Monday, December 26, 2011

Leinster-42 Ulster-13

 

Given that I went on such a rant when Cardiff sent an inexperienced team to the RDS a few weeks ago, you'd be forgiven for thinking I was going to do similar for this match.

But while I wasn't averse to a mischievous tweet or two before kickoff, I don't hold Ulster's selection against them this time round – in fact, I think there may have been multiple methods in their madness.

The party line was that they were prioritizing the clash with Munster, coming as it did with a tight four-day turnaround. That's a decent excuse on its own, but when Simon Danielli pulled out at the last minute and it left Bryan McLaughlin's starting XV completely with home-grown players, I wondered if it was also a wee statement about the recently-announced IRFU province-strangling player-managing initiative?

Most likely we’ll never know. But I have to say, even if referee Peter Fitzgibbon did appear to be helping the youngsters out whenever he could, they certainly made a good fist of it for the first three quarters, and but for a crucial steal by Shane Jennings close to his own line, could have gotten to within a point going into the closing stages and after then who knows what may have happened.

The Ulsterman who stood up most in my book was Paul Marshall, who surely must be knocking on the door of the national squad despite the lengthy queue for the position. It was also an impressive line & finish from Chris Cochrane for their try early in the second half which made things interesting.

But it wasn't to be and although Leinster's World Cup prop pairing had their perceived troubles in the first half, it was fitting that their superior technique helped secure the bonus point at the 67th min via a penalty try.

A lot of fans noted the absence of our furry mascot on the night...was he visiting relatives in the Serengeti for Christmas or perhaps the IRFU have also placed a cap on the amount of Leo's who can be on display for a given match?

If the latter, then I'm more than happy that Mr Auva'a got the nod Monday evening as he really is right at home at this level. He gives plenty of bang for the buck and thoroughly deserved his try at the end of the first period.

And although Ian Madigan had the odd slip up I have to draw attention to a vital weapon in his arsenal...the quick long sizzling pass, which helped set up both Leinster's first two tries on the night.

I'd also like to give a thumbs up to Shane Jennings for his captaincy having been a critic in the past...it was the right decision to kick for territory in the first half and it eventually led to our opening score plus he rightly got in Peter Fitzgibbon's face about his interpretation of Mike Ross' scrummaging.

Honourable mention must also go to two stars hoping to stay on the radar for Six Nations selection...Gordon D'Arcy was once again solid and although I still don't feel he's right at full-back, had Luke been wearing a longer stud he could have helped himself to a try or two.

All in all yet another satisfying result for the Leinster faithful. Back at the beginning of September after we lost 27-3 to the Ospreys to open the season I ended my write-up with this :

“I reckon we have the right man at the helm to turn things around even more quickly than he did last year”

Leinster ended 2010 in charge of their Heineken Cup pool yet behind Munster in the Celtic League. This year they lead both with a six-point cushion. 'Nuff said. Here's to an even better 2012 - Happy New Year to you all. JLP

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Leinster-52 Bath-27


I suppose you can forgive the Irish for being a bit glass-half-empty these days.

All you hear in the news is words like “austerity” & “recession”, the euro is seemingly on the brink of armageddon and just a few short weeks before Christmas we've been hit with a budget that was never going to be good news.

Still – I can't quite get my head around those who find fault with this result. If it wasn't fans bemoaning the fact that Leinster lost the final quarter 21-7, it was the Indo picking up on one missed lineout. I even saw one comment on social media that harked back to the previous week's “transgressions” at the Rec.  I just don't know.

Another target for post-match bad-mouthing, of course, was referee Roman Poite, but you could be pretty sure that was always going to happen anyway so it doesn't really count.

Now – as for coach Joe Schmidt's reaction, well, I certainly can't blame HIM for being cautious. Clearly his squad are the form team in the tournament, yet after two more pool games in January he has to sit back and pray his top players get through the Six Nations unscathed.

But that's all the negativity out of the way for this piece. Truth be told, there really shouldn't be any at all. I mean, come on...52 points, seven tries, total domination when it mattered, all leaving us as number one seeds after four rounds.

I KNOW there's a long way to go, I KNOW the fat lady is yet to sing, and I KNOW all the other similar clichés. Just forgive me for saying I'm happy about Leinster's standing right now, ok?

The main source of the moaning from the Rec was that Leinster didn't finish their chances. And guess what, with our very first bout of possession on Saturday, we win a penalty, get a slice of luck with it hitting the post and falling perfectly for Devin Toner (you could say it was karma from Florian Fritz' try last April) but then once we have it under control we power over the line courtesy of Rob Kearney.

Then during the halftime break most fans were wondering if the bonus point try would be hard to get...well, again right from the kickoff, we got our answer, with a scintillating move from our own 22 that led to Luke's second five-pointer.

Man-of-the-match was a relatively easy choice. Sexton's improbable drop-goal, preceded by a bit of “will-I-Won't-I” before a stunning execution, was reminiscent of the one he got at Murrayfield in 2009 and showed just how comfortable he is playing in this great competition, as did his long pass to McFadden in that opening back line move.

Still, there's a case to be made for Devin Toner to get the bubbly from this match. Even though his height played a part in his taking that rebound he still needed composure to turn it into decent attacking ball, and if that's not enough composure for you, how about the cheeky dummy & offload that led to Luke's first try? All that on top of the quality lineout platforms he was providing surely must be making him close to undroppable.

Elsewhere around the park, it was hard to pick out individuals as it was such an accomplished team performance that took full advantage of the gulf between the two sides. I really doubt that if Bath had players like Lewis Moody available the outcome would have been any different.

The visitors did all they could to create opportunities but just could not find a way round the ultra-organised Leinster defence which, if you're still willing to put aside the final quarter, has been their most consistent area throughout the four matches.

Simply put, if Leinster can keep the injuries to a minimum (bit of concern about Cian Healy) then their chances of getting to another final could rest with the semifinal draw towards the end of January, and even if that goes against them, they're playing with a level of confidence that will make no team want to face them.

