contesting) The result – from being on the back foot the home side then get a foothold in the Leinster 22 and it leads directly to the game's only try.

  2. 20140414_082512~2Early in the second half as Leinster were cranking up through the gears, Isaac Boss is grabbed by Jonathan Spratt without the ball. It's not seen and the play breaks down into a choke tackle and the Ospreys can clear. The result – no score for Leinster on an attacking opportunity. Maybe a try wouldn't have resulted but the way we were playing at this stage at least a pen was on the cards.

  3. 20140414_083245~2Shane Jennings pinged for not releasing after the tackle even after his arms are clearly open and his legs pinned into the ruck. The result – 3 more points for the Ospreys and a 9-point lead.

  4. Shortly after Dave Kearney's dropped pass for a certain try in the lead photo, Jamie Heaslip forced a turnover on the Ospreys line after the resulting scrum and it looked like another try-scoring chance was imminent. Alun-Wyn Jones tackled a Leinster player, stayed on the ground and held on to the ball, clearly to slow the play down. I will be gracious and say it “could” have been a yellow for him. The result – just the 3 points for Leinster, plus AWJ played a significant role in the next ten minutes when he “could” have been elsewhere.

  5. With Leinster just three points down and the clock past 70, Noel Reid took a bold decision to take a 22 to himself and got to halfway where he may have been isolated but the jackling was being done by a completely horizontal Fussell yet the pen went to the home side. The result – play remains in the Leinster half and eventually the Ospreys stretch their lead to 6 for good.

Sure, the final penalty count was 10-10 but this stat doesn't take into account calls that weren't made nor what resulted from those non-calls. All I'm saying is that if we are to punish Leinster merely for their own part in this defeat, we may be setting the standards up in the clouds when we're also up against officiating like we saw on Friday.

OK – NOW WHAT LEINSTER DID WRONG

Cian Healy may have had a good night but the penalty he conceded at the start of the second half was both unnecessary and costly. He had been taken off his feet yet still went for the ball and it was in an extremely kickable area. Then right at the end Mike McCarthy ignored the calls of the ref at a maul and this gave Biggar the final score of the contest.

There were times when the ball was left unprotected at the breakdown and although we did seem to move the ball better than last week, we were still struggling to come to terms with the blitz defence and didn’t seem to have too many ways around it when it mattered.

Plus, Dave dropped a pass that was there to be taken over the line.  He has had a fine season, but that definitely was an error and in my book, the most costly one.  But can we blame Matt for this?

Overall the scouting report on O'Connor's Leinster would seem to be that if allowed to play we can do wonderful things, but if consistently challenged up at (or maybe even sometimes beyond?) the gain line we find it difficult to get things going. This is most definitely a serious problem for us as we get near the playoffs which could be over before they really begin whether we get a home semifinal or not.

This “masters when we win, team in crisis when we lose” narrative seems to be prevalent in Irish rugby media (mainstream and social) these days, as despite Munster's excellent win over Toulouse last week I see they too are getting hammered for defeat at home by Glasgow. Sure – they were far from perfect themselves in Thomond Park, but I feel we have to take a broader view before we criticise.

First of all, the top three teams on the table may be Irish provinces, but this is still an international competition so although we could be forgiven when we play so many teams from the other nations throughout the season who just aren't up to scratch, we have to give the Glasgows and the Ospreys the credit they deserve when they come out on top.

But also we can't forget that the provinces are not rugby clubs we are following, at least not in the sense of the English & French ones. These are branches of the IRFU who's prime directive is to develop players for the national team. Coaches who take over know this full well when they accept the job, but sometimes I wonder if we do as well.

Having said that, there is one thing I feel we can do better at provincial level - offer at least some explanation when players are left out of the squad…since I’m expecting fans to show understanding, perhaps it would be easier to do if the statuses of all players were accounted for when teams are announced. 

For me as a Leinster fan, although I have been accustomed to silverware over the past few seasons down the RDS, I have to come to terms with the fact that even though after this defeat we are still in with a decent shout of retaining our Pro12 title, there are quality teams around us and it might not happen this time around.

