Monday, December 27, 2010

Ulster-13 Leinster-30

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SOB ulster

THE LEINSTERMEN STAND UP

Joe Schmidt looked very apologetic in his pre-match interview when he claimed his charges had been unable to train outdoors anywhere in Dublin what with the snowy weather.

He needn’t have.

As this match finished, I tried to remember how I felt around 7:30pm back on October 2nd as Leinster kicked off against Munster.  We had lost three of our first four, deservedly so, the end of our streak against the Auld Enemy appeared nigh, I could see no way we could get anything against either Racing or Saracens in Europe, and there was a possibility our season could be over before it really began.

Now our 2010 schedule has come to an close, things have literally come full circle.  We have full control of our so-called Heineken Cup “pool of death”, we’ve crept into the playoff places of the Magners League for the first time with mostly home matches left, and we’ve done this without several key players and in the case of this victory at Ravenhill, minimal effort.

Of course you can never really complain about a victory, but it has to be said the Ulstermen were disappointing.  After their recent double conquest of Bath, you really would’ve fancied they’d be well up for this contest, but sadly their 1st XV couldn’t match the amazing effort put in by the staff, Academy players and loyal fans who helped prepare the perfect playing surface the day before.

And it’s not as though we didn’t give them chances either.  I really don’t want to knock Jason Harris-Wright’s confidence too much, but it has to be said we are extremely weak at the hooker position.  I know I have said it before, but this outing has led me to believe that a Richardt Strauss injury could well dash our Heineken Cup hopes, it’s that simple.

We were vulnerable at both scrum and lineout, but luckily it was our 8/9 combo of Sean O’Brien and Isaac Boss who were able to turn it on at the right times, and if you had to pick two Leinster players who had something to prove that day, it was them.

O’Brien has been unlucky with injuries but having been called up to Declan Kidney’s November panel must have really thought he had a shot at proving himself in the green jersey, yet was ignored.  Well Ireland’s loss has been Leinster’s gain, and he has put in Herculean efforts in blue throughout December, claiming Man of the Match on Monday in fine style with his first half brace of virtually identical tries.

Boss was instrumental in both those touchdowns, and he too must have received immense satisfaction from them, given he was the decisive  try scorer for the Nordies in the corresponding fixture last year, only to find out later in the season he was to be shipped down to Dublin to make way for a high-priced Saffer who, it has to be said, did little to justify the move on the day.

And when we nabbed a 3rd try on 57 minutes in fine style with a textbook series of phases to create an overlap before chucking it out wide to Shaggy to finish, you really got the sense that an unfathomable bonus point win was on the cards.

But with a 5-day turnaround ahead to New Year’s Day clash with Connacht, though I was disappointed the 4th try never came, I knew that the blessings had to be counted.  With Isa nabbing another 6 kicks to take his season’s Magners League tally over the 100-point mark, the result was really never in doubt and in some ways I was happy that the home side were able to pull a late  try back via Gilroy and give the home fans something to cheer about.

When you consider this comprehensive victory was achieved without Kearney, Fitzgerald, D’Arcy, Sexton, Heaslip, Healy, Hines, Reddan & McLaughlin, it’s hard to do anything but heap praise on coach Schmidt for instilling in his squad a rugby philosophy which, although it took a few weeks to click earlier in the season, is now paving the way to what could be a successful 2011.

I’m extra glad most of the upcoming matches are at home so I can be there to see them!

Have a Happy New Year, folks.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Leinster-24 Clermont-8

cian-healy-celebrates-18122010-310x415

NOW I’M A BELIEVA

Truth be told, I wasn’t ever a big fan of the phrase “Fever In The Aviva”, mostly because it doesn’t bloody rhyme in a French accent, let alone an Irish one.  But then again I never really liked the whole “Blue Magic” idea either, so it could just be down to my being a grumpy git.

And having seen Leinster throw away early leads this season already,  the halftime score of 10-3 didn’t have me catching the fever yet either. 

Though we owned the first 40 minutes in pretty much every department, you knew the French champions had it in them to come back and when given a bonus possession right as the clock went red at the end of the half, we went for the try out wide when we could have easily set up a drop goal in front of the posts and I felt that might have come back to haunt us.

Little did I know the first ten minutes of the second half would help me see the light.

0005d45a-642I was at the top of the steps returning to my seat with my half-time pint when I realised we had gone at them from the restart and were already camped on the Clermont line, right in front of where my seat was.  I barely made it down the stairs when Nigel Owens ruled Nathan Hines’ effort as held up, and for once the stadium video showed the controversial replay which at worst made a case for sending it to the TMO.

But all that was forgotten moments later – a five metre scrum and a few phases saw man-of-the-match Cian Healy crashing through Clermont hooker Paulo’s tackle to nab his second try.

Brilliant! I thought. But even THEN, I was wary of an impending fightback.

And when we went straight back into their 22 and Healy lost the ball in the tackle, I thought “there it is, THAT’s the moment we’ll be looking back on when we lose, I KNEW it.”

Then Benoit Baby, the ironically-named replacement for Anthony Floch whose wife had gone into labour back home, threw a shocker of a pass; his fellow backs probably weren’t expecting to get the ball anyway as he should’ve cleared his lines, and the ball went out of play close to his own try line.

15289.2Not only was Jamie Heaslip savvy enough to take the quick throw, by the time he was letting go of the ball, Shaggy was already running at full pelt, and he took it into the tackle, virtually on the line.  Reddan was on hand to get a quick ball to Sean O’Brien who sealed the win as the bemused Frenchmen either looked on or tried way to late to stop him (pic right).

The conversion followed, all of a sudden it was 24-3, and now the rhymes rang out in perfect harmony as I was a fully fledged believa in the feva at the Aviva.

Then a load of texts and tweets let me know my frozen face had been spotted on the telly (pic above) and I was left anticipating a previously unfathomable bonus point which would have put us totally out of sight in Pool Two.

Well, as it turned out that wasn’t to be, but even though the French eventually did pull a try back, the manner in which it came made it clear that it just wasn’t to be their night.

They came straight back at us from the restart and were camped on our line, but we held them out long enough to earn a clearing penalty.  THAT goalline defence is what rounded off a monumental display for Leinster.  Had Clermont scored then, their tails would’ve been up and more could have followed.

As it turned out, even though Nalaga DID barge over for a try on 68 minutes, he did so RIGHT after Parra had been taken off, so it was left to Brock James to attempt the conversion to take them one score away from a key bonus point - thankfully the Aussie outhalf was still daunted enough by his Dublin demons to miss, and the scoring was done for the day.

15288Although there were impressive displays in the Leinster backline (like Isa’s remarkable “catch & staying in play” moment in the first half), it was mostly the pack that brought home this particular bacon.  Healy and O’Brien not only got the tries but also provided the bulk of the forward momentum, Mike Ross’ scrummaging made him a no-brainer for Irish starting consideration hours after Buckley was torn apart by Adam Jones in Swansea, and Heaslip showed yet more of his credentials as future international skipper.

Joe Schmidt praised his squad to the full afterwards particularly for their defensive showing, but he himself must also take the credit as these two epic encounters against his old boss Vern Cotter had to be on his radar the second the schedule was announced, and he came out on top in style.

Let’s face it - in their Heineken Cup displays so far this season, Leinster have actually succeeded in improving their try-scoring from 2009 without sacrificing their awesome defence, which in essence was Schmidt’s biggest challenge.

The way things stand right now, our “pool of death” is ours to lose.  A win against Sarries plus a bonus point in Paris should seal the deal.

Nothing in this sport is for certain I know, but even this grumpy git has to believe we can do it.

Happy Christmas everyone. 