Once things for sure...when I'm looking for something to feel good about these days, I turn to the fact that my favourite province is literally number one in every sense possible. What happens in the future will happen. Right now, bravo Joe Schmidt & Leinster Rugby. JLP

Elsewhere in Europe...

Biggest stat for me from the weekend was that if the pool stages were to end after round 4, the top three quarterfinal seeds would be (in this order) Leinster, Munster & Ulster.

Even Connacht deserve a mention as they came so close to causing an upset at Kingsholm. They have definitely had their share of misfortune over their four matches and perhaps could have a better return than just two points, but I'm not sure if Eric Elwood would see it that way. Still, the competition was always going to be an experience for them and who's to say they won't get a second crack at it next year courtesy of one of the other provinces?

Ulster had a readily-definable task over the past two weeks, and you can't fault them for achieving it. Plus, the head-to-head between Leicester and Clermont fell perfectly for them. If Bryan McLaughlin's men can get five pool points from their remaining two matches they weill put themselves right in the mix for qualification.

And of course finally there was Munster, who did enough to complete the double over the Scarlets and become the tournament's only team with 100% record. With Northampton's destruction of Castres one can only assume the French will be in a similar mood when they come to Thomond in January, which means the pool should be well sewn up for Paul O'Connell & co when they visit a Franklin's Gardens that will hardly be welcoming in the final series.

While we're bigging up the top Irish provinces we mustn't forget the three “A” sides, all of whom got through to the knockout stages of the British & Irish Cup. I was raging I couldn't make Leinster's 24-all draw with London Welsh at Donnybrook when a last-gasp drop goal from Cathal Marsh could have won it, but still they got their home quarterfinal so it really was a perfect weekend all round.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bath-13 Leinster-18



Normally sporting clichés annoy me because by their very nature they get used way too often by commentators lacking in imagination.

But one in particular would always get my goat for a different reason : “A great team always finds a way to win even when they're playing poorly”.

Following soccer through the 80s this would often be said about Liverpool FC. Then through the 90s and 2000s it was Manchester United. You will have heard it used in rugby once or twice as well, about Munster during their successful Heineken Cup spell for example.

Ah, so THAT'S why it got my goat! Because it was being applied to teams I don't support (come on you Spurs)! That must be the reason, because I'm more than happy to use it for Leinster's display at the Rec yesterday.

Who's to say what would've happened if Francois Louw hadn't lost all sense of reason at the breakdown under his own posts with the clock running down. The reigning champions were piling on the pressure and could very well have scored anyway. But there's no denying that the South African cost his team their chance at an upset and pretty much cancelled out what had been an excellent personal display up to then.

There's no doubting that Joe Schmidt's Leinster can be described as a “great team”, but on yesterday's evidence they're still not the finished article. All that is needed, it seems, is for his players to realise that now and again it's ok to do the simple thing.

I mean, more often than not you'd back Sean O'Brien to beat two men from five metres anyway, but when there's three unmarked team-mates outside him there is only one option – and if he didn't know they were there, he should have done.

But if ever there's a “good” way to have a bad day at the office, Leinster found it. And it's not the first time their problems have come from turning quality possession into points.

Trouble was, that quality possession wasn't available until the second half, and that is of immense credit to the home side. I'd say they threw the “kitchen sink” at us for the first forty minutes, except given who we were playing, it was more like a tub (apologies...but you surely didn't expect me to avoid a bath pun, did you?).

Yet what was the score going into the break? Just 6-3. And why was that? Because we tackled like demons for the duration, led in the most part by man-of-the-match Jonathan Sexton.

You'd think by the mainstream media headlines that his award came from booting six out of seven placekicks. But when Bath had the ball his channel was closed for business and he clearly demonstrated how an outhalf can be an asset to his team for the entire 80 minutes, not just the final five.

And despite the failures on the offensive front there were more impressive displays around the park. Our back three were unlucky to get on the scoresheet and came within a bounce of a ball (or a turn of Rob Kearney's head the other way) of producing several YouTube moments. Gordon D'Arcy has come in for a lot of stick of late (mostly deserved) yet I felt he earned himself a thumbs up on the day with some powerful running.

Up front we never really dominated but that being said the forwards deserve much credit for keeping the first half penalty count down. Truth be told, the score at the break could easily have been anything up to 21-0 to the home side on a different day.

The only real blip in Leinster's defensive display, I'm afraid to say, came when Sean Cronin took to the field. After his heroics in Montpellier I'm loathe to single him out plus it was super work by Louw to strip the ball off him – but such are the standards at the province these days that when you cough up possession like that and it leads to a try, the spotlight must fall on you. He didn't help his cause with a wayward dart moments later either.

But although the Sky commentary team were doing all they could to jinx the visitors, I have to credit Leinster for their composure en route to regaining the lead. There was definitely no panic to be seen, and when you look at the displays going all the way back to the quarterfinal with Leicester last season I'd almost say they're a better team when they fall behind!

That's not a description Joe Schmidt will enjoy reading, however. What he needs to do it teach his players to take the “x-factor” rugby and find a way to bottle it until they can establish a decent lead. If there's always  six or seven points in the bag, I'd much rather have them on the board instead.

Because remember – this is a team that's being considered one of the favourites to win this competition, and going by those standards, just take a look at what Toulouse did on Friday night. They also won away from home, but did so much more comfortably against a club that's having a slightly better season than Bath are.

So to summarise, I'll take the four points until the cows come home, and three points clear with two out of three games left at home is a position any team would be delighted with. Plus the tries aren't exactly flying in elsewhere in the competition – despite the fact we've drawn a match we're just one point behind the pace across the pools so it's all to play for in the return next Saturday.

Here's hoping I can use another cliché in my writeup for that match : “A truly great team makes winning look easy”. JLP

Elsewhere in Europe...

It's three out of three for Munster but my God were they given an early Christmas present at Parc y Scarlets. The home side had shown good form in the opening rounds and were clear favourites here but somehow could not manage to get their act together, and it's not as though they didn't have the chances. The difference was Rhys Priestland who was a shadow of his World Cup self. Having said that, you can only play the opposition that faces you and Tony McGahan's men were solid on defence and should comfortably see themselves into the quarterfinals from here.