As for Matt, though his public persona may take a bit of getting used to and there is much for him and his staff to work on, I think we should at least be giving him until well into his second campaign at the helm before we judge too harshly. It's not his fault he has no Sexton or no Isa and most of all it's not his fault he's not Joe. JLP

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Other results

Dragons 19 - 23 Edinburgh

Glasgow 29 - 10 Benetton Treviso

Ulster 58 - 12 Connacht

Edinburgh 22 - 29 Cardiff Blues

Benetton Treviso 45 - 27 Dragons

Munster 5 - 22 Glasgow

Scarlets 27 - 20 Zebre

TEAM PLD PTS W PD T PF TD
1 LEINSTER 19 69 14 143 45 455 18
2 ULSTER 19 65 14 169 43 422 23
3 MUNSTER 19 63 14 149 43 434 22
4 GLASGOW 18 60 14 78 33 328 16
5 OSPREYS 19 56 11 151 47 454 23
6 SCARLETS 19 45 9 -22 34 361 -6
7 EDINBURGH 18 35 7 -68 30 325 -10
8 CONNACHT 19 34 6 -97 34 313 -7
9 CARDIFF BLUES 19 33 6 -112 26 371 -22
10 NG DRAGONS 19 31 6 -80 29 339 -9
11 TREVISO 19 29 5 -137 27 334 -30
12 ZEBRE 19 21 3 -174 29 291 -18
 
Positions in red = European qualification spots
 
Next fixtures
 
Fri Apr 18
 
Leinster v Benetton Treviso, 5pm
 
Glasgow v Ulster, 7:35pm
 
Sat Apr 19
 
Zebre v Edinburgh, 2:30pm
 
Connacht v Munster, 6:15pm
 
Sun Apr 20
 
Cardiff Blues v Scarlets, 1pm
 
Dragons v Ospreys, 3:45pm

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Toulon-29 Leinster-14

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PARCE-QUE TOO STRONG

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The beauty of the Heineken Cup is that like so many other things about this amazing sport, it is perfectly imperfect.

For Leinster to be “rewarded” for winning the toughest qualifying pool with a trip to the home of the reigning champions may seem harsh, but everyone knows the rules before the competition kicks off and you just have to get on with playing what's in front of you. And there can be no doubt that Toulon did a much better job of that on Sunday.

These writeups when we lose big contests are always tough, and luckily I haven't had to do too many of them over the years. I reckon it is best to break the match down into a number of headings in areas I felt were key.

TOULON POUR QUATRE-VINGT MINUTES

First and foremost, what an epic display by the home side. Did not take a toe off the pedal from the first second to the last and pretty much produced a template on how to beat Leinster for any other team to study. From charging en masse from one end of the pitch to the other after a ball kicked through to swarming the breakdown area it was a monumental team effort from them.

Man of the match was always going to be Steffon Armitage who seemed to know when to get involved and make key contributions but there was nary a player in red who wasn't fully pumped for this one and we were pretty much blitzed out of it from start to finish. If anything we should take some pride (if little comfort especially for the travelling support which was loud & plentiful as always) in that the half time score was 6-6.

LEINSTER DEFENCE

You always have to be mindful watching rugby on Sky. They tend to establish a premise and stick to it but that doesn't mean they have called things as they were.

For example...I don't believe Leinster lost this match simply because we were “dropping off tackles”. In the lead up to the first try Stu Barnes latched on to the fact that Toulon hooker Craig Burden (who lived up to his name and then some as far as Leinster were concerned) was missed by Devin Toner, even though he received the ball at pace running across the lofty lock.

Now don't get me wrong...I'm not saying our tackling was up to scratch when it mattered (27 missed is a number that’s going to stand out on any stat sheet), particularly in the third quarter, but I do not believe it is why we lost, more on that in the next point.

But there's a fine line between a defender missing a tackle and an attacker receiving & carrying in such a way as to break through it, and to focus on just one side of things is a very selective decision in my book.

