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”

_49535298_sexton

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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