As for Ulster, well I'd love to know how many of their fans would have been willing to watch their match with Aironi on the telly, but apparently Sky didn't think it was enough to send a camera team to Ravenhill. Still, they got the job done, and if they can manage a repeat performance in Italy next weekend and somehow Leicester can reverse their defeat to Clermont, they'll be right in the mix come January.

Then there's poor, poor, Connacht. I'm absolutely gutted for them, but more so for their fans. There is just no way of putting a positive spin on four defeats in four home matches in four successive weeks. Can't be done. I mean – you can only stretch the whole “we're happy to be in the Heineken Cup at all” adage so far...I can't imagine that's any consolation for Eric Elwood at this rate. Tiniest crumb of a silver lining could be the display of Dave McSharry at 12 – having penned a deal to stay at the province during the week he could well make some headlines for the province – before being snapped up by a different one, of course!

Finally the Leinster 1st's score in Bath was bettered by the A team by just a point as they ran out 19-13 winners in Llanelli to put them on the verge of the quarter-finals of the British & Irish Cup. Leo Auv'a just can't stop scoring tries this weather and Noel Reid had a great day with the boot – a solid outing at Donnybrook against London Welsh next week should see them through.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Leinster-52 Cardiff Blues-9


To some that headline may seem a bit harsh. Sorry if you feel that way but it seems fine to me.

As much as I enjoy seeing Irish teams doing well in the Celtic/Magners/Rabo League/Pro12 thingy, knowing that other nations aren't taking it anywhere near as seriously makes me hopping mad. Though in their defence, having such a ridiculous name doesn't exactly help in the “taking seriously” department.

But joking aside, it has to be said that the current “league table” of nations when it comes to giving a jot about this competition (one I might add that has produced 4 of the last 6 Heineken Cup champions) reads thus : 1. Ireland 2. Italy 3. Scotland and a very distant 4. Wales. The Scots won themselves a few extra ranking points by tempting Rory Lamont back to Glasgow last week.

I was having serious problems as it was with league matches being played during international windows, but by scheduling another test outside them, no matter who is retiring, one that even some Welsh fans think was unnecessary, basically means the WRU are sticking their finger up at the league for the sake of a quick buck.

While we're on the subject of a quick buck – I'm not going to take the time to do the maths*, but I'm pretty confident that if you total up home attendances at Irish provinces so far this season and subtract the equivalent from the Welsh regions, you'll get a figure not a million miles from the 69,000 that were at the Millenium Stadium on Saturday.

And it's not as though the regions themselves are innocent victims either – taking part in the Anglo-Welsh LV Cup doesn't exactly display a glowing endorsement of the Celtic competition.

What's that? Am I going to write about the actual match in question at any point? Really – why should I?   And why should I even mention the quality names that were missing from the visitor's lineup since we weren't allowed to see them do what they do best?

I mean – when you strip away all the media hype this was little more than a glorified training session, even though there were officially over 16,000 souls missing a chunk of the Toy Show for it.

Take Ian Madigan's display for example. For the first quarter he was passing the ball whenever he got it. Then, and I kid you not, the very second the clock hit 20 minutes (right after Sweeney hit his second pen to make it 13-6), suddenly the tactic of choice was to kick for territory. This phase didn't go so well for the lad.

Cue half-time, and from the start of the second period, the passing and the kicking have gone out the window and now Mads is in his comfort zone, ie dropping his shoulder and running against the grain. Ironically it was a similar move by him that earned us a bonus point last season against the same opposition and in many ways propelled him into the Leinster spotlight.

He was doing so well with it that he helped himself to a try right before giving way for Sexton's clearly-scheduled last-quarter cameo. Overall it was a good run-out for the Blackrock College youngster, but you can't help feeling that if he was able to make decisions based on the situation rather than the time elapsed then he'd be better prepared should he be needed against Bath over the next couple of weeks.

Of course there were other memorable moments, like Nathan White's determination to reach the line, Sexton's deft little chip to Kearney The Younger (who had been screaming “Sexy!” at the top of his lungs moments before), the improbable success rate of Fergus McFadden's “dead-duck” style of placekicking, and of course the sight of the scoreboard ticking over the 50 mark. Still – part of me wanted to run over and stick a giant asterisk beside it.

Normally I write over 1,000 words about Leinster & Ireland matches. This time, I'm going to leave it around the 700 mark because delighted and all as I was with the maximum points and first place on the league table through Christmas, I'm going to leave my readers feeling as short-changed as I felt on Friday night. 

Of course the next time Cardiff send a decent team to Dublin and get a victory, assuming there is a next time, no doubt I'll have a lot more to say. JLP

* = on second thoughts, I will try and do the maths Monday evening and will publish the results as the "#2amrugbyfact" on both Twitter and Facebook overnight.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Benetton Treviso-20 Leinster-30



Leinster's performance was a lot like Fergus McFadden's placekicks on the day at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo – not exactly conventional, but definitely enough to get the job done.

Also the final score has a symmetry about it as it reflects the progression of the match, since for every two points Treviso put on the board, their Heieneken Cup winning guests were comfortably able to find three.

It's interesting to see how the rugby community treats the Italian teams since they joined the league last season. In many ways it's similar to how we dealt with their national team joining the Six Nations – everyone wants them to do well and compete, but nobody wants to lose to them.

So you could see why RTEs commentators Ryle Nugent and Donal “Tremenjus” Lenihan were so keen to talk up the home side before the match, and one of the things they pointed out was the way Italian teams were trying to get away from their traditional comfort zone of a forwards-based game and adopting a more “expansive” style.

Well maybe that was true, but from the kickoff in this match anyway, the word expansive could also be applied to their defence as the opening try from Leo Auva'a after a mere 30 seconds of play was made look way, way too easy.

And even though the home side did manage to draw level in the second half, much like the match against Edinburgh a few weeks ago, you always knew Leinster would be able to find an extra gear and get the lead back again, this time with a scintillating line run by my clear favourite for the province's Player of the Month, Eoin O'Malley, which earned him the decisive try.

Still, you have to say Treviso had their tactical plan right in that they did their best to starve us of the ball – the only problem was, they weren't good enough defensively to keep us out on the few occasions we did have it.