AROUND THE PROVINCES

Just a few random thoughts about the weekend’s other Irish performances…

Ospreys-19 Munster-15

The Ospreys will always feel they’re due a Heineken Cup triumph, and with the final in Cardiff next May, they’ve every incentive to get there. Still, although they played with a lot of fire in their belly, I can’t help feeling it was Munster’s lack of discipline that not only cost them in Swansea, but could cost them qualification from the pool. I’ve already said how O’Connell’s swing of the arm cost effectively cost them two pool points…then on Saturday it was an unbelievably stupid grab at the ball off his feet by Leamy which gave Dan Biggar the chance to stretch the home lead. Add to that the brace of spear tackles from yellow card magnets Tuitupou & Mafi which thanks to their respective reputations could earn them citings, and things look bleak for the two-time champions. Having said all of that, only a fool would ever write off Munster for good. They must go to Toulon and win, and as we saw in Perpignan a year ago today, they’re well able to pull a world-class performance out of the fire.

Bath-22 Ulster-26

What character the northerners showed at the Rec! Humph was booting them over from all angles and distances but it was the youth that Brian McLaughlin has brought into the first team like Nevin Spence and Adam Darcy who provided the spark that pinched this contest and gave Ulster a super chance to reach the last eight. Even though this Pool is a contender to advance two teams, wins at Ravenhill and Aironi in their final two matches must be in their sights. Confidence in the squad will be sky high and next Monday could very well be the worst possible stage of the season to have to go to Belfast, and guess what, Leinster must do just that.

Connacht-9 Harlequins-15

In the Amlin you have to win your pool to get any further, and that leads to a lot of teams dropping out early, and sadly that includes Connacht now after their heroic march to the semis last year. They can be forgiven when you consider that they’re in transition under Eric Elwood but they’ve been dealt a further blow in that they’re set to lose such key names as Cronin & Carr to Leinster and Keatley to Munster. I’m sure they’ll get Academy players in return and as a blues fans I’m not exactly complaining! Cronin in particular will be huge for us next year. But enough about us! John Muldoon’s broken arm in Galway could be the final nail in their coffin for this season already.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Clermont-20 Leinster-13



This was a funny old game…over the entire 80 minutes, Leinster will be disappointed not to have gotten more than a losing bonus point, yet over the final ten, they’ll consider themselves lucky to have mustered their morsel from the Marcel Michelin.

So given this was a huge Heineken Cup battle at the home of the French champions, plus the fact that we still top the pool and now have two out of three remaining matches at home, the Leinster faithful’s judgement should really come down on the positive side.

If anything separates the French Top 14 competition from the other two European leagues, for me it’s the use of the drop goal, particularly early in the contest.  Teams are much more willing to take advantage of easy position under the posts and get the scoreboard moving rather than plug the line with phases and risk coming away with nothing.

But with every rule, there’s an exception, and in France that’s Clermont. And why? Well in their Championship year, it was mostly down to Joe Schmidt. They were hands down the best try-scoring team in the competition, and today’s squad still contains the bulk of that creativity.

I reckon it was that reluctance to take the simple three points early on that contributed to Leinster’s downfall, and in a sort of cruel irony, it was Shane Horgan’s try out wide off our first possession that gave us belief that there were more to come.

Please note the words “cruel irony”.  I’m not saying Schmidt got it wrong with his tactics.  If anything the sight of our backline flinging it out wide then switching the play all the way in the other direction was a joy to watch.  It’s just we haven’t quite honed that system yet, and in the two tries the home side got in response, they showed us how it’s done.

As delighted as I was to see Shaggy get the opener, he was fortunate in that the ball bounced kindly for him after a knock on.  From then until the 20th minute, I counted three occasions where we got into their 22 only to lose it.  Granted we were unlucky the third time, after a world-class break & timed pass by O’Malley put the equally impressive McFadden clear only for Sexton to miss the oncoming Nacewa, otherwise it would’ve been the try of the season.

All I’m saying is that however admirable our attacking spirit was, given we were the visiting team maybe playing at a lower gear would have reaped more rewards.

In fact it was Clermont who played more like the visitors, and were all too happy to try a drop goal themselves late in the first half only for it to be fluffed by Floch.  But in the second half they started to turn the screw defensively and we found it more and more difficult to get near their line and by the time we did, ie when Jennings desperately stretched out his double-movement, a drop goal was no good to us.

But it’s not often you feel more confident for the losing coach than the victorious one, and this is one of those times.  Schmidt needs to dig deep and use every ounce of his home advantage at the Aviva Stadium next weekend, much like he did against Munster back in October.

And with so many injuries in the squad, how comforting it must be for him to know that even without Kearney, Fitzgerald, O’Driscoll and possibly now Heaslip, he has excellent young talent in reserve with the likes of O’Malley, Fads, Ryan and my man of the match Sean O’Brien (pic) to fill the void.

It’s only half time in this one, folks, and I saw nothing in the first half to make me think Leinster can’t come storming back next Saturday and reverse this result.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Scarlets-17 Leinster-17

Click here for my pre-match HarpinBoo recording “Scarlets, Scars & Scarves”

scarleh!

SCARLEH!!!

Rugby Union can be quite the complicated game, but for this result, there’s no need for any in-depth analysis, no need for technical critique, no need to (at least try to) show off a superior knowledge of the sport.

Let me put it this way – if Dublin slang didn’t provide me with the perfect word for my headline, my second choice was “Jonny Rotten”.

And that name-related pun would have been the perfect finale to a trilogy of titles for match-writeups involving Leinster this calendar year which were decided by poor outings from a kicker.  Back in January we had “Folly Malone”, yet another away draw this time at Twickers, when we booked a home Heineken Cup quarterfinal thanks to Chris Malone’s bungled bootery.

Then came Act 2, that very same RDS quarterfinal in March, when I summed it up with the heading “Crock James”.  This time it was the turn of Clermont’s Aussie outhalf  to provide the wayward welly, as we fluked our way over another hurdle only for our luck to run out against eventual winners Toulouse.

In many ways it was both fitting and fortunate that the bad karma we had stockpiled chose to look for payback now, a week before a crucial pair of clashes with that same Clermont, this time with Joe Schmidt on our side, yet once more suffering the thin end of the wedge.

The “kicker”, for the want of a better phrase, to last night’s match is that right down to the final play of the game we STILL could have come out on top, only for Sexton to take his eye off the ball and deny himself even the chance to miss the winning drop-goal (pic).

So don’t believe the media spin that somehow we “clawed our way back” to a draw.  This was two points DROPPED. Literally.  But it wasn’t all bad.

Let’s face it…apart from a few misplaced Strauss darts and some rare Nacewa uncertainty under the high ball, it was overall an extremely satisfying performance from Leinster.  For the second week in a row on Welsh soil, we out-scored our opponents in the try column, we only let them cross our line when a man down, we looked impressive going forward.  Even the last-gasp howler needn’t have cost us had Sexton slotted over just one of the four chances he missed from the tee, most of them well within his comfort zone.

But given the talent on our treatment table, we also needed some strong outings from their potential replacements, and we got them, especially from Eoin O’Malley and Fergus McFadden, who both did enough to enter Joe’s thoughts for selection in France next Sunday.

Personally I was hoping for five Magners League points from these two trips across the Irish Sea and we ended up with three, so it’s not exactly a catastrophe.  We now have 7 of 12 remaining matches at home, plus a trip to Aironi we’ll hope to get something from, so there’s plenty of time to get into the playoff zone.

Now our focus has to be the home-and-away series with our coach’s former employers.  And with a 9-day turnaround to help our outhalf find his mojo, this Leinster fan is quietly confident we can at least give a good account of ourselves.

As you can see, I’m all about the positivity when it comes to rugby these days!  Between bailing out my house from snow and the IMF bailing out my country, I have to be!

