Saturday, May 28, 2011

Munster-19 Leinster-9

[update Oct 2, 2013] Archive time here on HoR and here is the last time Munster were victorious over their eastern nemesis.  In fact, it could be said that this weekend’s clash in Thomond can be billed as “The Drive For Five Part II”…

Doug-Howlett-Munster-Lein-007
 
Let the records show that the 2011 Magners League Grand Final was won after 55minutes, at least according to this Leinster blogger. 
 
A man down, only 7-6 ahead and with the reigning European Champions bearing down on the Munster line, David Wallace inflicted one of the tackles of the season on Fergus McFadden to not only drive him back, but with the assistance of James Coughlan, turn the ball over and allow his side the chance to clear the danger. 
 
What made it such a wonderful tackle is that Wallace knew who he was dealing with. McFadden has shown on several occasions this season that it's nowhere near enough to hit him, for once he pumps his legs he can still make up to 10 yds with the ball afterwards. The Munster no7 solved this problem by simply taking his legs up off the ground altogether in the hit. 
 
But by rights what the records should be showing is a match that was all over as a contest (well in pre-Cardiff terms anyway) by halftime, and how Munster went into the break only 7-3 ahead will continue to baffle me for years to come. 
 
There can be little argument that Leinster have been the best team in European rugby this season, but the scary thing is that there is clear room for improvement.  And having seen every second (bar Aironi away) that they have played all season, I reckon that room is to be found in the area of offensive play-calling.

5770619433_b2a335f4e0_bNot quite sure whether that needs to be levelled at the coach, the out-half or both, but I have found this season that the majority of our woes have stemmed from not playing the right attacking game at the right time.  Take the penalty we won in only the second minute at Thomond.  Munster had the ball from the off and this was our first time with it.  We’re on the road against our biggest rivals in a major cup final.  Surely some simple forward phases were required to settle us down, but Reddan chose the quick tap, and before you could say “Athenry is in Connacht” we’d lost it for the first in a long line of errors.

Yes, Munster were hungry in the tackle, and many of our turnovers were forced by them.  But I still contend that had we played a smarter game when we had the ball, there were more points to be had.  There’s a time for the quick-offloading “Schmidt-ball”, there’s a time for forward phases, there’s a time for quick tap-n-runs.  Once Leinster can determine on the field of play which mode best fits the situation, then we could very well be talking about doubles again in the near future.

The home side, on the other hand, seemed to have a clear idea of what they wanted to do with the ball, and from where I was sitting (at the very back of the new stand right on the halfway line) it seemed a clever strategy.  Leinster’s defence may have been a impenetrable fortress all season, but rather than aim to “chuck it out wide” as Northampton had done, Munster picked one wing and chose to batter it until it broke.  That wing was Luke Fitzgerald’s, not that Doug Howlett’s score that ended the drought at 497 minutes (main pic) was necessarily his fault, just the result of a tenacious red army gradually boring a hole in a blue wall.

Yet despite our coughing up the ball around a dozen times in the first 40 minutes, the halftime score was still that measly 7-3, so it was clear that there was no need to evoke past Champions League finals to put our dressing room into focus.  But one thing was obvious…Leinster HAD to be ahead by a decent margin going into the final quarter, because although the formbook may go out the window on these occasions, the fitness one cannot be ignored and Munster’s extra week’s rest was always going to be a factor.

We showed our intent from the second half restart, and for this period, we seemed to be playing the smart rugby.  Save for a clever reverse offload from Drico, our intention was to get it down to their line mostly with the forwards and gain the upper hand with a 5-pointer.  But after 24 phases on their line, the Munster defence wasn’t cracking, until of course Donncha O’Callaghan gave away what turned out to be an extremely clever yellow-card penalty. 

We got three points either side of his time in the sin-bin to sneak into the lead, but what happened in between, not least the Wallace tackle I mentioned earlier, is pretty much what settled the match.  Sexton’s pass being a fraction too high for a wide-open McFadden didn’t help much either.