LEINSTER OFFENCE?

THIS is where I saw the difference on the day, and the majority of Toulon's points sprang from situations when Leinster had control of the ball, including both of their tries.

There was much scratching of heads when Jimmy Gopperth was handed the number 10 jumper. I chose to give Matt O'Connor the benefit of the doubt because with 3 away wins out of 3 in our pool of death he had earned the right to be trusted for matches like this.

But the halftime score of 6-6 was definitely more on account of our defence. I lost count of the times Toulon were thwarted in our 22 by mesmerising scramble defence, yet when we had the ball we quite simply could not get anything going down at the other end.

Still...we were right in it when the second half kicked off and it wasn’t long before the wheels started to come off. Gopperth took the restart, deep into the Toulon 22, they set up phases and cleared. Lineout to Leinster around halfway, so far so good.

But our very first series of phases after that lineout led to Shane Jennings being criminally isolated at midfield and although injury had forced Wilkinson off before the interval, his replacement kicker Matt Giteau was able to slot the pen and the cup holders were back in front for good without even having left their own half.

Things looked better for us when scrum-half Sebastien Tilles-Bourde spilled the restart outside his own 22. It would be very easy for me to say we should have taken the scrum at that point, seeing how we seemed to have an edge at that set-piece, but then again Leinster being Leinster we chose to use the advantage and eventually Cian Healy dropped it.

Steffon was quick off the mark and not only lumped it downfield but chased it down as well...soon after that Burden was blowing past Toner and once the red machine was bearing down on our line again for the umpteenth time they were going to be hard to stop and it was prop Xavier Chiocci, who earlier won that pen against Jennings, who got the ball down.

Later as the clock neared 60 Leinster won a penalty at midfield but rather than take the call and go for a lineout set-piece in their 22, we actually saw some daylight in the Toulon D and a good burst from Zane Kirchener took us deep into their half. Sadly with the advantage over it was Steffon yet again with the turnover and Toulon were able to clear.

We still had a lineout in a decent position after that, but this time Fernandez-Lobbe was able to make it into a sloppy possession and once again it was a fly-hack through which brought the play to the other end and with the sun shining brightly for Toulon they made yet more hay as Drew Mitchell plucked a high offload from Bastareaud and evaded the challenge of D'Arcy to get over the line.

To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what our overall attacking mindset was. Going by the selection of Gopperth and the early high balls it would seem to be conservative, but then again with Eoin Reddan at 9 it was always going to be in our DNA to try and make the most out of advantage situations so surely if that was the case, Madigan would have been a better call. And having left it until the 66th minute to introduce him, it didn't help O'Connor's cause that the lone Leinster try came moments later.

It was our first chance of a lineout-maul in their 22 and they had no answer for it as Jordi Murphy bagged yet another try for himself. Unfortunately for us it was way in the corner and the missed conversion kept the margin too wide for even a team known to overcome seemingly impossible deficits.

THE BOUNCE OF THE BALL

Boo-hoo, we had no luck! There's not much I can write under that heading that doesn't make it look like I'm saying that, but I'll try.

No doubt the English will argue that the bounce of the ball went against them twice in Paris during the Six Nations, both when France beat them in round 1 and when Ireland won there in round 5. To them I say, if you relax your rules a tad and let players like Steffon Armitage play no matter where they choose to earn their keep, then maybe you could be champions now.

Anyway...it has to be said that throughout this match when there was a 50/50 contest for the ball it seemed to go towards the home side, but as I have already said, Toulon were more up for this one for the entire 80 and deserved whatever luck was going.

Even when their water-boy screwed up and brought the kicking tee on when it wasn't wanted, Delon Armitage was able to capitalise with a monster penalty kick! It really was one of those days when everything seems to be falling right for you, and heaven knows Leinster have known plenty of those over the years.

WAYNE BARNES

Didn't cost us the game but was really all over the place, and scanning over comments on social media I find it odd that this wasn't being highlighted more by “neutral” fans given the pasting that Alain Rolland got the week before.