PS – Did you say the word “scarleh!” out loud when you read it? Don’t lie to me now!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ospreys-19 Leinster-15

leinster ospreys

PIONÓIS

Leinster got the game’s only two actual touchdowns, overall we played the better rugby, but you just can’t give up 19 points of penalties in Swansea and expect a good result.

We even had over twenty minutes at the end to get back into it during which time the Welsh outfit played more like a visiting team clinging on for a win, but sadly it was infringements from our own more senior players (Leo & Jennings both holding on after the tackle & Shaggy forward pass) which held us back.

And having just thrown away an attacking lineout and been awarded a penalty of our own not far outside the Osprey 22, although it was the conventional option to kick for extra territory, I thought we had shown plenty of ability to gain ground across the 80 minutes to avoid risking another poor Harris-Wright dart and go for the scrum to pummel the opposition line to the final whistle.

But it wasn’t to be and I suppose to come out of a such a ridiculously-scheduled fixture with an away bonus point and two tries thanks to Isa magic can be considered a silver lining.

The first was the perfect case of making something out of nothing.  Up the point when he was tragically stretchered off Andrew Conway had continued to show he has star quality for the future and it was his line break which got us down into their 22.  A series of phases which included a very dodgy reverse pass from Boss was rescued by Nacewa’s improbable lob over his own shoulder for Conway to swivel and touch down.

Then in the second half it was Ian Madigan’s turn to impress with a line break and after some phases our super full back chipped a ball through which he was able to scoop up himself, after Conway over-ran it, to touch down in a fashion very similar to BODs score against the All Blacks the week before.

That gave us a 15-12 lead, and normally you could count on the Leinster defence to bring that scoreline home but a combination of senseless penalties and a bizarre series of events led to what turned out to be the final score of the evening.

Ed O’Donoghue got sent to the bin on 56 minutes.  But I contend Jon Lacey only did so in an attempt for consistency having yellowed Duncan Jones for a similar offence early in the first half, that being deliberately lying down on the ball in the ruck.  Both were extremely harsh calls if you ask me.

Then the resulting penalty & phases led to a spear-tackle by Jason Harris-Wright.  Now HE should have gone to the bin, but Lacey seemed to bottle it by claiming not to have seen his number.  So he stayed on the park and the next kick to touch put the Ospreys on our line, the only time they really had the chance to exert such pressure all day. 

Now normally, the referee lets a goal-line defence commit one foul and issues a warning before whipping out the card.  And since we were already down one man, many officials may have even given us a second chance.  But since Lacey had just told Leo Cullen he would card the next transgression, when Ian Madigan fooled around with ruck ball on the deck, he had to go.

After all that, with a scrum on our line and two men down, a try was inevitable. By the way – even as a Leinster fan, I have no complaints about the penalty try itself, or indeed Madigan’s card.  That’s how those sequences are meant to go, and it’s just a shame the refs in the Wales v South Africa and Ireland v New Zealand matches didn’t do likewise under similar conditions.

Overall we couldn’t use the ball when we had it, and on top of that we added to our injury count from the Ireland squad - poor Andrew Conway will probably miss out on a chance to fill the void.

And though there were some impressive showings from the youngsters like O’Malley and Madigan, I continue to be worried about Jason Harris-Wright.  Not his fault like I said last week, Fogarty’s retirement has thrust him into to the fore ahead of schedule, but if we suffer an injury to Richardt Strauss any time soon I fear our chances of silverware will suffer too.

Doesn’t bode well for our chances in Llanelli next week.  I have a feeling the Scarlets will feature a lot more returning internationals than we will, and it will take an extraordinary effort to come out on top.

PS. Pionós is Irish for “Penalties”…Once more, I have to ask: of the three, count em THREE radio stations, NewsTalk, Spin 103.8 & 98FM that are happy to appear on the Leinster rugby site’s sponsor page, could ONE of them manage to provide commentary of our matches?  Nothing against the Gaeilge on TG4 but to have an English-language option would be nice - Munster radio seem to manage it courtesy of Limerick Live95, Connacht manage it courtesy of GalwayBay FM, why can’t we??? If they’re looking for a commentator I’ll do it for a reasonable rate!

  

IRELAND-29 ARGENTINA-9

 

ENDING ON A HIGH

Tony Ward had already given the man of the match award to Jamie Heaslip when D’Arcy chipped through and touched down for his superb series-ending try, but truth be told I thought the inside centre had already earned the accolade before then.

It was impressive outing all round from Ireland on a chilly Dublin Sunday afternoon, albeit against the Argentina A side, given that the A stands for Apathetic. 

The visitors pressured our line in the opening minutes, but only got there thanks to an errant kick out on the full from Jonny Sexton.  Thankfully for the 30,406 who didn’t let the snow deter them, the remainder of the contest saw both the Irish outhalf become flawless and the visitors fail to trouble us.

But even when an opposition doesn’t seem to want to be there, they still have to be put away, and on our first real attacking set-piece, a lineout in their 22 on 19 minutes, we effectively killed the game in clinical fashion.  After Mick O’Driscoll secured possession and we worked a few phases, a neat sequence from Stringer to Sexton to Bowe to Heaslip left Ferris free to crash over.

From then on you could almost see the Heineken Cup thoughts creeping into the minds of all involved.  Ireland seemed happy to focus on defence and did extremely well in the second half to ensure nothing got past.  Maybe if Felipe had remembered to pack his kicking boots things may have gotten closer, but I very much doubt it.

Overall I feel we got ourselves some answers in key areas…

  • In the front row, I think Cian Healy and Tony Buckley have done enough to earn themselves starting roles in the Six Nations.  They stood up to the Argentine front row in a series of early scrums and though the referee’s calls could have gone the other way, they got the job done and each complements our loose crash ball attack well enough to merit being in the XV.
  • At half-back, I felt the Stringer/Sexton passing lane was MARGINALLY out of sync but imagine what they’ll be like when it does eventually click.  For me it’s a no-brainer that these two should start against both Italy and France in February.  And for Sexton’s part, his perfect outing from the tee was capped off with an excellent wallop from halfway.  This was surely the first time he would have been satisfied to give way to O’Gara.
  • As for full-back, as much as George Hook dislikes seeing Rob Kearney there given the reduction in kicking these days, I still think he’s the man for the 15 jumper in the spring with Geordan providing his usual dependable support.  Murphy is great when joining the line but I’m not so convinced that the high ball has totally gone from the game just yet.  If our defence plays as I know it can we may give opponents no choice BUT to kick it back to us, which makes Kearney the man to have.
  • One area of concern is still the restart.  We go to great lengths to get a score, then before we know it they’re in our 22 from the kickoff.  I’m hoping Paul O’Connell’s return to action on Friday night will eventually right that wrong, however, and with no offence meant to Mick O’Driscoll, Devin Toner is clearly the man to have in reserve.

And so as the clocked ticked into the closing seconds, the only question remained was whether or not we could cap the day off with a second try.  Well we did thanks to Keith Earls, but it seemed the TMO had one hot whisky too many sent up to his booth that afternoon, since he couldn’t spot after several angles the Irish sub clearly touching down.  Thankfully the referee appeared to recognise this mistake as he found a way to get us possession back and thanks to Darce’s chip n chase we ended the November internationals on a high.

We wanted three out of four, we got just the two.  But the lads held up their hands and admitted where they went wrong against South Africa, and given that our Six Nations opponents were anything but flawless themselves this November, it gives us much to look forward to early next year, when our goal will be to provide a springboard from which to attack the World Cup down in New Zealand.

Once more I say that given all that’s going on in the “real” world in Ireland these days, when it comes to rugby I refuse to see our glass as anything but half full for the time being.  JLP

Saturday, November 20, 2010

IRELAND-18 NEW ZEALAND-38

irenz1

BELIEF

We should expect no less from the Irish players than to be disappointed with their 20-point loss to the world’s number-one-ranked team.