But once we had the lead, the clock ticked past 60, and Joe Schmidt had no choice but to start going to his bench, which was considerably weaker than seven days before.  Munster kept their resolve and started punching away at our left wing corner again…and of course when you keep doing that with the ball for three-quarters of a game, the option of a cross-field kick the other way is always on the cards, and once they had a free play courtesy of Nigel Owens’ upstretched left arm, ROG’s boot got it to Keith Earls who forced the ball over the line by sheer will and determination – the home side were back in front.

The conversion was missed, and after Isa provided the traditional “run-through-ROG” moment and had him seeing stars a few minutes later, yet another penalty attempt failed and the lead remained at three.  At any other time of the season, you’d fancy Leinster to at least have a chance only 3 points down with 10 minutes left, but the forced substitutions were taking our scrum beyond the word “makeshift”.   Richardt Strauss may have played flanker for the Cheetahs, but at a crucial stage of a cup final you certainly don’t want him there, nor do you want Aaron Dundon, our 4th string hooker when the season began, extending his arms around the Leinster props.

5771179136_a5f0e9cbc3_bThe history books, one with a certain leaning anyway, will credit John Hayes for the forcing of the penalty try which sealed the match once and for all, and indeed technically that is true.  But I guess we’ll never know how this contest would have turned out under more, shall we say, “traditional” circumstances, with both (or neither) teams having bigger battles preying on their minds & limbs.

And although it was partly tongue-in-cheek when I suggested on Twitter that morning that no matter what happened, Irish rugby would be the “real winner”, it really was as Munster lifted the Celtic League silverware at the end of this great contest.

There was something in this season for everyone….Connacht’s long tenure as development province was finally paid off with a Heineken Cup slot, Ulster have re-emerged as a major force getting into two sets of playoffs, Munster were rightly rewarded for an excellent Magners League campaign and of course at the top of the achievement tree this season, well, I guess you don’t need reminding who that was.

That just leaves me with two issues to address from the day before bringing the curtain down on what has been an extremely enjoyable spell of rugby blogging.

First, “that” challenge by Marcus Horan on Brian O’Driscoll.  It was every bit as stupid as it was cynical and forget about citings, he should have been off for ten.  Not suggesting Leinster would have benefitted from a sin-binning as they didn’t later on, but it was a clear yellow card.  And to those who say “What about Drico himself v Ulster?” and “What about Sean O’Brien v Toulouse?” I have already acknowledged they were yellow card offences, but if you insist on comparing them, at least they were provoked.  And as for Nathan Hines’ hit on Horan in the second half, the prop’s reaction was almost more embarrassing that his earlier hit and the Leinster fans can simply consider the shot as a parting gift from the Clermont-bound Scottish international.

Second, there was my first visit to Thomond Park.  Well, I really wish I could have gotten to spend more time there.  The OLSC buses were not allowed to park near the ground so we literally had time for one pint before kickoff, and one after before making the trip home.  But the stadium is indeed impressive and although we were right down the very back we still had a great view of the action.  And I also got to see at close quarters the trademark silence during opposing kicks…the look on the face of the lady in front of me as she turned to shoosh some nearby noisemakers was only priceless.

Here’s to a marvellous season for Irish rugby.  No Grand Slam maybe, but with two if not three powerhouses on the Heineken Cup front now established, who knows what lies ahead.

Before that, of course, there is the small matter of the World Cup, now less than 100 days away.  If all this success doesn’t make you feel good about Ireland’s chances then I don’t know what will.

outside thomond 2011

I’m in there somewhere amongst a crowd of tweeting rugby nuts before the match

Saturday, May 21, 2011

LEINSTER-33 NORTHAMPTON-22


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So it appears the Rapture was called off at the last minute. Why?
Seemingly because God heard some amazing speech being told at a rugby stadium in Cardiff that restored his faith in mankind. Or so the story goes…

Perhaps we’ll never know exactly what went on in that Leinster dressing room at halftime, but whatever it was, it certainly transformed our display by biblical proportions. If there’s one cliché any sports writer worth their salt would want to avoid it’s “a game of two halves”, but there’s no dodging it here.