One thing that did baffle me about the home side was the fact that they had their South African-born scrum half Tobias Botes doing the place-kicking when their number 10 Kris Burton was also playing and lying 3rd in the RaboDirectPRO12 overall scoring charts. It reminded me of Brock James' shocker in the RDS for Clermont in 2010 when Morgan Parra was on the pitch having just kicked France to a Grand Slam.

Botes was perfect in the first half from the tee but after the confusion surrounding the conversion of the Italians' lone try (surely at this level every place-kicker should know the rules? He could have started his routine from the beginning) his confidence was shattered and had he made the relatively easy 8pts he missed in the second half the last ten minutes could've been a lot hairier for the visitors.

But any four points on the road are welcome – even though we got two early tries you certainly won't hear me moaning about a missed bonus. There were, however, a few below-par performances to mention.

First, there was Jamie Hagan. His first scrum was a shocker, he got his way back into the game, but then his first scrum in the second half was also a shocker. Sorry to be picky, but standards at the province are such that you don't really have the luxury of a scrum or two to settle in – I'm not sure the Toulouse pack would have allowed him to “get his way back into the game”. Nathan White's experience was needed and a huge defensive effort turned over a scrum on 71 minutes that virtually sealed the win.

I don't want to be too hard on Hagan however. Mike Ross didn't exactly blaze a trail in his first year at Leinster, and I think Joe Schmidt knew what he was doing bringing the former Waikato skipper up from New Zealand. I'd be happy for now to keep Jamie down the pecking order, giving him starts with the As together with some senior appearances during the Six Nations with a view to launching an assault on the first team next season. Oh, and it wouldn't hurt to grow the beard back.

Next on my list for finger-wagging is Ian Madigan. Again, it wasn't entirely his fault as his opportunities were limited thanks to the Treviso gameplan, but also again, the bar is set so high at Leinster these days you can't afford to be wasting restarts and penalties the way he did.

A few players weren't bad, but disappointingly quiet. Good and all as it was to see Fergus McFadden back from his dead leg, having seen him excel in the centre he really did seem lost on the wing, though it would have been harsh on O'Malley to drop him.

In the pack, Rhys Ruddock seemed to find the going tough and was way, way too slow reacting to the ball emerging from the scrum that led to the Treviso try. On the other side of the scrum I didn't see much to change my opinion that Shane Jennings is uncomfortable with the captain's armband either (a 75th minute yellow card in a relatively tight encounter isn't exactly what you want from your skipper) .

There were some more good displays in blue – Leo Auva'a has been a breath of fresh air to our back row play and Devin Toner owned the few lineouts there were on the day. Finally I felt this was easily Fionn Carr's best display for us since he rejoined. Although he was renowned at Connacht as a “flying winger”, he seems to be making the right adjustments to his game to suit our style, and is even finding the tackles easier to manage to boot.


All in all a satisfying result for Leinster fans - still joint top of the league, and with both Ospreys and Friday's visitors to the RDS the Cardiff Blues set to be deprived of many stars thanks to the "rogue" Wales v Wallabies international next weekend, there's every chance we can be sole occupiers of 1st place going into the crucial Heineken Cup home-and-away series with Bath.

Reading back over that last paragraph it looks like the arrogance I spoke of last week is rubbing off on me! I suppose six league wins on the bounce will do that to you. JLP

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Leinster-38 Glasgow-13

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BRIAN WHO?

When Leinster Rugby revealed the design of their jersey for this season, there was much debate among fans over the wisdom of adding the two stars above the crest to represent their Heineken Cup triumphs.

The main concern of the doubters was that it may suggest an air of cockiness about the club. Now that may be true, but if that can be matched by the performances on the pitch, and more to the point if those performances produce the right results, then I say the decision to add the stars was absolutely right.

At the RDS on Sunday, for the first half at least, Joe Schmidt's men played with a level of arrogance that was beyond belief. As a Leinster fan, I'm certainly not complaining, even if it does make the rest of the continent grow to hate us in the way the “ABU” brigade has evolved in soccer.

I mean take our second try. You're leading by just four points, you've had a man sent to the bin, and you win a penalty directly in front of the posts. Absolutely positively the sensible call to make would be to go for the easy placekick, soaking up every available second on the clock in the process.

IMG_0967But not Leinster. We've got two stars on our jersey, you know. And you're in our house. We're going to back ourselves to score a try. We've got Luke Fitzgerald. And if he doesn't get over we’ve got Sean O'Brien. And if he doesn't get over we’ve got Isa Nacewa. And if he doesn't get over we’ve got Jamie Heaslip. And if none of them make it, there's a chap you may not have heard of, one Eoin O'Malley.

Towards the end of July I went to the Leinster open training session in Tallaght Stadium. One of the pictures I took was of O'Malley as he was having a headshot taken by a professional. Here's what I posted as a caption : “The photographer had to be told this was Eoin O'Malley. I have a feeling in a couple of years everyone will know his name.”

Scratch that, it's more like a couple of months. And when your THIRD choice outside centre can bag a couple of tries whilst making absolutely no difference to the potency of your backline's attacking force, then by all means, be as arrogant as you want!

Now just in case you think I was in any way über-confident upon my arrival to the RDS then you can think again.

I knew we had offensive issues from our visit to Montpellier last week. I knew the visitors were on a high not only from their last-gasp win over Bath but also their triumph at the very same Ballsbridge venue last September.

But as it turned out, the contest was to resemble more the meeting of the two sides back in May when Duncan Weir opened the scoring with an early penalty only to see his side swept aside from that moment onwards.

Jamie Heaslip won the man-of-the-match award and I was delighted to see him do so – no doubting this was his best display since the Toulouse semifinal in the Aviva. But although he was a powerhouse throughout (especially in the lineouts where we were totally spoiled for choice re: jumpers), I'd rather draw attention to some other cracking displays around the pitch because you don't clinch a bonus point victory before halftime in this tournament without a phenomenal team effort.