But I expect no less from Irish fans than to be proud of their performance on the day.

How many different ways can I put this result in perspective?  Several, but I’ll go for two.

First, there’s the obvious one. The countries of Ireland & New Zealand are remarkably similar in terms of population, and remarkably different in terms of sporting participation.  Here, rugby must compete for talent with two GAA sports and soccer.  There, the only competition is for the black jersey.  Other codes need not apply for the best athletes.

Second, there’s our display when stacked up against the All Blacks’ recent outings against other nations:

  • The Springboks couldn’t beat them, and only scored 3 tries in 3 Tri-Nations encounters.
  • It took the Wallabies FOUR goes to beat them by 2 points.
  • It took England 53 minutes to cross their line when they were already 20-6 down (yes, they had TMO issues, but so did we)
  • Scotland, who have had some notable victories this year including one over us, got nowhere near their try line.

ferris irlnzGuess what…in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, we crossed their line FIRST courtesy of Stephen Ferris (pic).  Nothing about them emptying their bench or winding down or whatever. We showed we can hurt them. 

I’m sure that when the boys look over the match this week in the DVD sessions they’ll see a lot of defensive errors from minutes 39 through 48 when the opposition ran four tries past us and effectively killed the game.  That’s their job, they’re professional rugby players.

But this amateur blogger isn’t going to nit-pick.  It has been a rotten weekend for Ireland politically and economically, and there’s no need for me to sour everyone’s Monday morning further with talk of missed tackles and poor marking.

I’d much rather focus on minutes 51 through 57, which gave us more than a fighting chance of turning it back into a contest.

  • 51:23 Jamie Heaslip intercepts on his own 22 and huffs and puffs towards the All Black tryline.  He knows he won’t make and at just the right moment with several providing support he chooses his skipper to punch a further hole and get into their 22.
  • 51:55 Penalty to Ireland. Kickable, but we’re going for the try.  Why? Because we firmly believe we can get one.
  • 52:55 Another penalty to Ireland, this time after an infringement by Richie McCaw.  Referee Marius Jonker had already warned him in the first half, but saw fit to issue a second warning.
  • 54:14 The moment that had me out of my chair screaming at the telly and my wife wondering if she’d soon need a defibrillator.  After more phases in and around their try line, a ruck formed.  When I say formed, I mean it had JUST BARELY formed.  McCaw brazenly dives in to the side of the ruck RIGHT in front of Jonker, who completely bottles it and awards the scrum to Ireland rather than the obvious penalty which HAD to include a yellow card.  To see a brief video clip of that moment, follow the link on this tweet.
  • 55:00 A phenomenal heave by the Irish pack earns another penalty, this time against the front row.  Do we take the easy points? Hell no, we go for another scrum.  Yet another heroic decision.
  • 56:30 Having been driven back after the scrum to the 22, we not only retained possession but we showed the confidence to fling it out wide. Kearney exploits a gap, tries to find Heaslip but he misses the ball altogether and who is there but Captain Fantastic himself to scoop it up one handed and burst through the goalline defenders to touch down.

Say what you like about our defence folks. That passage of play, coming as it did late in the third quarter, was a joy to watch.

Just to clarify, I’m not making this all about the referee.  He clearly left his cards back in South Africa and we dodged a few bullets ourselves on the day.

But who’s to say that if Jonker had a pair we wouldn’t have reduced the deficit even further against a McCaw-less 14 men for ten minutes?

As a final example of the dedication shown by the boys in green, you need only look at our injury count.  Fitzgerald, Kearney and Best (pic), ruled out for weeks. D’Arcy, O’Driscoll & Bowe, doubtful.  That’s the toll taken by ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY tackles.  I seem to recall marvelling at making 99 in Twickenham back in February.

Whatever happens next weekend against Argentina, Declan Kidney’s men have shown against the top talent the sport has to offer that they can compete.  At full-time, I tweeted that I believed we could make the World Cup semifinals – some told me to “dream on” but several also agreed. 

The way I see it, we must give the squad leeway to develop their game between now and next September so we can send them down under with the belief their passion from Saturday evening at Lansdowne Road deserves.

PS : I deliberately haven’t mentioned the All Black outhalf by name because Tony Ward did enough of it on Saturday for everyone!  Quite the mancrush has he!

Click here for review of Leinster’s win Friday night.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Leinster-27 NG Dragons-6

Click here for my pre-match HarpinBoo “Dragons, Ravens & All-Blacks” where I also preview Ireland v NZ

Shane-Horgan-try-Dragons-10_rdax_402x295

REFRESHING BONUS

On a weekend when this match was always going to play second fiddle, it was good to see the Leinster Leftovers on song in front of the 10,000 fans willing to sacrifice the Harry Potter premiere.

And even though the form books would have predicted this outcome, I contend that whatever about Michael Cheika’s legendary status around D4, his charges probably wouldn’t have secured the bonus point if the same match were played last year.

Most satisfying try for me was the second, since it came from a kickable penalty which we turned down in favour of a lineout in the Dragons 22. 

It’s one thing to show a desire to get the extra point, but it’s another to back it up with a perfectly executed set-piece, and Shaun Berne’s sublime kick to the corner right into Shaggy’s bread-basket (pic) was a joy to behold.

Now let’s be clear…the visitors were all kinds of awful.  The Welsh answer to Connacht, they were always going to struggle with the likes of Lydiate and Brew on international duty, and they even found it difficult to play a thwarting game on the night.

Still, the job had to be done, and it took several impressive displays to do it, but as a Leinster fan, given our world famous 12 & 13 who had black things on their minds, you have to applaud Messrs McFadden & O’Malley, the latter of whom was my man of the match. 

No disrespect to Shaggs, but his award was a very lazy one.  If these occasions are so important to bring on the players of tomorrow as RTEs pundits were at pains to suggest before kickoff, then maybe they should be rewarding those prospects when they’ve earned it.  Not only was O’Malley instrumental the all important fourth try, he was tenacious in the tackle and secured some vital turnovers.

Honourable mention should also go to Mike Ross, for coming on and steadying our scrum.  Sure, new signing Clint Newland is a beast of a prop, but even when Cian Healy returns to the squad it will be hard to argue against VDM, Strauss & Ross forming our Heineken Cup front row. 

Another thing we learned was just how vital Richardt Strauss is to our squad.  John Fogarty’s tragic retirement has thrust Jason Harris-Wright into the spotlight ahead of schedule and particularly in the area of darts he just isn’t ready yet.  Coach Schmidt may have an embarrassment of riches at other positions, but with the vital home-and-away series with Clermont on the horizon he will have to manage his hooker position carefully.

But on an occasion that was sandwiched between the doom of Ireland’s economic woes and the gloom of the prospect of a hammering by the All Blacks, Friday night’s outing in Ballsbridge was a refreshing bonus for the weekend, even more so because it put us back in the top four of the Magners League where we belong.

 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

IRELAND-20 SAMOA-10

BOI SME comp

[update Nov 6, 2013] Archive time…the last time Samoa came to Dublin, I was doing my best to shield Declan Kidney from criticism after a downward spiral of results since the Grand Slam.  Also, if you follow the IRB rankings (though you can be forgiven for ignoring them), Ireland were 5 places ahead of Samoa going into this match while now we’re one place behind them.  But there is one thing the two contests have in common…they must be taken in context on the road to the next World Cup.  Here is how I wrote up the match.

FINDING THE FORMULA

When I finished watching this match live, I was about as depressed as I would’ve been if I had watched 80 minutes of commentary on the Irish economy.

On second look, however, things weren’t so bad…I get a sense from Kidney’s men that they’re using these games as a means to prepare ourselves for the New Zealand tournament next year.

Of course that’s not much consolation for the 31,000 fans who not only fronted up the cash but also braved the poor conditions at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, but we mustn’t forget how quickly internationals are running out for us between now and next September.

