Sunday, September 25, 2011

IRELAND-62 RUSSIA-12



The reason every Irish fan remembers the Georgia match from the 2007 campaign is that they came within a whisker of beating us.

So it should follow that since we put nine tries past the Russians, the match should be very quickly forgotten. This of course, makes things very difficult for a blogger trying to do a writeup of the match for posterity!

Sure, I could go through each of the five-pointers one by one and that would fill out the post nicely. But I reckon I should let the professional journos handle that one. Instead I'd like to go fishing for what Ireland can actually take from this game going into the business end of this tournament.

Because although I believe that there were several mistakes around the pitch from Ireland, that's for the coaches to sort out during the week. We have what could well be essentially a knockout fixture in Dunedin next week, and all we should be interested in now is how we go forward with that.

So as far as this match is concerned, let me make it clear that we won comfortably and with that in itself I am extremely happy.

Now if it's individual ratings of players you want from me, you'll see them over on The Rugby Blog.

But one thing I will say here is that it was heartening to see such determined displays from the majority of players who wouldn't be expecting to feature in any more of Declan Kidney's starting lineups like Paddy Wallace, Fergus McFadden, Andrew Trimble and particularly Isaac Boss. Tony Buckley, on the other hand, not so mush - and that's not a typo.

One thing I believe we did learn in this match is that Ronan O'Gara should probably start against Italy.

***I'll give Leinster fans a second or two to go off and tweet me asking if I've lost the leave of my senses...All done? Thanks. ***

Now – by that, I don't mean that ROG has “won” a “battle” between our two out-halves as the media, nay even the man himself, would like to portray it.

O'Gara had acres of space against Russia, and used it to nigh-on perfection. No doubt Sergio Parisse & co won't be so forthcoming, but I believe the aggression Nick Mallett's men will have to bring to the table will come at a cost for them, and when it comes to kicking penalties from the tee, not even the truest blue Leinster fan can deny the cold hard stats from this World Cup.


He may have hit the post with one conversion (he told Brendan Fanning : I missed one after I fell in love with myself when kicking one from the touchline so I can’t do that again.”), but the two from the corners were hit so effortlessly that the manufacturers of the ball should be offering him a sponsorship deal by way of thanks for taking the heat off them!

So to repeat an analogy I've used before, we need to treat our number 10s like different types of tyres on a Formula 1 racing car and use the right ones for the right conditions. This, for me anyway, means O'Gara should start next weekend.

However...should we win, even if he's even more of a “man of the match” than he was in Rotorua, I'm not so sure he'd be the way to go if, as seems likely, our quarterfinal is against Wales.

Yes, I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but what I'm trying to convey is the massive task of ego-massaging that lies ahead for Declan Kidney and his coaching staff this week. He has to find a way of making his choices for the Italy match while letting others know their impact on our campaign is far from over.

Now...if he does go with O'Gara (by no means certain which is the beauty of his NOT naming one as his out-and-out first choice before the competition as it keeps the opposition guessing), who should be his scrum-half?

Again, a tricky call. But again, one most coaches would die for. I know there's many who think Boss should be there and I agree he should be in the mix, but I really don't think Kidney has him on his radar for the big matches.

Which leaves the choice between Reddan and Murray, and if we're judging our outhalves on performance over the past few games, then so should we with our number 9s and that means it should very much be Reddan.

As for the make up of the remaining thirteen players, I think they pretty much pick themselves. Again, I know there are many who feel Trimble and McFadden should be there ahead of Keith Earls, but you have to assume any chances of that happening when the Munster man helped himself to two well finished tries against the Bears.

All of which makes for a starting matchday 22 against Italy as one identical to that which lined out against the Wallabies, except for, as I mentioned, numbers 10 & 21 swapping jerseys. Of course there's an injury or two wait for confirmation on (most of all Gordon D'Arcy's in which case perhaps the outhalf problem may resolve itself) but that is how'd I'd go if all were well.

Despite all the times I have scratched my head over Kidney's choices like allowing both our first-choice props take the field in a match we were always likely to win, I see no valid reason to have any less faith in this team than I did before kickoff in Eden Park last week.

Because although in mathematical terms it will be a knockout fixture, as much as we may enjoy being the underdog, we won't be against Italy, and that's something the squad will have to deal with.