To go back to O'Malley for a moment, despite his two tries his real strength, for me anyway, is in the tackle. And whatever people might say about Gordon D'Arcy's form of late, it was of no harm to the youngster to have the Lion inside him.

And what about our back bloody three? All of them were immense. I was worried we might go back to the “wraparound hell” we were experiencing in Montpellier but instead Messrs Fitzgerald, Kearney and Nacewa were breaking the gainline with consummate ease and to be honest my headline for this writeup could easily have been “Shane who?”.

6372197547_2827e02f7e_bAt scrum half while I was glad to see Isaac Boss get another try I felt the improved backline rhythm was down to Reddan starting and I reckon that is the order that they should play for us in this competition from here on in should they both remain fit.

Of course we must not forget our out-half. Took the game by the scruff of the neck and didn't let go. And still his restart radar is reaping rich rewards. Those first two tries came almost instantly after Glasgow's two first-half penalties were converted.

Now...for those who wish to pour scorn over the second half performance, I say...does that really matter? Rugby is a sport where you always have to have half a mind on the battles to come and if the five points are in the bag at the interval, then only a lunatic would expect the intensity to continue, and anyone who wants to call Joe Schmidt a lunatic will have to answer to me!

However...there was one moment when I thought our arrogance may cost us...Sexton got up gingerly after being crunched in a tackle in mid-second half yet stayed on the park. Wrong move in my book. Wrap him up, give Madigan some prolonged game time. He's another one I feel is ready for this stage. By leaving our starter on longer I am now anxiously awaiting the early-week “squad update” on the Leinster site when perhaps I don't need to.

So where does this leave Leinster? Let's see...joint top of the RaboDirectPRO12, top of their Heineken Cup pool, and all without O'Driscoll, Horgan & Berquist among others.

The home-and-away series with Bath to come in December won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination, but if Schmidt can somehow bottle Sunday’s arrogance and bring it over to the Rec, we may well show them why we have one more star above our crest than they do. JLP

Elsewhere in Europe…

First up, Galway may be a party town but seemingly Toulouse were fully intent on spoiling it for poor Connacht.  I didn’t get to watch the game fully, and according to some accounts the home side “paid their visitors too much respect”.  But I will say this…I remember last season, when my favourite soccer team Spurs reached the Champions League for the first time, they added to their squad with quality players like Rafa Van der Vaart.  They certainly didn’t ship a bunch of their best players to neighbouring clubs.  Not only did Connacht have to lose Cronin, Keatley, Hagan and Carr over the off-season, in a cruel twist of irony only one of those actually played a significant role in their new team’s opening two Heineken Cup matches.  It was always going to be an uphill battle for them, and let’s hope they can get something from Gloucester in December.

As for Ulster, well they were also unlucky to be missing key players.  Paul Marshall may have had a good outing at Welford Road but you’d have a hard time convincing me they wouldn’t have been better off with Pienaar.  John Afoa as well could have added something to their front row but the biggest weakness was at full back where Danielli appeared all at sea and Jared Payne was badly needed.  Once the Tigers worked out how effective the garryowen would be it was curtains for the Ulstermen.  Though I haven’t seen that much of them this season, I would have thought D’Arcy would have been the better option to start in the 15 jersey but I could well be wrong.

And once again, we have those last-gasp ROG heroics.  And once again, I have to tip my hat to him.  I can’t think of an outhalf I’d rather have in that position when the clock goes red. Now…for the real question.  Have Munster showed Heineken Cup-winning form yet?  The answer is no, and in actual fact, none of the 24 teams have for the full 160 minutes each has played in the first two rounds.  If I had to pick a form team, it would have to be the Scarlets, and guess who Tony McGahan’s men play in their next two matches?  Should both teams reproduce their form from rounds 1 & 2 in December then O’Gara’s cool 11th hour temperament won’t be of any use.  But still, two wins out of two is not to be sneezed at (it’s more than my arrogant Leinster have!) and you wouldn’t bet against them using those two incredible finishes as a springboard - I certainly wouldn’t put money on them failing to get out of that pool just yet.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Montpellier-16 Leinster-16



If you ask young rugby fans what kind of player they'd like to be when they grow up, I doubt there's many who would say their wish was to be a “quality impact sub”.

Yet as Sean Cronin demonstrated at the Stade de la Mosson, in the modern game that can be one of the most important roles in a squad. I would still select Richardt Strauss over the former Connacht hooker every time, but his grit and determination to get over the line showed he has much to offer in that number 16 jumper.

Would I have been happy with a draw before the match? Absolutely not. But was I happy with it afterwards? Absolutely so. And although it wasn't exactly a classic display from the reigning champions, I'm not as concerned as perhaps I should be.

My contention is that if your problems lie on the offensive side of the game, they can be fixed a lot easier than if your defence isn't up to scratch. And it's hard to argue that we had pretty good control of things defensively on Saturday.

Just look at the try Montpellier scored. It happened after a breakdown of an attack of ours deep in their half when our defence wasn't anywhere near set. For the rest of the contest, even with the gargantuan Gorgodzilla in full flow, the French outfit were unable to seriously threaten our line.

So what was going wrong on the offensive side of things? Well for one thing it was hardly Isaac Boss' best outing. It's a shame for him in that he thoroughly earned his starting position but considering the quality of his competition you have to think that Reddan will start next Sunday against Glasgow. The box kicks weren't working, the ball was going unprotected after the tackle too often, it was just a bad day at the office for Boss, but he'll be back.

Another selection that didn't work out was Damien Browne. I understand that he has experience playing in France but I'm not altogether sure that's what was needed. Devin Toner has been impressive in the Pro12 and once he came on we absolutely terrorized the Montpellier line-outs.

Honourable mention should go to our back three, particularly Luke Fitzgerald. The Sky commentators fixated on his missed tackle on Nagusa but that was a harsh way of looking at it – first, the former Ulster winger was deep in his own 22 plus Luke got enough of him to allow the rest of the defence to set and he didn't really get much further. Overall I thought Fitzgerald had a sound display and is well on the road back to his best.

Brief paragraph on the ref – many give out about Dave Pearson and it's true he's hardly the best out there, but I really don't think he played a part in the actual result, even though the French TV director seemed to differ with his incessant replays of missed forward passes. Funny how the replay machine was broken when it seemed to be a Montpellier transgression!