In his post-match interview, Ronan O’Gara pointed out that playing an expansive game in the backline may work well in dry southern hemisphere conditions, but has no place when the rain is teeming down for the second Saturday in a row.

What that admission did for me was to illustrate how much our backline resembles a Formula 1 car, with the outhalf being the tyres. 

We have at our disposal two Number 10s who work well under different conditions. Sexton is the guy for the fancy moves which are no doubt born on a whiteboard with x’s and o’s all over the place, but should the conditions be wet, ROG is your only man to boot the ball into the right areas and let the forwards grind out a victory.

And guess what, that’s exactly how we got our opening try.  O’Gara kicked a penalty from the hand to an attacking lineout, we got amazing crash momentum thanks to a linkup between Heaslip and Leamy, and after a succession of gaining phases it was the Number 8 himself who got the final touchdown.

This was how we were going to score against the Samoans, and if you remove their try from the equation you’ll see that for the rest of the contest, this is exactly how we tried to go over again when we had the ball.  Yes, the backs tried to fling it around, but they always tended towards the middle – whoever received the ball in the 12 or 13 channel would either chuck it back inside or in BODs case play flanker himself and run the ball into contact.

Those offensive tactics after the try actually made sense to me, though they didn’t appear to suit O’Gara, whose timing was clearly off having been taken out of his comfort zone.  Two blocked kicks in the first half together with a heart-stopping moment over his own try line in the second didn’t cost us, but would have against stronger opposition.

Trouble for us is that having named our backline on the previous Tuesday, it’s not so easy to bring it in for a pitstop and change the tyres before kickoff if the weather isnt right.  But if we ARE going to play O’Gara perhaps we should let him play his game like he did in the last 20 minutes last Saturday.

Now to revisit my sentence about “removing their try from the equation”.  Of course you can’t ignore their quick reply to Heaslip’s five-pointer, and the ease with which they scored is the source of the doom and gloom surrounding the result.

In some ways, Tuilagi’s touchdown was a copy of ours, in that it stemmed from a lineout preceded by a penalty, only this time they bamboozled us with their backs.  On first glance it was a scintillating move dramatically finished by Tuilagi, but surely O’Gara and Wallace have played together enough over the years to know not to both get drawn towards the opposing fly-half?  Only consolation to that error was that it didn’t happen again and our defence appeared solid for the rest of the afternoon.

But we must also examine what caused the penalty that led to that lineout…our front row conceding a penalty at a set scrum.

I’ll accept we have problems in the front five.  I’ll accept that we’re badly missing Paul O’Connell.  I’ll accept that John Hayes is past his sell-by date and we’re not exactly over-endowed with quality props to replace him.  But I won’t accept that those factors alone led to our troubles in the scrum on Saturday.

Whatever the intentions of the latest IRB interpretations, Keith Brown made a mockery of them with his gaping silences between the words “crouch…touch…pause…engage”.  True, Samoa had the right idea doing absolutely nothing to try and gain an advantage as front rows came together, but having played prop myself I know how much the engagement is part and parcel of the set piece itself. 

To go to such great lengths to take that battle of wills out of the scrum not only removes its essence, but also makes a farce of the game as a whole with long pointless delays which a team with a weaker pack can exploit.  And who is to say that when WE’RE the underdog next week, the All Blacks will be penalised as much for the same “offences”?

Luckily for us, we were able to rely on a fly-hack from O’Callaghan which he brilliantly followed up and won us a penalty for his Munster kinsmen Strings & ROG to combine for the clincher.  Otherwise our scrummaging issues could’ve easily led to an embarrassing match-levelling penalty or worse.

But I sat down to write this post DETERMINED not to be too negative.  Sure, it wasn’t easy, but I for one feel we can take several things from this match, not least the debut of Devin Toner.  I really don’t want him to think of his first appearance in a green shirt as being such a disaster as from a personal standpoint, he can be proud as punch and surely must start next weekend for what he brings to our lineout.

Let’s not forget Declan Kidney’s remit. Do not repeat the “Farce in France” of ‘07.  All the second-guessing in the world won’t take away from the fact that he can’t really be judged until we get stuck into our World Cup pool. 

Everything that happens between now and then is just part of the process of finding the right formula, and I for one am willing to back him, especially as he is willing to hold his hand up when he gets things wrong like he did last week.

Our unbeaten streak is over, so what say we applaud that, regroup and stand shoulder to shoulder against the haka next Saturday.

PS : George Hook went the Armageddon route in his Indo column.  Like I say, always good to have the glass-half-empty viewpoint, no matter how much you may disagree, so I’m happy to link to it.

******

ELSEWHERE…WALES WUZ WOBBED!!!!

I didn't get to see the England win over the Wallabies but what an impressive result it was.  Perhaps Johnson finally has things right?  After all that has gone before in his tenure I reckon he’ll need another positive outcome against the Springboks to answer that.  The French seem to have hit the ground running themselves, so our “home advantage” in the Six Nations may not be as strong as it was in 2009.

What got my heckles up happened in Cardiff.  Super effort by the Welsh, and if Devin Toner can be proud of his debut, then what can you say about George North’s??? I thought the media were being harsh dubbing him the “new Lomu” but he came up trumps.

My annoyance stemmed, not surprisingly, from the referees.  Ahead by four points and under pressure on their own line as the clock went red, you can’t blame the South Africans for thwarting the opposition by giving away penalties, but my assertion is, if they’re pinged for it, given the circumstances, they should also be sent to the line.  Having switched over from the Ireland game I counted at least 3 penalties deliberately conceded and by rights the Welsh should either have been pressing against 12 men or a yellow card for the first offence should’ve made it easier for them to get quick ball.  And it’s made worse by the fact that in Verona, Leinster A’s lock Mariano Galarza did a no-no in the exact same scenario and DID get a yellow, and rightly so, though the Italians still fell short.  The Millennium faithful certainly have every right to feel robbed in my book.

As for the All Blacks steamrolling over the Scots, the less said about that the better, since I’m trying to stay positive for next Saturday…

Saturday, November 06, 2010

IRELAND-21 SOUTH AFRICA-23

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SMARTS

Considering all the hoopla surrounding this match, with it being the first international rugby contest in the new stadium, with it being a repeat of last year’s epic showdown in Croke Park, with it being a match we were favourites to win given the comparative injury counts, the final scoreline really smarts for Irish fans.

And to make matters worse, for me anyway, it was a different kind of smarts, or more a lack of them, that led to the outcome.

No disrespect is meant to the South Africans with the tone of this post, but in my view, they won because they took what we gave them.

Much is being made about how they owned us in the lineout.  I’m sorry…but is that really so much of a surprise with a second row pairing of Matfield & Botha?  I wouldn’t be quick to criticise that particular failure, except perhaps the omission from the matchday squad of proven poacher Leo Cullen.

What I did find baffling re: lineouts is that it took us 60 minutes to realise that the only way we could make progress down the field was to KEEP THE BALL ON THE PARK.  Right from the very kickoff Sexton drop kicked it all the way into the Boks 22, allowing them to clear, create a lineout, which we may have won but sloppily so and before long the Springboks were on the front foot and never looked back.

Our experience should have taught us to keep things simple and be patient.  Yet after another messy lineout win on 16 minutes, Eoin Reddan thought it best to fling the ball blindly while facing the wrong way rather than secure easy possession and regroup.  Juan Smith saw it as an early Christmas present, and shame on George Hook for criticising Kearney’s tackling so harshly – he made a hell of an effort to get there and only had one shot at the rampaging flanker’s legs when he did.

So there was seven points that never should have happened.  I argue that their second try, though avoidable, was one you’d expect to give up to a team of South Africa’s stature whatever their injury count, so in the final analysis, the way I see it anyway, we lost this match in the first quarter, and the finger of blame has to be directed at the coaching staff & senior players for the tactical preparation.