As I have said since before the end of last season, our sights should be on the semifinals, and no disrespect to the Azzuri, but if you can't beat them, you'll never reach a World Cup final four. Unless the ball is round, of course. JLP

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Scarlets-10 Leinster-15



I'm starting to think if I watch any more live rugby this weekend my eyeballs are going to turn egg-shaped! 

(*waits patiently for someone to point out that they probably already ARE egg-shaped*)

Not that I'm complaining, but it does mean that I don't have a hope in hell of watching the Leinster game over again to do my writeup, and what's more I have to resort to getting it done at the ungodly hour of 5:30am before the Ireland v Russia game accompanied by a strong coffee that will no doubt need to be washed down with a Red Bull or six!

I was actually up an hour ago to watch Fiji v Samoa, and judging by the performance (or lack thereof) of the Fijians, it seems Isa Nacewa made absolutely the right call remaining in Dublin while the World Cup was on, for I doubt even his mercurial skills could have helped his adopted countrymen.

Instead he was turning out a man-of-the-match display at Parc y Scarlets that helped Leinster come away with the spoils despite failing to score a try for the second time this season in Wales.

The only thing that takes away from his five-out-of-six haul from the kicking tee was the fact that Ian Keatley managed all six for Munster in Cardiff on Friday night.  But Isa was also up to his usual wizardry with ball in hand as well on the night despite the fact we couldn't finish.

All round we were well in control in both possession and territory and our defence only fell asleep once at the start of the second half which allowed Lee Williams to cross but we were able to quickly get back in our stride and I made it five times the Scarlets were pinged for holding on in the tackle - though they did see a yellow it was not for that and there should have been at least a warning for thwarting our ability to take advantage of turnover ball.

I thought Jordi Murphy was impressive overall at seven though he faded towards the end and no doubt he will develop into yet another handy string to our bow in the back row.

On the downside, there was Devin Toner.  I realise we're struggling for locks at the moment, but as much as I'd want to encourage the giant youngster I'm afraid his role when on the pitch should be limited to catching lineouts for the time being because his errors in all other facets of the game will cost us dear on other occasions.

From a squad management point of view I wonder if Joe Schmidt was looking at the schedule and figuring that despite the fact Aironi won away at Glasgow who of course won away at the RDS last week, he could afford to give as many as 14 of his squad a full 80 minutes in Llanelli with a view to resting some when the Italians arrive in Ballsbridge next Saturday.

But listen...particularly after that defeat to the Warriors which was only made less gut-wrenching by the heroics in Eden Park that morning, I'll take a 5-point margin of victory in Wales any day of the week.  They don't QUITE cancel each other out, but maybe order can be restored with bonus point home wins over Aironi and Connacht the next two weekends?  

Tall order I know given recent results, but I'd like to see us up for it at least. JLP

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Leinster-19 Glasgow Warriors-23


What rugby's injury gods giveth, they also taketh away. 

Happy as we were to see Pocock & Moore cry off the match earlier this morning, we should have known it would come at a costly price.

No disrespect to Glasgow because they took the chances they were given and stood up incredibly well in defence on the road, but the fact their match-winning try came with both Luke Fitzgerald and Leo Auva'a flat on their backs receiving treatment says it all.

It's not just the loss of our long-standing home record that's worrying, it's the loss of so many players - as well as the two I mention above there's Kevin McLaughlin and Dominic Ryan - there's anxious waits to come that's for sure!

At the end of the match as we pressed the Glasgow line for the go-ahead score our scrum had Richard Strauss back at flanker as he had been at the end of the Magners League final last May - the sight of him lining up alongside Devin Toner before the scrum set was priceless!

But there can't be any excuses, we should be putting teams like Glasgow away, and we couldn't.  Ian Madigan scored an impressive try but it seemed as though in his outhalf role he preferred to drop the shoulder and charge ahead rather than use his backline and on the occasions he did, the passes were too slow to make headway into the advancing Glasgow defence.

All in all a frustrating evening for sure.  Probably just as well it wasn't televised so I can't watch it over again for a more detailed writeup!  But only takes a small bit away from my happiness from this morning.





IRELAND-15 AUSTRALIA-6


Declan Kidney, Gert Smal, Les Kiss & Alan Gaffney. All key members of what should be known as Ireland's “brains trust”. With a heavy emphasis on the word “trust”.
 