If you wanted to write the perfect script for this game for Leinster fans you couldn’t have done a better job. In the first half we played much like we had all September way back at the start of the season.

But once the Schmidt-ball Express started rolling, then if the two top Aviva Premiership sides couldn’t live with it, and if the two leading sides AND the reigning champions of the Top14 couldn’t live with it, then the Saints hadn’t a hope in hell.

the second coming 2Although the halftime score may have surprised everyone, the first half performance of the Northampton Saints certainly shouldn’t have. All through the week they were quite happy to cower under the underdog banner as Jim Mallinder set about constructing a cup-winning gameplan, something he has shown more than once he is well capable of doing.

And as the first half wore on, it became clear that the plan was extremely simple : Dominate the scrum, do whatever you can to force mistakes, and when those mistakes happen, punish them.

Of course we were doing everything we could in the first period to spare them the bother of forcing mistakes. With just five minutes on the clock, we had already made six, with two uncharacteristic dropped high-balls from Isa, kicks from Luke and Sexton that didn’t find touch, a ball lost in the tackle from Jamie and finally, although this was a tad unlucky, a booming Sexton clearance that was just too far and pinned us back in our own 22.

That doesn’t mean the Saints weren’t doing everything they could though…sometimes legally, with superb tackling particularly from their locks Lawes and Day, and sometimes not so much, as Belfast-born number 8 Roger Wilson created the gap which led to the Saints’ opening try by clearly holding Shaggy’s leg to stop him taking his place in the defence.

But in case you think I’m using that missed Wilson transgression as an excuse, far from it. It’s a professional game, and these things are done all over the pitch by both sides and if you can get away with them, well and good. And it certainly was only a small contributor to the unbelievable halftime scoreline.

If the first quarter was dominated by our mistakes, the second was the Ben Foden Show. The man had a awesome game throughout and has not only nailed down the England World Cup 15 jersey, but surely the Lions one for 2013 is his to lose as well. Just when it mattered at both ends of the pitch he was able to make telling contributions, from a try-saving tackle on O’Driscoll to a cheeky defensive sidestep around Nacewa to, of course, the powerful finish for the Saints’ second try.

Of course you can’t mention that five-pointer without highlighting the first half scrum domination. It was the one area where the Saints always felt they could have the edge, but never mind the starting front row of Tonga’uiha, Hartley and Mujati…top praise must go to Tom Mercey for his 10-minute shift when he helped his pack win the scrum against the head which had Leinster on the back foot and led to Foden crossing.

the second coming 3Already the word “shell-shocked” was creeping into the heads of all pundits covering the game, but more was still to come. We were living off scraps going forward and right at the restart after Sexton had clawed three points back to make it 6-17, Hines went and dropped it again to hand the momentum right back to Northampton.

Just then they were back to full strength, and where most sides would be happy to shove it up the jumper through to the break, not so the Saints and after D’Arcy missed another tackle which saw Jon Clarke get it close to the line again, by quickly flinging it out wide, the forwards were able to get it home.

But though none of us could see it, even as the TMO confirmed the third try, a few little signs began to show that the times could be a-changing. Hartley clearly had his bell rung badly as he forced the ball down over the line and as George Hook suggested, should probably not have come out for the second half. Plus, Saints out-half Myler, who surpassed all expectations and had an excellent first half all round, had his first piece of bad luck as his conversion came back towards him off the upright.

So the Saints went marching in to their dressing room and as Jonny Sexton was evoking the memories of Liverpool in Istanbul 2005 across the hall, you can only imagine what Jim Mallinder was telling his charges.

Well, I can hold my hand on my heart and say I believed we could come back, but the way I saw it, we needed to be going into the final quarter within seven points to have a hope. Little did I know we’d be going into the final quarter with the cup all but won!

Do I need to describe our three second half tries? You’re reading this write-up, so no doubt you’ve already seen them a gagillion times already. Eventually someone will put them up on YouTube and when they do I’ll link to them here, here, and here.