You don't think I've forgotten about a certain Mr Sexton I hope! Well much like his last-minute effort that sealed the draw, I'm going to deal with him last. The only mark against him the way I saw it was that he went for the complex back-line manoeuvres a bit too often. It's a powerful weapon and when used at the right time will do some serious damage, but it seemed at times that it was confusing our players as much as it was the opposition, and that can't be good.

But what about that final kick? Follow this link to see the YouTube clip. As if the pressure from the match situation and the booing of the crowd wasn't enough, I doubt the sight of his own face on the big screen perfectly framed by the goalposts didn't help, yet he struck it true. And let's not forget his conversion of the Cronin try which was even closer to the touchline. They were all world-class placekicks and there were even question marks over the one he missed – we either need to allow coaches request a TMO or just get higher goalposts in those situations.

All in all you have to be happy to come away from a French trip with something, although if Leinster are to be seriously considering a return to glory in this competiton, they'll need a convicing win next Sunday to get back on track. If you fancy a flutter, you could do a lot worse than back Mr Cronin for another try off the bench in the process. 

Elsewhere in Europe...

All the mainstream headlines will be taken by “that” finish down at Thomond, so just for divilment allow me to start this mini-roundup elsewhere, namely Leinster's Pool Three, where Glasgow delivered a fairytale ending of their own thanks to the Bath defence falling asleep after Duncan Weir's last-gasp drop goal effort. For me, that's a good result for Leinster in that should we defeat the Scots next weekend at the RDS, given that the French rarely travel well we could be the only side in the pool with a duck-egg in the loss column after two games.

And if the Irish headlines weren't about Munster, they'd probably be about Connacht instead so again I'm going to be different and offer props to the Ulstermen at Ravenhill for sticking it to their critics (myself included) by seeing off their illustrious visitors. It was a monumental performance and Stephen Ferris showed that had he been available last April Leinster's Heineken Cup final opponents may well have been different.

Now for the Connacht men. Didn't they do themselves proud? Sure, they gave away too many silly penalties but given the formbook going into the match for that to be their top complaint is quite the achievement. I'm telling you, however many stars are on their crest, Toulouse won't have things their own way in Galway next weekend, that's for sure!

Let's not forget the Leinster A lads led by Dominic Ryan, who secured themselves a comfortable bonus-point win in Esher to kickoff their B&I Cup campaign. Seemingly outhalf Noel Reid was impressive with the boot and I'll be looking forward to seeing them in action next Saturday in Donnybrook against Melrose.

Last and certainly not least, that amazing finish at Thomond. No doubt my blue blood will be cited for what I'm about to say, but I really do believe too much is being made of this “41 phases” craic. In fact, the way I see it, you're actually doing Munster a dis-service if you show surprise that they can retain possession that many times against an opposition that is doing absolutely nothing to compete after the tackle. For me, the amazing thing about that finish was the O'Gara drop goal itself – an absolutely heroic effort for sure. But Tony McGahan's men need to show they can win on the road in this competition again and when you take the 80 minutes of Saturday evening's match they'll have their work cut out to get full points from their three trips in that pool. The final match in January against the Saints in Milton Keynes could well decide their fate.

Great to have the HCup back, innit? JLP

Friday, November 04, 2011

Leinster-24 Munster-19

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RESTARTING OVER

You know, just once I'd like to see these two great clubs face each other without knowing an asterix would need to be put beside the final scoreline.

Normally, as was the case this time round, the derby is played the week before Heineken Cup matches – either the crucial opening series, or the even more crucial quarterfinal stage (not to mention right after a gruelling Six Nations campaign).

Even the Magners League final from last May, although having nothing right after it, was preceded by a weekend when Munster had their feet up watching their nemesis come back from the dead to grab a famous victory in a slightly more important competition.

So I guess the best we can ever hope to expect from this fixture for the immediate future is a tough contest for 60 minutes before the cotton wool gets produced and everything afterwards is pretty much pot luck.

And that's exactly what we got at the Aviva Stadium on Friday night. Basically Munster played with the same fire they brought to the table last May only this time we were able to not only match them but pretty much oust them at every position on the park and hold the lead from the 21st minute right to the end.

Most of the talk pre-match, quite naturally, was about the outhalf battle and few could argue that Sexton won it hands down and has definitely put his World Cup demons to bed. He really is a different player wearing a blue jersey, and you have to wonder if this is because when he has it on, he knows for sure that everyone supporting his side wants him to have it.

6315630097_c67f0595a4_bHe won man of the match for three reasons – first, of course, was the return of his kicking mojo. But given the fact that Munster had us under the kosh in the final quarter, the match-winning moment had to be his forced turnover when they were pressing our line. A try at that moment could very well have produced a different result and although O'Gara didn't have a bad night by any means, you certainly wouldn't ever expect a similar contribution from him at the other end of the pitch.

However what needs to be highlighted most in Sexton's game is his restarts. He is key part of an evolution of rugby union's halfway-line kickoff from a lottery to a set-piece similar to a scrum or a lineout, ie if a side begins with the ball in their hands they should also come out with it.

That is what had Leinster leading after the first quarter. Winning the ball back from your own kickoff obviously puts immense pressure on the opposing team, and what's more, whatever about missing O'Driscoll, we still had a powerful centre combination who were able to combine to turn possession on the restart line into possession on the 22 in double quick time – and once we got there, Munster had to summon every ounce of their strength to keep us out.

And although the visitor's defence was solid (it's only proper for me to keep track of our tryless streak in this fixture, which now stands at 219 minutes) the only reason it remained so was that they had to give away penalties around their 22, often ones so sensless (like Niall Ronan's “I think I'm as invisible as Richie McCaw” moment in the first half) that even the most diehard Munster fan couldn't argue with the call.

Of course Leinster had to give away the odd dodgy penalty themselves, like Healy's at the start of the second half (we'll call that karma after Jacobsen's similar action in Edinburgh last week) and of course the penalty try, the second in a row we've conceded against the same opposition with a makeshift scrum combination.