I may have predicted a win for Ireland, but I always said I was going with my heart over my head. Believe me, I was a bit lacking in full-blown trust myself when all is said and done.
 
But one thing I did say, and have done all this calendar year, is that this match in Auckland was always going to be the one on which the coaching staff must be judged because it was the only one that really mattered.
 
And boy, how they came up trumps.
 
We all saw the match, but there's three things I want to highlight – the phase of play that led to the winning score, the state of our opposition that day, and just how we got things right.
 
There were 64 minutes on the clock. We had won the 1stquarter 6-3, lost the 2ndquarter 0-3 and won the 3rd6-0. We may have been 6pts up at this stage, but everyone knew the danger posed by the Wallaby backline and that in a split-second that scoreline could be turned on its head.
 
When Will Genia picked up the ball and surged forward into our 22, something Australia had struggled to do all evening, it looked like that was it. But hang on – how did he manage it? We'd been executing the Les Kiss-style “choke tackle” to almost perfection the whole match, and it didn't make much sense that even he could have gotten through so many players the way he did.
 
But say what you like about Bryce Lawrence - and believe me, after he set up camp in Eoin Reddan's passing lane only to give the scrum against him I had been saying quite a bit – not every ref would have spotted Sekope Kepu's obstruction of Paul O'Connell when he was about to smother Genia. Or at least if they did, they wouldn't have called it.
 
And just like that, yet another Australian attempt to trouble the scorers was thwarted and with a ROG punt, secure lineout, Sexton bomb and Kearney recover, all of a sudden we were right on their line just needing some stready phases to get it over before Cian Healy knocked it on.
 
I just realised that the first time I've mentioned the man-of-the-match is in a negative light. I'd better make his the lead photo to compensate, because moments later he plays his part in securing the match.
 
So it's a scrum to Australia. They've been destroyed here all day, but still, you have to assume they'll at least clear their lines from here. I was already praying we'd secure our ball from the ensuing lineout, while still retaining some hope that Quade Cooper would get a notion to run it out of his own try area and then screw up as he is wont to do.
 
But the Wallaby front row were simply no match for the Healy-Best-Ross combo. And even at this festival of the best the sport has to offer, there's precious few who would be. For about the fifth time on the night we forced a straight arm penalty from a scrum and this time it was right under the posts. A herculean effort by anyone's standards. That was the ballgame right there.
 
Now...about Australia. Did they play poorly? Perhaps. But not in defence. They were actually outstanding when they didn't have the ball. And I couldn't let this write up go without also mentioning the world-class tackle in the dying seconds on Tommy Bowe by James O'Connor.
 
But here's where I think they were lacking, other than in the front row, that is. Much was made about the absence of Pocock and Moore, and in some ways, rightly so.
 
In other ways, however, it must be noted that rugby is a full-contact sport and to have any hope of succeeding in a tournament like this one, you MUST have above-average options ready to come in at every position on the park, and I reckon Robbie Deans & co have been exposed for having precious little beyond his admittedly world-class first XV.
 
I mean – every Irish rugby fan knows how big a loss it would be for either of our props to be injured. But then again, we didn't go into this tournament with serious aspirations of winning it.
 
And of course there's the slogan that adorns my favourite rugby t-shirt : “youth and skill are no match for age and treachery”.
 
Ours is the oldest squad at the tournament, Australia's is the youngest. Maybe we didn't resort too much to actual treachery, but when you watch over our display you can see nothing but pure focus on the job at hand by pretty much everyone wearing green – an ability that can only come with experience.
 
So to summarize, we found their weakness and made them pay. Which leads me nicely into our gameplan which was so simple yet so brilliant.
 
What we saw from our backs in August, ie lateral passing to the wing in the hope that he can somehow cut inside for a gain, was merely the ugly duckling to the beautiful swan that was to emerge in Auckland – a well-thought-out, nigh-on perfectly executed offensive strategy that drove the Wallabies onto the back foot and kept them there.
 
If you make a clearance kick and it goes straight to Quade Cooper or Kurtley Beale, you'd better watch out. Unless, of course, you put enough height in the kick AND have support runners right in their face when it comes down.
 
