Monday, December 27, 2010

Ulster-13 Leinster-30

Click here for my pre-match HarpinBoo recording “Ulster, Ulcers & Ushering”

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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!

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