The lineouts were a good contest throughout the night with the odd steal for both sides but most of all solid, and you have to say Devin Toner held his own very well given his was on the pitch with the three leading Irish test locks. Got me thinking maybe Declan Kidney could consider leaving Leo with Leinster for the Six Nations and giving Devin some time with his squad? If he impresses in the four European matches to come it has to be an option.

Actually it could be argued that the biggest difference in the match was the backrow. Munster fans on twitter were confused when Ronan got the start at 7 and this was proven right – they were much better going forward when O'Mahony and Coughlan were on the pitch, although to be fair they did have an extra forward at that stage.

I also have a little query about the Munster coaching brains trust...why on EARTH did they send on John Hayes when they did? I'm not talking about his playing ability, I'm more talking about the fact they were still in the match and the clock was ticking down and he's not exactly Mr Speedy Gonzales when it comes to getting into position?

6316159296_5babd2e0b0_bActually I think the biggest difference between the two sides was at centre. While D'Arcy and particularly McFadden kept making inroads, you could see that Mafi and Chambers had the talent but just not the ease with each other that will no doubt come over time. And that time really needs to be now for them, with two very tough opening Heineken Cup matches on the horizon.

And back to Leinster's 12 & 13, I anticipated O'Malley's introduction, coming for D'Arcy and going to 13 with Fergus moving to inside, but I thought the 73rd minute was too late. Should BOD be unavailable, starting with the centre like we did then making that exact same switch at the 60th minute could be a formidable weapon in the upcoming Heineken Cup campaign, given O'Malley's proven tackling abilities.

Then there was Leinster's back three. Yes, we actually had one. Did Munster put up even one garryowen on the night? I'm pretty sure that despite the fact that they lost, the coaches at Bath, Montpellier and Glasgow will be thinking along the same lines...you put the ball in the air against Isa, Rob and Luke and you'll come to regret it, so apart from tackling and of course that Kearney drop goal, they were pretty much kept quiet on the night.

That does give me concerns about Isa being on the wing in that he'll be virtually neutered as an attacking threat, but you'd like to think that the three will mix things up in the coming weeks despite the numbers on their backs.

And mention must also go to the competing scrum halves. Has Isaac Boss done enough to earn the starting jersey in Montpellier? I think he may very well have.

His opposite number Conor Murray didn't do too badly, though in many ways he's like an “O'Leary 2.0” in that he's a strong carrier of the ball but actually CAN box-kick. Still, there was the odd question mark about his distribution. And the less said about O'Leary 1.0's cameo, the better, I find!

Overall, yes, I know I'm biased, but I still think the right side won this match. Given we had just one win from our first three matches, I can't have too many complaints about being joint top of the Pro12 table as we kick off Pool3, even if it is with a trip to France.

Oh, and one last thing...well done to the stadium announcer for the way he shouted the Leinster scoreline and mumbled the Munster one. Not just because of my allegiance either...I'd have a laugh if the guy at Thomond did the opposite. These are all little things that clubs can do to add to the entertainment – bring on more of it, I say. JLP

Friday, October 28, 2011

Edinburgh-28 Leinster-36

 
It's not often in sport, especially at the top, when you can watch your team fall behind four different times in a match yet still call the victory "comfortable", but you definitely can for this one.
 
Because even though your average irrationally-superstitious Leinster fan would never have said it out loud, even when they lost the lead you always had a sense at the back of your mind that they were going to pull it back with interest, and sure enough they did every time.
 
And perhaps if the referee Leighton Hodges, who seemed to be barely out of nappies when it comes to officiating at this level, knew what was meant by the term "professional foul", the contest would've been wrapped up a lot sooner.
 
If you look at the picture leading off this post you will see Rob Kearney on an early break - it actually looked as though he'd score but he didn't quite make the try line.  Also right in the middle of the shot you'll see the rather, er, portly figure of Embra & Scotland prop Allan Jacobsen chugging along trying to keep up with the play.
 
Well when our full back was tackled and a ruck formed, Mr Jacobsen was able to catch up and, er, take part in the ruck.  And of course in his book "taking part in" meant walking around the side and picking up the ball coughing up the pen when he knew damn well it prevented a try.  Mr Hodges reaction?  Penalty to the visiting side, and not even so much as a warning to the home one.
 
And later in the half there was a lesser case for a yellow when Tim Visser deliberately knocked on.  For here you can use the sporting cliché "I've seen them given".  And if the Dutch-born soon-to-be Scottish-qualified winger had gone to the bin, he wouldn't have scored his first try and Sean Cronin's blushes would've been spared with his missed tackle.
 
Because although I use the word "comfortable" for this triumph, it was by no means perfect.  Visser's second try had three times the missed tackles as the slippery eel got past both Kearney brothers and Sexton to keep up his impressive record of five-pointers in this league.
 
It wasn't just the tackling either - sadly Cronin's darts were unsteady much like they were when he was with the Irish squad, and coach Schmidt was quite right afterwards to describe his returning World Cup stars as "rusty".  But hey, if you can be rusty and still win by 8 points on the road in this league, then you can't really complain.
 
In patches, Michael Bradley's new charges looked impressive going forward but it has to be said Leinster rarely needed to move out of second let alone third gear to win this one, and the ease with which our two tries were scored will give him a lot to say in the DVD sessions during the week to come.  He won't be too happy with the penalty count either - you'd like to think outscoring your opponents by 3 tries to 2 at home would at least get you a losing bonus!
 
So when you consider that the areas in which we were rusty (to which you can possibly include Sexton's placing of the ball on the tee though he of course had a super night with the boot overall) can all be easily rectified on the training ground, you definitely feel a lot better about this Leinster team going into our first clash with the old enemy than we did last year!
 
Now it's opinion time - with the World Cup stars now back and hopefully de-rusted, what Heineken Cup XV would I pick?  Well for me the areas of contention are at 5, 7, 12, 15 and pretty much the entire bench.
 
Let's start at lock shall we.  Devin Toner seems to have brushed off the cobwebs he showed last season and added some much-needed aggression to his game.  Even though Steven Sykes will be pushing him hard for his spot I'd still go for the Irishman as the more time he spends on the pitch with Leo Cullen the more he'll learn.
 