His “gate” at the breakdown seemed to vary in size throughout, his whistles for “holding after the tackle” calls were often too late (the ball would become available THEN he'd blow) and more than once he had to correct his own call which confused both sets of players.

Biggest of all was his interpretation of Florian Freisa's challenge. “Came through, took 9 out off his feet”, you say, Wayne? Try “flew at Eoin Reddan with his head” and you're closer to the point. Not that the colour of card really mattered in the 73rd minute but it capped an awful display from the official and hopefully he won't get the whistle in any of the remaining matches.

SILVER LININGS?

OK hand on heart, there are none for Leinster fans. When our boys win such an elite competition three times we're always going to be gutted when we go out of it.

Sure, it means we can have a couple of extra weekends off to focus on retaining both our Pro 12 crown as well as the B&I Cup (for which our team can now be upgraded to Leinster A+ perhaps with a few extra senior players added for the trip to Pontypridd?) but although all of the above is true, I still feel dirty after typing it.

CONCLUSION

We definitely have questions to answer, even if they aren't the ones spun by Stu Barnes & his Sky cronies. I have often been critical of Leinster for not playing like the away team when a situation calls for it – that may seem harsh because we all love seeing the game of rugby played in an open and attacking fashion, but I feel on this occasion we fell between two stools and we were up against a team primed to make full use of every bit of indecision.

gouge on BODSo what could have been a glorious weekend for provincial rugby ends up with Munster standing alone in the semifinals. Hopefully they will be able to learn from our mistakes and put Laporte’s men to the sword in Marseille.

Maybe if the citing commissioner decides to have a look at what Steffon Armitage was doing to Brian O'Driscoll in the first half they may be spared from facing him.

But even without the English back-rower, Toulon represent the full extent of what the professional game has become and have several different quality options to take his place. Best of luck to Rob Penney & co...they're going to need it. JLP

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Also this weekend

Heineken Cup Quarterfinals

Munster 47 - 23 Toulouse

Clermont Auvergne 22 - 16 Leicester Tigers

Ulster 15 - 17 Saracens

British & Irish Cup Quarterfinal

Leinster A 47 - 15 Munster A

Friday, April 04, 2014

Heineken Rugby Show - Know Your Bro

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Ahead of this weekend’s Heineken Cup Quarter Finals, the Show’s host Will Carling sat down with one of the most successful centre pairings of all time – Leinster & Ireland’s Gordon D’Arcy & Brian O’Driscoll to find out how well they really know each other, the results were very surprising!

You can follow @Heineken_UK on Twitter to join the conversation using #HeinekenRugby

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Leinster-22 Munster-18

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FOR THE GOOD OF THE GAME

HoR pro logo blueDave Kearney had a great Six Nations and it was unfortunate for him to have to miss this game on Saturday.  But hand on heart I honestly believe that if Keith Earls was able to start ahead of him, the Irish team would have been even better.

Yes, you read that first paragraph right, April 1st hasn’t come early.

I had many thoughts after watching this match over for the second time, and that Earls point was just one, and a minor one at that.  But it is also an honest one, and unfortunately I feel I have to lead with it to set the tone for this piece.

This website exists because I love rugby and I love writing.   I’d love to be able to cover all aspects of the game - the four provinces, club rugby, schoolboy rugby, Premiership, Top 14, Super Rugby, hey I’d write up a game from the Georgian 4th division if you could get me the footage.

I would, that is, if I had time.  But I don’t.  None of us has.  But I still want to write, so I focus on the team I see week in week out and to whom I pay good money every year for a season ticket.  And that’s Leinster Rugby.  Of course when it comes to international time, I’m all about the boys in green.

But what has made the website worthwhile has been the fact that I have met so many fellow rugby fans who share my love of the sport, and the best thing about THAT is that it doesn’t matter which team they follow.

In the lead photo you can see myself with several of these fans in the Sandymount Hotel after the game on Saturday.  It was an impromptu “event” arranged by RaboDirect as a way of saying thanks to some of the game’s supporters before they end their sponsorship of the Celtic League.

