Monday, April 26, 2010

Glasgow-30 Leinster-6

glasgow leinster

FINDING THE TIME

It seems like an eternity since the full-time whistle blew in the rugby match this post is meant to be written about. But I think I can be excused, since I’m not being paid to write it and what’s more I had the small matter of my son’s first birthday party to organise over the weekend.

But looking back, it also seemed an eternity between the time Setanta’s clock hit 80 minutes and when James Jones decided to blow his whistle for the last time. At very least it was long enough for the home side to get a third try which in all fairness they didn’t deserve, a statement which says as much about their own performance as it does about the bravery of the Leinster Cubs they were facing.

As it turned out, reports from within Firhill suggest that Jones was in fact in perfect sync with the stadium clock and it was Setanta who got it wrong, which leads me to ask: just how hard is it to check your clock on the telly is showing the same time as the one that matters? Surely that’s something they teach you on the first day of Showing Sports On Telly School?

Not that the Welsh ref was without blame. Normally I don’t like singling out the man in the middle because of all the team sports out there, rugby union must certainly be the hardest to police what with the numerous interpretations that can be made over the breakdown.

But what we as spectators CAN insist on is consistency, and all I have to do is cast my mind back to Leinster’s Heineken Cup trip to Brive when we were chasing a bonus point victory to make up for our defeat to the LettinOn Irish the week before. As you can see from my detailed account, Jones was extremely reluctant to brandish his yellow card that day, while in Glasgow it seemed he was suffering from yellow fever.

Maybe Jones can argue that he IS consistent…whenever faced with a 50/50 call he always goes against Leinster? I’d be interested to hear what fans from other clubs have to say on the matter.

I’m not suggesting that Leinster did not deserve ANY yellow cards on Friday evening, but I do wonder if their overall performance deserved as many as four and if it did, then I’ve seen numerous other matches (Brive v Leinster notwithstanding) that merited a similar tally if not more.

If we can put the cards aside and look at Leinster’s display, we did see some impressive outings despite the result. Ian Madigan and Stephen Keogh in particular caught my eye. Keogh played like Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien rolled into one, while Madigan had an assurance that belied his lack of experience.

It didn’t surprise me to hear people take the easy route afterwards and question Michael Cheika’s decision to name his teams for both the Wednesday and Friday fixtures at the same time. Personally, given the fact that we had two games in three days, I’m not sure what else he could have done. Sure, he may have expected the XV he sent to Galway to do better, but should he then have changed things when they went pear-shaped?

For me a measure of Cheika’s success has been his ability to adapt to the ludicrous European calendar. I’m sure he must yearn a little bit for the “luxury” enjoyed by the Super14 coaches who actually have their squad of players together for the entire tournament without interruption. I think he has done the best he can given the restrictions imposed on him, and this could have been a key factor in a Top14 side (even more beset by fixture congestion) wanting his services.

So all in all it was a bad week results-wise but guess what…we’re STILL top of the league, we’re STILL just a point away from a home semi and we’re STILL in the Heineken Cup semi next weekend. Of course it could all come crashing down but this time last year we were bemoaning two defeats out of three before a massive semifinal and I seem to recall that turning out ok.

Which reminds me…I need to find some time myself to make one clarification…I mentioned some Munster tweets in my last piece. I’d like to clarify that in 99.999% of cases, the banter I have enjoyed with them this season has been phenomenal. To name but a few, @22dropout, @Grayzie, @DIBayliss and @ovalball all know exactly how to sledge the way it was meant to be done and I certainly wouldn’t want them doing any differently. As for the identity of the culprit who inspired my rant, well, why should I give them blog space? I simply unfollowed them. Job done.

And back to the rugby matters on the pitch, it seems that it all comes down to the Cardiff v Munster clash to see who joins us, Ospreys and Glasgow in the final four. As for poor Connacht, have you ever seen one team’s campaign go so sour in just the space of four hours? The XV they sent to Kthlanthli highlighted their lack of resources alright but surely they weren’t accounting for Embra’s inability to hold onto the ball when it mattered?