Next...do we want the experience of Jennings at 7 or the promise of Ryan?  Tough one.  Ireland badly needs some upcoming talent at this position so if you were to make selections on that basis you'd plump for Ryan.  But I'd like to think the coaches are allowed to pick their best available XVs for the HCup and I have a feeling that Jenno will get the nod for now.  Ryan getting the captain's armband for the As against Ulster last week supports this view.
 
Then at 12 - sorry Gordon, but I see no alternative but to start Fergus McFadden.  He is clearly the player in form and frankly if you leave him out after a display like that in Murrayfield, you make him more likely to listen to the offers to move elsewhere he surely must be getting behind the scenes.
 
Elsewhere among the replacements, the fact that Rhys Ruddock has started two matches each at 6, 7 and 8 as well as wearing the captain's armband tells me he's a shoo-in.  Other calls I'd go for are Strauss over Cronin and despite Boss' impressive showed in Edinburgh, Reddan gets my nod at 9.
 
And finally we have the big elephant in the room.  Who do you play at full-back for Leinster in the matches that matter?  Rob Kearney has been in fine form since his return.  But you simply cannot drop Isa.  My solution? Isa at 15, Rob at 14.  Imagine a back three of Luke, Rob & Isa.  And I'm doing my best not to imagine what to do when Shaggy gets back from injury!
 
So, here's my Leinster 23 for the big matches to come. 
 
15 Nacewa 14 R Kearney 13 O'Driscoll 12 McFadden 11 Fitzgerald 10 Sexton 9 Reddan 1 Healy 2 Strauss 3 Ross 4 Cullen 5 Toner 6 O'Brien 7 Jennings 8 Heaslip
bench : 16 Cronin 17 Van Der Merwe 18 White 19 Sykes 20 Ruddock 21 Boss 22 Madigan 23 D'Arcy
 
Thanks for reading down this far, hope to see you at the Aviva on Friday night. JLP

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Leinster-30 Connacht-20

photo by Ken Bohane

Much rugby has been watched by yours truly over the past two months.

Take last weekend for example.  From Friday evening on there was Ulster v Treviso, Ireland v Wales, England v France, this match at the RDS and finally Munster v Ospreys to take in.  I even managed half an Aviva Premiership contest between Northampton and Exeter somewhere in between.

So while I could easily look back over my recording of TG4's coverage of this match and give you a blow-by-blow account of Leinster's performance, I think it would be better to give you a sense of how I remember the contest given that at the time I was still reeling from a 4:45am wake-up call and trip across town to have my soul crushed in Kiely's of Donnybrook.

First, I want to mention the guy who was sitting directly behind me.  Before Saturday I could honestly say I had never come across a Connacht fan I didn't like.  This dude became the exception.  

He seemed to want everyone around him to be impressed that he knew the names of all the players. "C'mon Swifty!", "C'mon Duffy!" "C'mon Flavin", and my personal favourite "C'mon Johnny Concrete!"  Also he was taking it upon himself to give a running commentary on anything and everything positive the men in green were doing.  Let me put it this way...he was every bit as annoying as those American golf fans who shout "Get in the hole!"

In his defence, he did have a lot to shout about in the first half.  Although Leinster got the game's first try thanks to Devin Toner getting the ball and running straight through the Connacht fullback Matthew Jarvis, there followed two defensive lapses by the home side as baffling as those seen in Wellington that morning which meant the visitors went into the break 20-10 to the good.

Still, maybe it was the weariness from the early start to the day, but I wasn't all that concerned, and after the interval we slowly clawed our way back into it thanks to a couple of early Isa penalties and then a monster of a kick from inside his own half by Ian Madigan which brought us to within a point.

Yet it was a try we needed, and as you can see by the photo (click here for Ken's full set by the way) it was Luuuuuuuuuke who did the business and hey presto our lead was restored.

By this stage you could see by the numbers on the Connacht players' backs that their bench had been completely emptied, so considering how much they were struggling on the injuries front going into the game, there was little hope of them regaining the lead.

One thing I thought they did deserve, however, was a losing bonus point, and although I thought it a bit cruel of Madigan to take the easy drop goal after the clock had gone red to extend our lead to ten and thus leave the opposition with nothing to show for their travels, I did take heart in that it finally shut up Mr Namedropper behind me once and for all.

So...six rounds in, the RaboDirectPRO12 takes a wee break.  Considering after round 3 Leinster were at one win and two defeats, I'm more than happy that now we're in a virtual tie with Munster for 2nd spot on the ladder.

As for my top performer over those six weeks, maybe I'm showing my Blackrock bias, but I'm going to give it to Ian Madigan.  He saw a lot more game time than he would have expected to over that period given Mat Berquist's long term injury and Ian McKinley's retirement, and in my book he has been a key factor in our three-game winning streak.

With the World Cup stars returning and a Heineken Cup campaign to plan, I'd have no hesitation in penciling in Mads for at least a spot on the bench for the trip to Montpellier the way things stand right now.

Elsewhere on the park, while Sean O'Brien will no doubt be itching to get his 6 jersey back and Jennings and Heaslip likely to accompany him in our European backrow, Coach Schmidt has been able to use this time to develop quite the strong backup behind them, with Kevin McLaughlin and Dominic Ryan returning from injury, Leo Auva'a getting himself on the fast-track to cult status at the RDS and Jordi Murphy snapping at their heels.

But special mention has to go to Rhys Ruddock.  Skipper for all six matches, he showed his own versatility in that he started 2 matches each at 6,7 and 8.  Perhaps the captaincy role meant he wasn't able to dominate any of the contests they way he'd like to, but his presence is growing with every encounter and no doubt we can expect to see a lot of him in our Heineken Cup campaign.

So overall, whatever about our Welsh Wellington woes, Saturday evening's visit to Ballsbridge reminded me that there is much to look forward to in the future of Leinster and Ireland rugby.   JLP

There I am with my arms folded going "Harrumph!" after Connacht's 2nd try. Mr Namedropper is behind me.

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