There are simply not enough superlatives in the English language to describe how amazing Leinster were in that second half. Sure, the Saints had put so much effort into constructing the lead no doubt they were shattered. Sure, they may have lost the edge in their scrummaging as Hartley’s concentration was compromised. But you can’t be sure that either of those things would have stopped the Sexton-led charge which began literally from the restart as we turned the ball over at the very first contact.

As Phil Dowson went off the field for his yellow card, I certainly wasn’t going to say it to anyone in Kiely’s of Donnybrook where I was watching the match, but even though the clock was just ticking over to the 60-minute mark, I was almost sure we had it in the bag. It was only a few short minutes later when Sky commentator Miles Harrison said “and that is surely that”.

the second coming 4And Sexton may have been the driving force and the must-deserved man of the match, but I can’t let this article end without referring to Isa Nacewa. Shoo-in for Leinster if not Northern Hemisphere Player Of The Year, he not only got back his high-catching mojo but when the Saints were getting a late sniff of pulling back a score he wasn’t happy in chasing Foden down he got up and made sure Chris Ashton didn’t get near the line with a smother tackle from behind which left him worse off than he was after that punch from Manu.

One last thought…he may have missed a few things here and there but I have to say I thought Roman Poite silenced every single one of his pre-match critics. He called it as he saw it and in no way was a factor in the result.

And it was a result that you would think would be a perfect way to end a season but no, there’s one more matter to be resolved, that being a trip down the N7 next Saturday in an attempt to pull off what many Leinster fans are calling a “Snakebite Double” of Heineken & Magners.

If it was anywhere but Thomond Park, I’d be very confident. Instead I’m only quietly so. But there’s nothing that can happen down there that can take away from that wonderful Saturday evening. Better feeling than Edinburgh or the Grand Slam in 2009? The way the match played out I reckon so!

Well done Joe Schmidt, Jonny Sexton, Leo Cullen & the boys. Legends all. JLP

Friday, May 13, 2011

Leinster-18 Ulster-3

[Update May 14, 2014 - Archive time here at HoR…this weekend Matt O’Connor faces Ulster in his first Celtic League semifinal, just over four years after his predecessor did the same.]

DISTRACTED YET GOOD ENOUGH

HoR pro logo blueMore than likely a neutral rugby fan looking at this scoreline without watching the match would nary raise an eyebrow.

But the way I saw it, we were there for the taking and Ulster just didn’t have enough tools in the box to get it done.

The Northerners have had an amazing season, and although it would be just as unfair to suggest it was all down to Ruan Pienaar as it was to put Leinster’s 2009 success down to Rocky Elsom, there was a sense of irony that the only points they managed to get on the night were by his boot and from a superlative distance.

And it was the sequence events right after that mammoth kick comfortably cleared the posts when Ulster had a good chance to cause an upset.

Back within 8pts and Leinster’s bench all but cleared, Luke Fitzgerald came very close to a “Candelon moment” when he took Adam Darcy while in mid air but luckily George Clancy didn't see fit to produce a card.

Then we had, in the space of about a minute, the ups and downs of the Ulster pack’s performance on the night. After Ian Humphreys booted the penalty into touch, Rory Best failed yet again to master the swirling RDS winds with his dart and it seemed an excellent chance to get into scoring position was wasted.

But where the Ulster skipper and his tight 8 WERE finding traction was in the scrum. Even when our supposed marquee front row was on the park they were causing problems, but at this stage there was van Der Merwe, Wright and the 22-year old Jason Harris-Wright to contend with and they managed to win it against the head and launch an attack. Any score at this point would have set up a nailbiting finish for sure.

Luckily for us we were able to delve into the back pocket and find the awesome defence which has stood us in such good stead this season, and when Timothy Barker carried the ball into the tackle of Jamie Heaslip, our number 8’s exemplary jackling was enough to force a penalty for holding.

So basically, whatever they threw at us we somehow found an answer for, and it spoke volumes that pretty much our entire bench was involved in the build up to Luke’s try which sealed it.