Sure, Ulster put in a fine display but (a) they shouldn’t have had to given all the points they’ve dropped all year and (b) I counted at least half a dozen unforced errors by the Scots which led to points for their opponents.

I started this post with the words “it seems like an eternity”…well NOW it seems like an eternity since I wrote those words and I don’t seem to be writing about the match in question any more so I’d better sign off and say roll on next Saturday!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Connacht-27 Leinster-13

connacht leinster

ATTITUDE

In his post-game reaction, coach Michael Cheika claimed we performed poorly on the night because “we lacked the correct attitude”.

Of course he was right, though the attitude had to come from both sides to produce this incredible result.

The home side were amazing, and they’ve proven first hand that this whole “turnaround” factor is disappearing more and more with every day.

Since rugby’s year dot, pundits have factored in turnaround time when judging how a squad is going to perform in a given match.  Using that yardstick (our last game was Friday while theirs was Sunday)together with the Magners League table yesterday morning, this should have been a comfortable victory for the visitors.

But from 1 to 22 throughout the Connacht squad last night, they wanted this game for the entire 80 minutes.  They were tenacious in the tackle and breakdown, they pinpointed every little chink in our defence (not to mention the gaping ones) and they ran at us like they had the wind at their backs whichever way they were facing.

And why shouldn’t they, since the westerners have a realistic chance of bringing Heineken Cup rugby to Galway for the first time ever.  And with the likes of Toulon, Wasps and a resurgent Cardiff Blues to overcome in the Amlin Challenge Cup, surely they must feel their best chance is through the Magners League.

On Leinster’s side, we seemed to think that naming a strong 22 ourselves was enough to bag the four points before a ball was kicked.  One more theory shot down by attitude. 

Brian O’Driscoll’s first outing in Galway in a gagillion years will be remembered as the night he was outshone by rookies like Kyle Tonetti and Eoin O’Malley.  And as for our abilities when Connacht had the ball, well Troy Nathan’s match-clinching try (see pic) said it all, what with the way he was able to just scoop the ball from a red zone ruck and dive over the line with comparative ease.  Not sure if Kurt McQuilkin would’ve been able to watch.

The same goes in any sport.  You play the game you’re in, not the one that’s coming up, and to a man last night Leinster were guilty of letting the upcoming trip to Toulouse cloud their focus.

Attitude of course can also apply to the supporters.  Scanning over the Babbling Brook forum I see a lot of criticism directed at referee Peter Fitzgibbon.  Again I say this is poor show.

True, the pass that led to the first Connacht try was clearly forward.  True, he could have gone to the TMO to see if Hines’ touchdown was really held up. True, he was slow going to his yellow card for the home side’s breakdown transgressions.  But no doubt also true was that he missed a few Leinster no-nos as well, and even if he didn’t, his contribution definitely did not account for all 14 points of the winning margin.

Another attitude of fans I don’t quite get is that of the Munster faithful.  As I stared at my Tweetdeck last night during the match, the southern taunts were coming in thick and fast as the result looked more and more likely.  Some were quality sledges, some were downright childish, but either way they had more hope of getting a rise out of the Titanic than this Leinster fan.

Sure, they’re delighting in their Auld Enemy getting beaten, but are they REALLY that proud of the Magners League’s then-bottom side managing to do to us what their lot couldn’t?  Made little sense to me.

The only rugby folks deserving of a positive attitude this Thursday morning are those from Connacht, from Michael Bradley to man-of-the-match John Muldoon right through their modestly-numbered squad and of course their loyal supporters. 

With no disrespect to Ulster, I for one hope they can drink from the Heineken goblet next season and at very least we should have a cracking final-series matchup at Ravenhill on May 7th.