The smiles are all genuine - we had a laugh, a few beers, some pub grub and it was all good.  It didn’t matter to anyone who won or lost the game, but if we had our opinions on what may or may not have happened, we were all able to share them respectfully.

For the good of the game, let us not only hold on to that, but also welcome others who feel the same. 

Sure, there are eejits who are determined to go the tribal route.  And they are not just from Leinster, nor just from Munster, nor just from Ireland.

And sure enough they were out in force after this match, whether it was on my Facebook page, Journal.ie, and all the usual messageboards.

Well we know they’re there, we know how sad they can be, we know how much they can stir our emotions especially after big derby matches like this one.  We also know that even with my bubble-bursting opening paragraph, there will still be those scanning this page word by word looking for some kind slight to pounce on.

But please, for the good of the game, don’t ever let them stop us harping on rugby.

This match came in three distinct segments - Munster won the first 30 minutes, Leinster the next 30, Munster the final 20.  But throughout the entire 80, it really did look as though only one side was going to score a try, and that was the team that eventually did, and that was the team which won the match.

Although I think Munster were mistaken to take the three points when awarded a penalty on 73 minutes, I reckon they made that choice because they agreed that the Leinster defence was at its best and that they were more likely to get another score by a penalty.  As it turned out, that didn’t happen either.

Had they instead gone for the corner, with a lineout and patient phases even if the Leinster tackling was to keep them out, some good recycling could have at least won another penalty and Alain Rolland would have to show a yellow as he did earlier to Dave Kilcoyne.

Ah, yes, Alain Rolland.  He went to Blackrock College, didn’t he?  So therefore he must have been determined to make calls that favoured Leinster on the night, right?

Look…he wasn’t the scheduled ref.  Pascal Gauzere was injured and with all the other refs assigned and travel arrangements made, if AR was the best available option it was surely a testament to his career (which included involvement a World Cup Final, more than any other Irishman can say) that he be handed this gig.

As I have said before on this site, thinking a ref just gives bad calls against your team is like thinking lemon juice only squirts into your eyeball…just because that’s the only time you notice something doesn’t mean that’s the only time it happens.

He got calls wrong on Saturday it’s true.  But the same can be said for any given official on any given day.

The one thing you can be sure of with Rolland is that you’ll generally get a detailed explanation of why he made a particular decision, and sometimes, although he lacks the wit of Nigel Owens, he’ll even add a little colour, like when he said to Brian O’Driscoll at one stage “all I’m saying is that it’s for the good of the game”.

He is perfectly within his rights to say something like “because I said so” but he goes that extra mile of quoting chapter and verse what he saw and it’s a shame more refs can’t be like him.

[Funny little sidenote…at one stage as a scrum was forming Rolland said “Everybody is giving out about everyone else” after which Setanta commentator Oisin Langan quipped, “Welcome to Ireland!”]

Of course it was clear the ref had his hands full with the scrums on the night, and at the centre of this was David Kilcoyne v Mike Ross.  We need not worry ourselves about the particulars of what goes on between props at scrum-setting time but needless to say they caught Rolland’s attention and it set the tone for the first half.

He seemed to take turns awarding penalties against the two of them, though only the Munster ones tended to be in kickable positions which helped them to their early 9-0 lead.  As he threatened to show both of them yellow I was reminded of Nigel Owens doing similar in the same fixture 2 years ago only then it was Marcus Horan wearing red 1.  Looking at the two benches for this match I’d say a double yellow would have favoured the visitors.

But they stayed on the park and things improved in the second half on that front.  It was around the 30-minute mark when Leinster’s offence finally seemed to find its spark.    That has been a pattern this season in that our style going forward needs to work its way up through the gears before it gets to a point where the passes start sticking and the scoreboard starts moving.

When the score got to 3-12 Ian Madigan (who along with his opposite number Keatley nailed  some superb placekicks on the night) did a short restart which paid off with Fergus McFadden taking it and from there it really did look as though a try was inevitable, though it was still a long time coming, the 56th minute to be precise, albeit with the help of the extra man.