After Heaslip forced yet another turnover, some crash ball from both Stan & Jason Harris-Wright set things up for a clever dip of the shoulder by Madigan to get us into a good position. Eoin Reddan’s quick ball throughout this series of phases surely nailed down the 9 jersey for Cardiff and Luke found the perfect line to evade the attempted tackles of Pienaar & Wanneburg and surge under the posts and that was that.

We were all delighted to see Luke get the decisive touchdown, but was that enough for him to start next Saturday? Methinks not. He still had a few yips and although McFadden dropped one catch he also chipped in with the opening try plus the powerful carries into contact he displayed the previous week were still there.

I think it was quite telling that Fergus was put in the centre to replace Drico in the second half…surely 12 months ago that would have been Luke? We’ll have to wait and see.

Now, while I’m speaking of the man they call Triskaidekaphobia - yet more irony that he gets himself into the wars on Friday the 13th. I only sat and watched his spat with Chris Henry on Sunday night for the first time.

Was O’Driscoll lucky not to be pinged? Yes, very. Was it citable? Maybe. But I was very interested to hear how the BBCNI spoke of the incident. It was like he randomly threw a punch at Henry. Not so. The Ulster flanker had just shoved his hand in Brian’s face.

Not deserving of what he got in return I’ll grant you, but if the word “citing” is to be bandied about, then you can’t expect the commissioner not to look for context, and I contend that if the offended party have themselves committed a wrong (and you can’t say we weren’t in “eye area” territory…) then the officials are given an “out” in that they can go for the “six of one half a dozen the other” call.

So maybe we dodged another ban bullet, but the question remains…have we dodged the injury one? Drico himself limped off, Isaac Boss seemed a bit crook, but biggest worry is Richardt Strauss. Leinster Rugby normally post a “squad update” on Monday morning and I don’t think there has ever been one more eagerly anticipated! [update – was just about to publish the post when the update went on the site, looks like everything is ok, but fingers, toes, eyes still crossed…]

Hopefully we’ll be all clear to field our strongest XV in Cardiff. For although the likes of Jonny10 didn’t have their best night at the office on Friday, we all know what they can do on the big occasion.

And speaking of big occasions, of course we now have another one at Thomond Park in two weeks’ time! I thought Munster were equally fortuitous in seeing off the Ospreys, and also that Ronan had quite possibly his worst ever outing in his comfort zone. But you can bet your bottom euro they’ll be up for the final, and with an extra week’s rest we’ll need to dig deeper than ever to come away with anything.

It’s shaping up to be a super couple of weeks for Leinster fans, isn’t it? All we need are the right results to go with it.

P.S. Had my second six-outta-six in a row with the forecasting on my SportsNews Ireland column…

“So, after I was able to predict six out of six Magners League winners in my article last week, how will I fare this time round? Well, I feel I should pick at least one away victory, so I’ll plump for Montpellier to do that, with Leinster, Munster, Leicester, Saracens, Clermont & the Reds all making their home fans happy.”

…good job I threw a few bob at it!  Drinking money for next week = sorted!

Click here for my report on the Leinster 7s tournament

Friday, May 06, 2011

Leinster-38 Glasgow-3

click here for pre-match HarpinBoo podcast “Gimme Gimme Gimme The Heinke Tonk Blues”

click here for my Magners League preview on SportsNews Ireland

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MORE THAN A PASSING FAD

No matter how hard you try, there’s just no ignoring James Jones, is there?  He even finds a way of getting his mug into my lead picture of man-of-the-match Fergus McFadden.

Despite the fact referees are meant to be seen and not heard, you can always count on the Welshman to offer a soundbite or two whether he be holding whistle or flag, and this occasion was no exception.

For although the visiting “Warriors” held the lead for more than half of the first period, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t even a die-hard Scotsman who thought things were going to remain that way.  And after awarding the home side a penalty in the second half, Jones let us all know that he could also see the writing on the wall when he called the Glasgow skipper Graeme Morrison over and said :

“If one yellow card doesn’t get the message across, another one just might. And you lot don’t really need that, do you?”