As for Leinster, I have no doubt Michael Cheika will be able to use the DVD of what happened in the Sportsgrounds to re-instil a match-winning attitude in his squad for the big battles to come.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Leinster-20 Ospreys-16

Isa v Ospreys

WINNING STREAK

If you’re looking for a metaphor for Leinster’s 2009/10 campaign to date, Ica Nacewa’s opening try couldn’t be further from it.  With the exception of a 30-0 drubbing of an opposition whose name escapes me, there’s been nothing “runaway” about any of our victories to date.

And the way the first half went at the RDS Friday night, the only way we were going to score would be an intercept try, since the visiting Welshmen seemed to have borrowed Clermont’s “how to play Leinster” playbook and had us pinned in our own territory most of the time.

But as effective as that gameplan may seem on paper, there’s one crucial component to make it work…you HAVE to establish a sizeable lead early, because if the boys in blue are still there or thereabouts in the last 15 minutes of the game, you’re always going to struggle to come out on top as several sides have learned in the past few months.

As it turned out, despite an impressive showing from the star-studded Ospreys particularly outhalf Dan Biggar, they only went into the break 16-10 ahead, and when Shaun Berne (who although he wasn’t taking place kicks impressed at 10) made early 2nd half pressure tell by crossing to bring us back into it, the tide had turned and to be fair the visitors can count themselves lucky to get away with the bonus point.

A couple of missed kicks by McFadden together with a Berne drop goal which could/should have been called good might have made the final margin wider, but we’re more than happy with our 7th Magners victory in a row which leaves us just four points from a guaranteed 1st seed in the new playoff format.

With Connacht and Glasgow away to come in quick succession before the big showdown in Toulouse, surely Michael Cheika will take our strong standing on the table and focus on squad management in the near future.

Despite our high winning percentage to date, all it takes is two defeats at the wrong time and it will all be for nought.  It’s certainly all to play for, and I’m in no doubt Leinster have the squad to keep this impressive winning streak going to the finish line.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Leinster-29 Clermont-28



Toulouse were impressive in dispensing with Les Pinks but although they’ll have home advantage in their semifinal there’s one thing to consider…since fulltime in the RDS last October 9, the Heineken Cup Gods have been smiling like crazy on Leinster rugby.

First we had the Scarlets playing like champs against London Irish and like chumps against us to help us back into contention in Pool Six. Then we had Chris Malone missing simple place kicks left right and centre at Twickenham as we scraped a home quarterfinal with an 11-11 draw.

But last Friday night Leinster dodged an exocet missile as visiting Clermont-Auvergne, ten times Top14 bridesmaids and never the bride, left almost as many points on the pitch as they put on the scoreboard, with Aussie outhalf Brock James the principal culprit.

Whatever about our defensive prowess, if there was a team in this competition that was going to put it through the ringer then it was a side not only leading try-scorers in the Top14 but also the pool stages of the Heineken Cup. And when they raced into a 10-0 lead it was clear to all at the RDS, not just the incredible visiting support, that Cheika’s men had it all to play for.

But even though we were double digits behind, I was comforted by one thing. We hadn’t so much as played in their half yet. Sure, they pinpointed a weakness in the recuperated Shane Horgan on our wing, but how would they stand up when we in turn applied the pressure?

It wasn’t long before we had our answer. Before you could say “sacre-bleu!” Jamie Heaslip had gone over for two tries, the first thanks to the customary BOD wizardry the second thanks to his pack, and at halftime there had been an incredible turnaround and we were 20-10 ahead.

Oh, and it appears a certain Jonny10 has more than a touch of his mojo back. To put it simply, every time we pressed their line, we troubled the scorers somehow .

But the visitors were determined to stick to their game plan in pinning us down in our own half and they were doing it well. Two more tries from winger Malzieu showed up Shaggy’s bad night at the office, and although Brock was doing his bit to help keep his team going forward, when it came to using the kicking tee he just wasn’t producing the goods when it mattered.

Which begs this question. When a man who scored almost half of France’s Grand Slam winning points is on the park, why let anyone else take a kick? Sure, Parra did go 0/1 himself on the night but still, though I’m not as au fait on the week-in week-out nature of French rugby, I still find it baffling.