In American football, they have what’s called an “audible”.  The play is determined in the huddle, but if the quarterback sees the defence lined up in a way that threatens the plan, he changes it just before he takes the snap.  This is where we went wrong…the teeming rain was always going to make an expansive passing game risky and the policy should have been abandoned if not before kickoff then surely before halftime.

Second half didn’t start much better.  Sexton did a couple of impressive kicks into the opposition 22, but what did they lead to? Lineouts.  We needed possession, not position. 

I sincerely hope the Leinster outhalf didn’t take it personally when he was replaced on 67 minutes, for even if it was pre-determined as Kidney suggested afterwards, the team needed a reboot, and Stringer and O’Gara were definitely the way to go, and they clearly made a difference.

However…I seem to remember having a “lucky bounce of the ball” pointed out to me with Rob Kearney’s match-winning try in Thomond Park last April.  Well, the same player relied on similar luck together with a goof from Aplon to get our second try, and at the risk of sounding partisan, the same goes for Tommy Bowe’s touchdown six minutes earlier. 

Brilliant idea for ROG to chip it into that spot? Yes, it was just what was required.  Brilliant finish from the Ospreys man? Yes, it was just what we expect from arguably the best winger on the planet right now.  But there was an element of luck nonetheless in between, and when you factor in the amount of substitutions made by coach deVilliers by then, the closeness of the final scoreline totally flattered us.

But should we as Irish fans despair? Hell no!

Sure, we got it wrong, but I feel we need to cling to BODs post-match excuses for comfort, not so much the weather-related one though.

He admits they got the prep wrong, and he claims they’ll play better with games under their belt.  Don’t forget…the only match that really matters down the line is on September 17, 2011 in Eden Park when we face Australia in our second Pool C match.  We’ll have had 5 games played in the weeks before then, so the preparation and squad cohesion should be A1.

Perhaps the “three out of four” hopes for this Autumn International series may be gone, but there’s still plenty of cause for optimism, so whatever we may feel about the IRFU on ticket prices, empty seats and rip-off jerseys (all debatable topics in their own right but none belonging in a post-match write up in my view), we as Irish fans should give the players the benefit of the doubt and get behind them for the battles to come.

I for one still believe we have the smarts in our squad to give these Boks a run for their money in a World Cup quarterfinal.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Leinster-19 Embra-18



When there are internationals around the corner and your big names go missing, you have to look elsewhere to keep your Magners League points total ticking over, and Colin Heyburn’s photo above captures everything Leinster need to turn to for success in that time.

Carrying the ball we see our super skipper, providing experience. Representing the stars of the future, there's Andrew Conway giving him support. In the background, Isa Nacewa, our versatile overseas stalwart, always a vital component for us in November. Finally, the photo was taken at D4tress, and all those factors combined to give us the edge on Saturday night and complete a perfect October.

(We’ll just gloss over the fact that Leo lost possession with his offload moments after the snap was taken, ok?)

Once again there seems to be confusion over the awarding of man of the match. The stadium announcer said it was Richardt Strauss, but although he did have some impressive crash breaks, his darts were suspect and his missed tackle on Ross Ford led to the 2nd Embra try. More obvious choices would have been Hines for his strong presence around the fringes, and Conway for actually crossing the line with his impressive pace.

We didn’t make things easy for ourselves, and it was fortunate that the visitors appeared to have caught our possession-wasting bug particularly in the first half. Our inexperienced backline leaving a gaping hole for Patterson to score under the posts when we had a man advantage didn’t help much either.

But in the final 20 minutes that followed that score, we were able to get back on track defensively (we were better off without the ball than with it in that time!) and though the 16.5k+ Halloween crowd may have breathed a huge sigh of relief as fulltime was called, we just about deserved the spoils.

Not much more to be said about this really – the lads now have a hard-earned break until the 19th when the Dragons come to town. Being within touching distance of the playoff zone must surely satisfy Joe Schmidt considering how things looked the last time we faced the same opposition.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Connacht-6 Leinster-18

Click here for my pre-match HarpinBoo recording “Connacht, Cunning & Consensus”

connacht v leinster

JUST ABOUT ENOUGH

At halftime in the Aviva stadium a few weeks ago, Leinster and Munster were tied at 3-3 and after a ridiculous wait due to congestion on the steps, we hooked up in the foyer with some friends who were seated further along the East Stand.

I had thoroughly enjoyed both the game AND the atmosphere up to that point (well I guess I enjoyed it even more after fulltime!), but one of the guys I met said as his opening comment : “This is a dreadful game of rugby”

“You serious?” I replied. “What were you expecting? Even though this is a league match, it’s still cup rugby, and when you see it like that, you can’t but enjoy what’s going on.” He didn’t respond, probably muttering “pretentious git” under his breath after I went back to my seat, but at least I stood by my conviction!

It was much the same when Connacht played Ulster to a 15-15 draw a few weeks ago, and it was much the same in Galway on Saturday. Given how much the Irish provinces know about each other, matches between them are always going to be ones you should be happy enough to win at any cost.

And so I had to force myself to leave my purist hat on the rack watching this match, and be happy with the final scoreline, even if it did flatter Leinster, and even if Dominic Ryan’s last-gasp try (pic) did thwart my 5-point victory prediction.

But if you held a gun to my head and made me fault our performance, I would have to go to our choice of attacking options.

Sure, we’re further down the Magners League table than we’d like, and sure, I’m usually all for attacking the bonus point, but the way Connacht were set up defensively I’m not so sure kicking for the corner was the right idea on 24 and 26 minutes respectively when there were easy chances for Sexton to make up for his missed conversion of Nacewa’s try.

What a try that was, by the way. Heaslip may have thrown a block on Cronin to create the gap for Isaac Boss, but it was no more than our scrumhalf deserved and he still had a lot of work to do to get the ball to his left winger, who didn’t need to break stride to catch it and beat his tackler to score.

By rights, we should have had at least another 6 points on the board as Ian Keatley was lining up a seemingly straightforward penalty kick right before halftime – instead, it would have put his team into a psychologically-crucial lead going into the break.

But unfortunately for most of the 4,500 strong sellout Galway crowd, Keatley missed. To be honest, though I haven’t seen him play week-in week-out, I find it hard to rate him based on what I’ve seen of him. He is yet to show me he could perform at Heineken Cup level, let alone an international one.

Despite their outhalf’s shortcomings, Connacht had plenty of talent on the park to do similar damage to that they inflicted on us last April, but it was not to be. Their commitment to their defensive duties, while admirable, was also their undoing when it came to offense. Until Sean Cronin almost created something out of nothing in the dying minutes which needed to be mopped up by a risky slide tackle by Sexton, they never really looked like crossing our line.

And it was our own poor decision making that led to that Cronin chance in the first place. We were up by 5 and had been running through a good set of phases with the clock ticking down. Why did Sexton need to step into the pocket for a drop goal at that precise moment in that particular spot on the field? Surely the option was to get some more phases going and bring the ball into a more central position?

All throughout the game the Westerners were laying off us at the breakdown which gave them more men on their defensive line and made it harder to break through. We only seemed to cop on to this after the break, and although Sexton put some kicks into the corner his Munster nemesis would’ve been proud of, I personally think easy drop goals were better options than crossfield kicks when we got close.

But I’m really only nitpicking so I can flesh out this post. By rights I should just repeat what I said in my post-match tweet and sign off:

Delighted with the win. After our last two trips there the four points were the main thing.

As for Connacht, they definitely deserved a bonus point on the day…perhaps they let their pride get the better of them right at the death when they chose to run at us from deep rather than throw in the towel.