Man of the Match was given to Jamie Heaslip - not for the first time this season I disagree, but again it’s nothing against the man himself.  Since he got the try there was a case to be made for BOD but in my book it should have gone to Shane Jennings.  Made some good breaks, forced turnovers, hit his tackles and of course had two key involvements in the try including the final pop pass.

On the Munster side as I have already suggested I thought Keith Earls was their biggest threat and is having a fine season when fit.  I have nothing against Simon Zebo but I really do feel he still has a way to go before he can move up the Irish pecking order.  For one thing, although he is an “x-factor” type of winger, he doesn’t play for a club that will base their style of play around him the way London Wasps would do for Christian Wade, for example.

But while he had a few good bursts and chased down some kicks, he really was all at sea for the decisive try and for a solid 80 minutes I’d have Earls in my side any day ahead of him if I were Joe Schmidt.

I could go back over the match in more detail and single out more individuals, but I really think it’s more important that we put this one to bed and focus on next weekend. 

The 2013/14 season is well poised to become the best-ever for Irish rugby.  After winning the Six Nations (all of us!) we are on the brink of having three Irish provinces in the final four of both the Heineken Cup and the RaboDirectPRO12, and into the bargain we have Connacht playing some amazing rugby as well.

I say we put our full support behind them and make sure that all further derbies this season are enjoyed in the proper fashion for the good of the game. Once Leinster win, of course ;-) JLP

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Also this weekend

Glasgow 11 - 9 Ospreys

Zebre 25 - 25 Dragons

Benetton Treviso 20 - 16 Edinburgh

Cardiff Blues 28 - 23 Ulster

Scarlets 32 - 30 Connacht

1 LEINSTER 18 68 14 149 44 436 18
2 MUNSTER 18 63 14 166 42 429 24
3 ULSTER 18 60 13 364 35 364 17
4 OSPREYS 18 52 10 145 47 454 23
5 GLASGOW 16 51 12 42 26 277 11
6 SCARLETS 18 41 8 -29 32 334 -5
7 CONNACHT 18 34 6 -51 32 301 -1
8 NG DRAGONS 17 30 6 -58 25 293 -6
9 EDINBURGH 16 30 6 -65 25 280 -10
10 CARDIFF BLUES 18 28 5 -119 22 342 -23
11 TREVISO 17 24 4 -136 21 279 -29
12 ZEBRE 18 20 3 -167 26 271 -19

Next matches

Thu Apr 3

NG Dragons v Edinburgh, 6:30pm

Fri Apr 4

Glasgow v Benetton Treviso, 7:35pm

Fri Apr 11

Ospreys v Leinster, 7:05pm

Ulster v Connacht, 7:05pm

Edinburgh v Cardiff Blues, 7:45pm

Sat Apr 12

Benetton Treviso v NG Dragons, 6pm

Munster v Glasgow, 6:30pm

Scarlets v Zebre, 6:30pm

Friday, March 21, 2014

Leinster-27 Zebre-0

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NOTHING TO SEE HERE…

HoR pro logo blueWAIT! DON’T CLICK AWAY YET! The headline refers to the game itself - I promise to try and make the writeup as entertaining as always! [ahem]

If you just watched the highlights of this match offered on YouTube by the league itself (great service by the way - they post clips while the match is in progress) you’d be forgiven for thinking “four great tries, bonus point win for Leinster, with a whitewash thrown in, all good.”

But if, like myself and several thousand others, you were actually there on the night watching the 80 minutes tick agonisingly by, you would put things a little differently, as 27-0 doesn’t go anywhere near reflecting how the match went.  Something closer to double Leinster’s total with (to be fair) at least a few points on the board for the visitors would have been more like it.

Even the ESPN statisticians were bored - look at all the tallies they not only screwed up, but also never bothered to fix over the weekend (screengrab from Monday morning).

Still though…before I get to all the negative stuff, it has to be said that with much bigger contests ahead, Leinster’s remit was a bonus point and no injuries and pending their squad update today, it seems like that was accomplished.