Even more baffling was the Clermont pack’s decision to take the ball an extra phase a few metres to the right before James failed at his second game-winning drop goal attempt. And fail he did, although from our seats, which would normally be considered very good, we had no idea if it had gone over and we were afraid to cheer for more than a minute until we saw some Leinster players’ hands go up in celebration.

And when the result was confirmed, all that was left for me to do was to send a tweet which read “Out. Of. Jail.” before heading to Searsons for some celebratory beverages, passing the stunned/dejected Clermont fans on the way. Fair play to all of them for their contribution to what was hands down the best atmosphere the RDS has ever seen.

Now the nail-biting win didn’t come without some cost. Sexton broke his jaw and Rob Kearney, who was my man of the match ahead of the lazily-selected Sky choice of Heaslip, went over on his ankle. Hopefully both will have enough time to recover for the semifinal.

As for that match on May 1st, well we may be underdogs on paper, but be in no doubt whatsoever…Toulouse will know what to expect from a visiting Leinster side and will take nothing for granted.

Congrats as well, of course, to both Munster and Connacht for completing yet ANOTHER Irish faux Triple Crown this weekend (see previous post).

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Munster-15 Leinster-16

JS v Munster

TRIPLE CROWN

Croke Park May 2009, RDS October 2009, Thomond Park April 2010. Three wins over the auld enemy in three different venues all within 12 months. I’m calling that Leinster’s own little Triple Crown and I don’t care who knows it.

I was going to wait until I saw a replay of the match to do my post but really I don’t need to…my view was good enough at The Orchard pub in Rathfarnham and my head was clear enough on account of only having a couple of rock shandys with my son throughout.

I was also going to unleash a rant about Donal Lenihan’s biased Setanta commentary but for once I applaud Mattie Williams for stepping in on Leinster fans’ behalf near the end and giving young Jonny10 some encouraging words for having the stones to convert the winning score (see pic courtesy of rte.ie) moments after yet another bad miss on the night.

This great result for Leinster was really all about being the better squad over the 80 minutes. The home side, led by their temporary skipper O’Gara, started all guns blazing and no one would have expected any less, but minute by minute our forwards squeezed the life out of the Munster attack and by the end when they were chasing the game with little or no chance of catching it.

And yes, O’Gara won the battle of the out-halves, mainly from the kicking tee. It was much more equal between them in open play, but considering the points Sexton left on the park you’d have to give the overall nod to the elder statesman.

Truth be told however, the winning margin should have been wider. Munster only scored through opportunities we gave them and some of them were even unlucky, like our two yellow card incidents. Leo Cullen couldn’t have been expected to do much less than go for the intercept when he was done for deliberate knockon and as for Nathan Hines…his punishment would have been far worse had he NOT get go of the tackle as along with Stan Wright it would have surely been called a spear.

Of course the one try came from a fortunate bounce of the ball for Rob Kearney but it has to be said there was only one team on the night that was going to cross the line. In fact, this is a good place to mention that our southern cousins have now gone 246 minutes without getting a 5-pointer against us.

There were several quality displays from boys in blue, not just man of the match Jamie Heaslip. Kearney, Nacewa and Dempsey were a formidable back three to Munster’s aerial attack and young Devin Toner had a stormer of a first period with several crunching tackles. We werent as dominant in the lineout and scrum as I had hoped but made up for that at the breakdown.

And after all my glowing pro-Leinster bias, THIS is a good place to mention that I very much doubt that Good Friday was the last meeting between these two European giants this season, and despite our “Triple Crown”, the result of the next clash is anything but a foregone conclusion.

Even though neither side was exactly firing on all cylinders, the match at Thomond was a cracking advert for the state of Irish rugby and hopefully both will be able to extend their European involvement next weekend. Because of the top-four playoff system in place in this year’s Magners League, the Heineken Cup quarters would’ve been always to the forefront of the thoughts of the two coaching staffs last night.

But it was nice to retain the bragging rights nonetheless :-)

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