Indeed they didn’t.  The one yellow they did get, to fullback Peter Murchie for tackling Nacewa about an hour before the ball was out of a ruck, yielded 15 points to the opposition and turned the air of inevitability into one of reality.

So that leaves me with 3 things to discuss in my writeup…the scoring of the four tries, the almost embarrassing domination of the Irish provinces in this season’s Magners League and the brilliance of Fergus McFadden.

Ian Madigan didn’t have a great night in the 10 jersey, and I still rate him behind McKinley in Leinster’s pecking order, but he did show one flash of brilliance with his crossfield kick straight to Shaggy who somehow managed to evade the tackle of van der Merwe to spin over the line, find himself still with the ball, and touch down.  Perhaps he deserved the similar happening rejected by the TMO in the first half more, but the Leinster faithful weren’t complaining.

It’s not so much that the floodgates were open at that point, in many ways they already were and Leinster chose not to rush through them. Glasgow had possession in their own half but didn’t seem to want it, and simply left the ball on the ground for Jamie Heaslip to pick up and charge forward before flinging a bullet of an offload right to the supporting Gordon D’Arcy who gratefully finished off try number two.

And things went from bad to worse for the visiting defence when Dominic Ryan dived over a group of white jerseys who seemed to be hypnotised by the ball over their own try line to make it three.

The icing was applied to the cake when a super surge that capped David Kearney’s impressive cameo got us close before the quality of support by Heaslip, McKinley and McFadden were just too good as Kevin McLaughlin crashed over for the bonus point.

It would be unfair to judge the Scottish teams on this performance, or even the one by Edinburgh in Treviso the same night for that matter, as it is widely known that national coach Andy Robinson has ordered that key players be rested as they have nothing to play for.  It still merits discussion, however, that they were in that situation in the first place.  As happy as Irish fans will be to see three out of four provinces in the semifinals, you’d feel all the better about it if you knew it came with decent opposition from the league’s other nations.

Italy of course can be forgiven with this being their maiden voyage in Celtic waters, but although the Welsh regions finished fourth through seventh, the league ladder disguises the nature of the final weeks of the regular season campaign when the Ospreys, Blues & Scarlets seemed to pass fourth spot around like it was a hot potato before only a late score in Viadana sealed it for the reigning League champions.

It has to be said…this league is extremely lopsided at the moment, and if something isn’t done about the Scottish & Welsh regions soon, be it in talent or marketing or whatever, I don’t see that status quo changing any time soon.

Now…to Fergus McFadden.  You would’ve thought Leinster’s remit on the night was to just get in and out, secure the home semifinal, and ensure there were no injuries.  And indeed the cotton wool was whipped out at all the right moments throughout to key men like Strauss, Nacewa & D’Arcy, with the exception of course being Heaslip who seems to think he’s invincible, which very well could be the case.

But the man from the Curragh was truly playing out of his skin at the RDS.  A chip & catch here, a crucial tackle there, but most of all the way he puts his head down and barrels into contact pumping his legs, gaining an extra five to ten metres almost every time.  Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot the seven out eight kicks from the tee.

There’s no other way I can put this…with 11 other teams in the Magners League, 12 in the Aviva Premiership, plus the Top14 in France, you’d be hard pressed to find 3 of those 37 professional franchises who wouldn’t gladly start him in a cup final.

And given we practically have two if not three cup finals left in our season, I think the events of Friday night should force coach Schmidt to plump for form over faith and leave the still-struggling Luke Fitzgerald on the bench for the rest of the campaign.

I feel like I’m doing Eoin O’Malley a disservice with my praise, because he had some excellent carries & tackles himself and clearly has a bright future as well once he stays healthy, but McFadden for me made a statement that cannot be ignored.

But whatever happens from here on in this season, I have to take this opportunity to thank Leinster rugby for yet another perfect regular Magners League season at the RDS.  Like last year, I will hold on to my now-expired season ticket as a momento of a purchase that was worth very single cent.

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