There’s also the issue of context…go back 12 months to Leinster’s first Pro12 fixture after the 2013 Six Nations and you see we needed 22 points from Ian Madigan to get past Glasgow who led for most of the night.  If you expect a rugby union team to be thrown together with some having a few weeks off and others playing with different coaches to just click right off the bat, you’re expecting the impossible.

Having said that, when you as a fan have spent hard-earned money for your seat at a sporting contest and you know one team is at the bottom of the league and the other are not only top but also reigning champions (whether it’s Pro12 or Six Nations we can debate later!) I suppose it’s fair to be disappointed to see possession after possession go to waste for a variety of reasons like knock-ons, holding after the tackle, and what-not.

It started fine for us - Zebre’s winger-turned-outhalf Ianonne put the kickoff out on the full, and the night never got much better for him.  The clock was barely at a minute when we had a penalty which Madigan promptly put into the corner to set up a lineout/maul.

“Here comes a try for Jordi Murphy”, I said to those with me.  In the end I was right - note that I didn’t specify that it was to be at that exact moment!

What followed was a series of phases in the Zebre 22 which led to them conceding pen after pen after pen.  No sign of ref issuing any warnings, we try different ways to get over until the 4th pen when we just take the three points.  Surely we must have thought the floodgates would soon open.

Madigan zebreYeah, not so much.  On 8 minutes Mike McCarthy was pinged for holding after the tackle (looked like he was presenting the ball fine to me but I’m biased) and from there the offensive gremlins began.  I counted fifteen possessions throughout the match where we ran into dead ends; once in a while we were forced into them, but generally it was our own doing.

See, if we make excuses about our side being thrown together we must also remember that the same goes for our opposition, and sometimes it looked like players on the Zebre team had only met each other that evening.

This made for an extremely scrappy contest, in which the ref didn’t help with penalty calls which lacked consistency.  Plus although he awarded one yellow towards the end of the first half, he could have sent several other Zebres to the line for some sloppy and sometimes dangerous attempts at tackles.

It was during that spell with the extra man that we finally got our first try, and you could hear the collective sigh of RDS relief all over Dublin.  On its own it was a very impressive score (as they all were actually) given that the move started with a Luke Fitzgerald burst out of his own 22, included another big gain by McFadden at midfield, saw some patient phases in their red zone and ended with another strong finish by Noel Reid.

But birthday-boy and 100th-cap-winning Madigan missed the conversion minutes after also missing a pen (yes, a bit like Sexton in Paris) and luckily for us Iannone was having a similar mare with the boot so we went in with an 8-0 which no doubt had the ABLs watching ready to draw the knives out if the result was to be that close.

And right up to the 58th minute the scoreline was STILL that close as time after time after time the Leinster offence failed to get going.

Now this could be extremely unfair on Isaac Boss, but the fact remains that two minutes after he was replaced by Eoin Reddan we got two quick tries to put the bonus point back on the table, so make of that what you will.

The first came off a lineout/maul which worked very well until it was stopped short of the line and Luke Fitzgerald dived into the corner.  He got his second also after a lineout though this time there was no maul and we simply passed it back and forth to stretch them and again he had the space to put it down in virtually the same spot.

So it was 20-0 on 66 minutes and it looked like the visitors would buckle making the key fourth try inevitable.  But then came a curious phase of play that had me even more convinced that the French Top14 try-bonus point system is much better than ours.  Over there, it’s not enough to score 4 tries - you must instead get at least 3 more tries than your opponents.

Credit to our Italian opponents with an uncertain future…in the final quarter they showed great ambition to not merely break their duck-egg but also breach our line.  But as our defence was being continuously pinned in our own 22, the clock ticking well past 70 and our tackle count was increasing, I wondered…would we have been better served by just letting them score at that point?

I know that sounds crazy, but we needed to get down the pitch and while 7 points to them wouldn’t affect us, a chance to restart and probably have an attacking lineout around halfway from the exchange would definitely have given us a higher percentage chance of getting try number 4.  A moot point given how the match turned out I know, but still it’s a bit nuts that there could ever be a case made for conceding a score.