Still, they did have a legitimate beef against George Clancy moments before for his decision not to award them the scrum once they put an almighty heave against the head. To be honest with you, I have no idea how we’re meant to interpret scrums anymore. Seems to be a lottery as to what the referee is going to penalise, and as for taking two minutes off the clock to set one up, (Nacewa’s late knock on came at 73:22 and the scrum didn’t happen legally until 75:22) I wasn’t complaining, but it was still a joke.

Honourable mention in the performance department goes to Boss and Shaggy but I was delighted Richardt Strauss got man of the match after his Wembley wobbles. Super running with the ball matched by nigh-on flawless lineouts. With Fogarty doubtful to return anytime soon, the South African-born hooker’s continued fitness could be crucial for our season, no disrespect to Jason Harris-Wright.

Hopefully we’ll be able to avenge our Murrayfield defeat next week and go into the Autumn Internationals in a much healthier position on the points table. Given that it’s at the RDS and I’ll be there, however, I may be more demanding of a good display.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saracens-23 Leinster-25

Click here for my pre-match HarpinBoo recording “Sarries, Saffers & Savvy”

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NB : Thanks to all who read this post & listened to the HarpinBoo...both got record hits for the blog from countries as diverse as Indonesia, Ukraine & Colombia.

JONNY ON THE SPOT

Isn’t it amazing how the same sporting contest can be viewed so differently by different people?

Saracens coach Brendan Venter said in his post-match interview he thought his team were the better by far, and that the Heineken Cup referees were somehow conspiring against him.

After RTE’s presentation of the game’s highlights was over, Tom McGurk went straight to his panel of Brent “Magnificent” Pope and Donal “Tremenjus” Lenihan and asked them what was so wrong with Leinster that they had an 11-point lead cut to just 2.

At fulltime in Sinnots bar on Stephens Green, rugby blogger JL Pagano was pumping his fists in the air having seen his beloved province win on the road in the Heineken Cup rounding off an incredible three weeks that has turned their season on its head. Just goes to show!

Here’s how I saw the match...“London Bokke” had a massive home advantage but only put points on the board which we gave them. Leinster DID make mistakes but always showed the ability to make something happen out of nothing, and when it counted (ie our margin of error was reduced to zero) we called on our own advantage (ie 70+ more games in this great competition) to keep them at bay for THIRTY phases without conceding a penalty.

Sure, I’d be happier if we didn’t concede penalties at any stage, but it was always going to be a physical encounter in the forwards and risks had to be taken. When all was said and done, we came away from an English trip with four points, and I seem to recall exactly seven days earlier we were meant to be overjoyed by another Irish province doing so with just the one.

Maybe, just maybe, things would have been different had Hougaard been on the pitch at the end; his injury was a major blow to the home side. Throughout those last-gasp phases they were clearly outside of Goode’s drop goal range, but the fact remains, we kept them there. And if Venter thinks we WERE committing fouls in that time, I’d ask him why his own players weren’t pointing them out to the ref because it sure didn’t look like they were.

Compare the two tries that were scored. Sarries’ South African outhalf placed a perfect kick into the corner after one of our several breakdown transgressions. Saracens controlled the lineout and began pressing our line. Please note that this was the ONLY TIME they got so close for the entire 80 minutes. Then they had an overlap on the right wing, but if Isa had gone for the ball not the man after Hougaard’s high pass, it could easily have been seven points back down the other end.

Three weeks earlier, when Embra crossed for their first try against us at Murrayfield, they did so in such a way that I feared more would follow. At Wembley, even though the stakes were much higher, I had no such fears as Alex Goode was flinging the ball in the air like he had just clinched the cup itself.

Now look at Leinster’s try. The move started in our own half, after we retrieved our own Garryowen courtesy of Shaggy. With the quick-offload game in full flow our backline executed a move that would have been no different had the number 13 jersey been worn by our waterboy. And we even showed more than just the quick passing…Isa showed both perfect speed and fleet of foot on the touchline to get clear and Jonny10 was no way sure of scoring when he got the ball and used impressive pace & strength to get there.

And though it was a team effort, how fitting it was that Sexton touched the ball down (pic). Having gone on national radio during the week and said how eager he was to resume his kicking duties, he responded to the self-imposed pressure by kicking everything from the tee…the missed drop goal towards the end was ill-advised but his only no-no on the day; he was well worth the MotM accolade Sky gave him.

Naturally the place kick that was key was the one that converted the try. Never in any doubt from the second it left his boot, it may have only provided two points, but what was the winning margin at the end? Given the way Leinster’s fortunes have improved so dramatically since he came on in the 55th minute at the Aviva, surely Sexton now has the inside track for starting against the other, more official team of South Africans in November.

Of course it wasn’t only our outhalf who impressed on the day. Kearney was back to his best under the high ball, Shaggy has clearly tamed the demons that haunted him last year, and our backrow was more than a match for the considerable challenge presented by the Saracens pack.

If there was a black mark to be handed out it would be for Richardt Strauss, for the couple of dodgy darts that cost us serious territory and of course the yellow card offense which came RIGHT after a last chance warning from the ref. If Fogarty is available next week maybe it’s time to give him a rest but if not we’ll need him against Cronin for sure.

But that’s the only real negative I can take from this game, whatever Messrs McGurk & Venter may say. If you had offered me this position for Leinster after the Embra match I’d have taken your arm off, so you can thank Joe Schmidt and all his team for saving your limb.

******

Elsewhere in Europe, Munster fans will feel order is restored after their demolition of Toulon, and no doubt the fact that Dr Phil was one of the vanquished made it all the sweeter. Peter Stringer proved just how invaluable he is to such an extent that you’re left wondering if O’Leary will walk back into any colour 9 jersey when he’s fit again. Key result of the weekend for me, however, was in Biarritz. Ulster’s hammering down there despite arriving unbeaten served as a warning to the other Irish provinces…both must still travel to France in their pools, and Leinster must do so twice, so there’s still much work to be done. Though Connacht will be happy with their Amlin win, I have a feeling coach Elwood will be focused on repeating last year’s win over Leinster at the Showgrounds next Saturday. And finally, congrats to the Leinster A side for their win in Newport to start their B&I campaign, sounds like Andrew Conway and Ian Madigan had good outings.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Leinster-38 Racing Métro-22

Click here for my pre-match HarpinBoo recording “Racing, Rucking et Reffing”

fads v racing

MAGNIFIQUE!!!

Despite our dodgy form over the month of September, you could see what our rookie coach was bringing to the table – a quick offloading game that needed just one thing to make it virtually unstoppable…the ability to retain the ball after a tackle.

It makes sense when you think of it…we’re expecting these players to run at full speed into a challenge and get the timing JUST right to offload at the eleventh hour…while at the same time remembering that if the pass isn’t on, they must be sure and turn back towards their own team after the tackle to get the next phase going.

And in each of Leinster's Magners League matches to date, even the ones we managed to win, it was clear we had some kinks to iron out. Having watched every second of those five matches I’d safely say that if you took away half of our own handling errors we’d have four if not five in the win column right now.

IMG_0190[2] On Saturday at the RDS, we got our first taste of the Joe Schmidt era at full tilt, and strange though it may seem, for me, the day’s performance was set up by Sebastien Chabal’s first minute challenge on Jamie Heaslip.

Everyone seems to be focusing on the power of the hit. I’d be more inclined to focus on the fact that the Irish No8 still managed to comfortably place the ball down…if he only had forwards near him for support rather than spread out anticipating a pass, we’d have kept the phases going. And to be honest, apart from his lineout prowess (pic), the larger than life French international didn’t offer much else for the rest of the day.

Not that the possession yips didn’t affect us at all…once Racing scored their try to pull within seven thanks to a combination of a good line by Vuvuzela (at least thats what I call him) and a popped BOD hamstring, our September gremlins seemed to return. For the first twenty minutes of the second half I sat in my seat in the Grandstand and shouted over and over again “JUST KEEP THE BLOODY BALL!!!”. OK, maybe I used a word other than bloody, but you get the idea.