In fact I reckon it was that “nothing to lose” mentality which led to Zane Kirchner attempting a crossfield kick on his own tryline in an attempt to get McFadden & Fanning away on the other touchline.  Although it didn’t quite pan out for us and Zebre had another crack at it, they got their wires crossed on our 22 and we had a chance to clear.

And again, taken on its own the sequence of events that led to our bonus point try was pretty impressive for Leinster.  The gremlins were put to bed, the phases all went to plan, penalties were won, quick taps were used to full effect and finally, right as the fat lady started to sing, Jordi Murphy proved my prediction to be spot on as he collapsed over the line following another undefendable lineout/maul.

strauss zebreRichardt Strauss was awarded man-of-the-match and it’s true, he hit all his darts and forced many turnovers.  Luke was also a big contender though because his involvement was much greater than just the two tries.  Also Murphy and Reid had good outings, while Madigan made up for his earlier misses by nailing two great conversions from the far touchline, the perfect birthday presents both for him and for me!

If you really want to throw mud at Leinster for this one being far from wall-to-wall champagne rugby then go ahead - we got the job done and with a stronger 23 out next week we should be more than ready for the visit of our southern cousins.  And it doesn’t hurt to be handed even more motivation by Rob Penney either!

Look…on what he said - there were many on social media yesterday playing the “I don’t see why Leinster fans are so up in arms” card.  Really, that wasn’t the case.  If anything his quip was a compliment to Leinster and yes, in some ways it could be seen as an off-the-cuff remark meant to motivate his own troops.

Thing is though, if Denis Leamy was out of place moaning about Joe Schmidt’s selection policy then so was the current Munster coach, whether his future is with the province or not.  That’s all.  If we don’t want our players to behave like football divers such as Luis Suarez, then we shouldn’t want our coaches to behave like football divas such as Jose Mourinho either. 

After Paris you’d think this season couldn’t possibly get more exciting, but fasten your seat-belts folks…there’s loads of rugby worth seeing in the coming weeks…and not just at The Palindrome next Saturday.  Ulster are still well in the mix for a double and let’s not forget Connacht who have a massive game in Llanelli on Sunday to stay in contention for yet another seat at the top European table.

I’m not sure how we can complain about anything that happened (or didn’t) on Friday with all that to look forward to. JLP

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Also this weekend…

Ospreys 34 - 9 Cardiff Blues

Edinburgh 3 - 9 Ulster

Glasgow 14 - 6 Scarlets

Munster 14 - 3 Benetton Treviso

Dragons 8 - 24 Connacht

[Rearranged match played Fri Mar 14]

Ulster 26 - 13 Scarlets

TEAM PLD PTS W PD T PF TD
1 LEINSTER 17 64 13 145 43 414 17
2 MUNSTER 17 62 14 170 42 411 25
3 ULSTER 17 59 13 128 34 341 17
4 OSPREYS 17 51 10 147 47 445 24
5 GLASGOW 15 47 11 40 25 266 10
6 SCARLETS 17 36 7 -31 28 302 -5
7 CONNACHT 17 32 6 -49 28 271 -1
8 EDINBURGH 15 29 6 -61 24 264 -9
9 NG DRAGONS 16 28 6 -58 22 268 -8
10 CARDIFF BLUES 17 24 4 -124 21 314 -23
11 TREVISO 16 20 3 -140 19 259 -30
12 ZEBRE 17 18 3 -167 25 246 -17

positions marked red represent proposed qualification for new European competition

NEXT FIXTURES

Fri March 28

Glasgow v Ospreys, 7:35pm

Sat March 29

Zebre v Dragons, 3pm

Bnetton Treviso v Edinburgh, 6pm

Cardiff Blues v Ulster, 6:30pm

Leinster v Munster, 7pm

Sun March 30

Scarlets v Connacht, 2:05pm

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The original opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Leinster Rugby, the IRFU, Gavin Henson or anyone else who isn't JL Pagano.