And not that the result was totally thanks to our own achievements either…Racing’s backline were struggling badly, not just because they had their 3rd choice number 10 out there, but also because their scrumhalf Nicolas Durand was repeatedly providing poor service from the base of rucks and scrums.

In reality, despite their impressive start to their Top 14 campaign, there was only one player clad in light blue on the day who seemed likely to produce points from start to finish - that was Francois Steyn, who provided the crowd with one or two trademark effortless yet incredulously long place kicks (pic) to keep his team within touching distance of a bonus point for a while.IMG_0193

However, when it comes to the rest of our progress in this pool, we certainly won’t want to be going to Paris in January needing a win to make the last eight of the tournament, that’s for sure.

But enough of the George Hook-esque negativity (my title is a tribute to his row with Popey on RTEs highlight show). I was treated to five incredible tries on Saturday, each of which was a testament to the brand of rugby brought to the club by coach Schmidt.

Special mention for the tries must go to Jonny Sexton’s needle-threading pass to Kearney for the second, and Richardt Strauss’ extremely un-hooker-like support of Luke Fitzgerald for the thrid.

And to those who fear BODs injury may be detrimental to the squad who now face Saracens, just take a look at Fergus McFadden’s icing on the cake right at the end (main pic) which took place LITERALLY before my very eyes. He may not have 100+ caps, but he definitely can shift!

All in all a perfect start to our Heineken Cup campaign – off to Wembley we go next Saturday. Now he’s shown he can get his squad to this level, Joe must now show us he can keep them there.

******

Elsewhere for the Irish provinces over the weekend, Ulster did the business as expected on Friday against Macaroni Rugby (albeit with the help of a Nick Williams brainfart), while Munster and Connacht will have differing feelings about their defeats. The Westerners will surely be gutted to lose to a Super10 side, while Tony McGahan's men relied on some O'Gara magic to snatch a last second bonus point at the Madjeski. Despite that consolation which could prove vital in Pool Three, I'd have concerns about Munster re: discipline. After Mafi's transgressions last week, you can only imagine what Tuitupou was thinking when he upended Hodgson...their squad is depleted enough as it is with injuries, yet now he'll probably be granted some bench time from the Citing Commissioner as well. Also they were way too mouthy with the ref after he awarded them a penalty in the second half...ROG did well to keep his composure to slot the kick, but he still should have kept his gob shut. Even with so much talent missing they have plenty of experience to draw on to get out of that pool without losing the head.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Leinster-13 Munster-9

[Update Mar 26, 2014 : This week for our archive slot we look ahead to this weekend’s big derby at The Palindrome by looking back to their first meeting there back in 2010.  Up to the closing stages of this match most of us still had our doubts about how positive an influence Joe Schmidt would be on in Irish rugby…]
 
Shearys-banner
 
L v M 2010
 

During the week, Brian O’Driscoll was asked what he thought about suggestions that the players hadn’t shown much interest this season.

He proceeded to lash out at people who say such things, making his own suggestion that they it’s easy for them sit in their armchairs and criticise when they don’t know what’s really going on.

Naturally, when you say something like that, you have to back it up with a good performance in your next match. Believe me, even if I am one of those armchair critics, I’m delighted to have been proven wrong in my final score prediction for last night, and how fitting it was that it was he who got the clinching try right in front of where I was seated at the Aviva Stadium.

Shortly before the try, when BOD chucked a no-look offload into touch rather than to Luke Fitzgerald two paces behind, it seemed to be the final straw. Much like our first four outings this season, we had a lion’s (Laighean’s ?) share of possession, only to cough it up time after time after time. And with the new law interpretations favouring the attacking side, such poor ball retention won’t get you anywhere.

Luckily for us Varley committed the heinous crime of a short crooked dart and we had it back. This time perfect pass-timing by Reddan led to an equally perfect execution of the no-look pass by O’Brien and Mr Triskaidekaphobia himself did the rest.

There seems to be some disagreement over man of the match…the stadium experts gave it to O’Brien, TG4’s to the try-scorer, but I’d like to give a broader view of our first five games of the season and name Isa Nacewa. He’s not a ten, and he’s never claimed to be. Sure, he fluffed the opening kickoff, and sure, he later cost us vital ground kicking straight into touch.

But all of that must surely be forgotten when you consider the pressure he was under to convert that try Saturday night. With O’Gara on the park and less than 10 minutes left, the difference between a 2- and a 4-point lead was immense, and though BOD had brought it round before touching down, it was still on the wrong side for a right-footer, yet the Fijian international hit it straight and true.

Of course there were other strong performances throughout the XV…Heaslip proved a born leader, Shaggy turned back the clock with a solid outing, Toner showed signs of Leo Cullen’s influence in the lineout (pic), and the Jonny10/Reddan combo provided the spark that ignited our backline when they came on just before the hour mark.

Possession keeping aside, yes we did well in the most part and for once remained competitive for the entire 80 minutes, but I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say our defensive mojo is fully back despite Munster’s try-drought against us being extended to a whopping 406 minutes.

I wanted to be able to use some eloquent prose along the lines of “the ghost Kurt McQuilkin’s coaching talent resonated throughout the Leinster defense in the closing stages”, but it has to be said, the score remaining unchanged for the last 10 minutes had as much to do with the referee’s generous application of the crossing and knock-forward laws as it did with our tackling & jackling.

And it culminated with a shocking lapse of concentration by Tomás O’Leary when he failed to ask the ref if there was time for a lineout and kicked for touch to end the match.

Some will laugh at this statement, but hand on heart it gives me no pleasure to say that our southern rivals were poor on Saturday night. What amazed me was that in the first twenty minutes, when you’re supposed to signal your intent, I saw no real signs of an offensive gameplan?

One minute O’Gara was attempting a drop goal, which seems a sensible option if your intention is to keep the scoreboard ticking over at every opportunity, but not long afterwards he was opting for a kick to the corner rather than a kickable penalty. Basically, all they really had going forward was Ronan’s boot.

As I said in my pre-match podcast, they really should have been up for this contest and they weren’t, and I’m not saying that to be mean, I’m saying it because I feel we as Leinster fans have to be mindful of the ramifications of our success with both teams in stinkers of Heineken Cup pools starting next Saturday.

Now don’t get me wrong, even without the final score, it was a thoroughly entertaining night of rugby, great for the game in this country considering there was probably as many people there on the night as there were at both Glasgow and Edinburgh combined all last season in the Magners League.

But if you’re a purist, you’ll have to admit Messrs Schmidt and McGahan have lots of work to do on the training pitch to get their squads ready for the coming weeks. Not that I’m saying Ulster with their more favourable draw are the only Irish province with a hope mind you, however well the opposition are doing at home…neither Racing Métro nor the LettinOn Irish will be taking anything for granted that’s for sure.

Can’t let this post go by without mentioning Mafi’s two horrendous tackles...where we were sitting we didn’t see the one on D’Arcy as it happened but on reviewing the match it was even worse that that on Kearney which saw him in the bin. He really should be cited and I’d be saying the same were it one of our players. Those challenges can end a career…as you can see in the pic he’s not even looking at the player he’s chopping down.

As for the Aviva Stadium, I was impressed, but more because of the atmosphere provided by the fans than by the structure itself. It will serve its purpose for the province as a revenue-raiser for big matches like these, but I’ll always prefer the surroundings at the OarDeeEsh.

And in that very stadium in Ballsbridge I’ll be next Saturday as yet another European adventure gets underway. The euphoria and hangover are already gone from the weekend…time for the lads to knuckle down and make me regret paying heed to George Hook’s doom and gloom by sticking the words “for now” in my write-up’s headline. JLP

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