And funnily enough, that's precisely what Beale did to Kearney in the opening stages, and the Aussie full-back seemed to lay down a huge marker by catching it himself right in his opposite number's face.
 
But although it took us 15 minutes to get some decent possession ourselves, we patiently remained strong on defence and it did us the world of good for Kearney to do the very same thing back to Beale not long afterwards.
 
They just had no answer to our execution of the garryowen, and whatever about our scrums, that high ball was a goldmine for gaining territory. An absolute masterstroke in every respect that was also cunningly disguised in the build up to this massive encounter.
 
You'll see my individual player ratings later today on The Rugby Blog, but I'd like to talk about Jonathan Sexton's performance in a bit of detail here.
 
I was a bit surprised to hear Matt Williams at halftime hone in on his own two missed place kicks while not even mentioning the fact that James O'Connor had also missed two himself.
 
Sure, Sexton should be doing better. But whatever your provincial allegiance you can't merely rate our outhalf for his placekicking – his part in the offensive strategy was immense and he certainly didn't disappear when shifted to first centre either.
 
With the Italy match so vital in the pool, and with O'Gara clearly with a lot less to worry about in the placekicking department, I reckon Sexton must start against Russia. Give him a chance to get his mojo back. If it's not happening, then fine, ROG starts against Italy – no harm, that's bound to be a forward scrap anyway and we'd probably out-kick the Italians if Paddy Wallace was doing it!
 
Allow me catch my breath – a cold shiver went down my spine...
 
Seriously though...I've read some comments about the need to get a bonus point against the Russians next week. Let me make my position perfectly clear. I couldn't give a flying you-know-what how much we beat Russia or Italy by, so long as we Do beat them.
 
It's simple maths folks – even if you win all four of your pool games by only 3-0, you have 16 points on the table and NOBODY can catch you. As our wise captain said, there's still two matches to be won, but they merely have to be won. Squad management must be high on the agenda of our brains trust.
 
And in their brains, I now have almost complete trust. Do you? JLP

Sunday, September 11, 2011

IRELAND-22 USA-10



Love him or hate him, and I suspect with most Irish fans it's the latter, you just can't ignore RTE pundit George Hook.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who wonders what he's going to say after an Irish display – if it's good, you expect him to find fault, if it was poor like it was in New Plymouth, you have to wait for his over-the-top soundbite before you get on with the task of actually analysing what went on.

And sure enough straight after they cut to studio, Tom McGuirk teed up the infamous curmudgeon to deliver the line he had clearly been working on since half-time : “It's a sad day for Irish rugby”.

Right. Thanks George. We'll take it from here.

First of all, I want to dispel this hysteria about Ireland missing out on the bonus point. I know this is ironic given I moaned about Leinster not going for one on Friday night, but I have maths to back me up.

In a 22-round competition like the RaboDirectPRO12, a decent haul of bonus points can be like a couple of extra wins for you in the final reckoning. But in a pool where you just play the four matches, this is rarely the case, especially in World Cups – I already mentioned this in a piece I did about our order of fixtures in Pool C :

There have been 25 round-robin pools altogether (in RWC history). Of those, 21 have finished with one team winning all their matches, the 2nd placed team losing one, the 3rd placed team losing 2 and so on to the bottom team which lost all their matches. And that number would be 22 if Japan and Canada not drawn 12-all in Bordeaux in 2007.”

In other words, since Australia beat Italy, the only way bonus points should come into play in this pool will be if we draw with either of those teams. And with rugby being a game where you need to play the percentages, you can't go desperately for bonus points on the off-chance of a draw happening in a later game.

So while there definitely was plenty to moan about in our display, I feel it's important we keep our criticism not only constructive, but also relevant, and in my opinion not getting a fourth try, indeed even not smashing the Americans to all oblivion on the scoreboard, doesn't count as either.

And another myth I'd like to dispel is this argument that the USA had so few professionals on the park. This wasn't a case of Stevenage Borough playing Manchester United in the FA Cup. Or at least if you must argue that it was, you must alter your analogy so that the Cup draw is made three years before the match is played AND an ex-United coach is at the helm at Stevenage.

That's right...it is almost THREE YEARS since Eddie O'Sullivan knew he'd be up against his former employers. And although I wasn't exactly his biggest fan especially when it comes to preparing for World Cups, I'd have been very surprised if his charges didn't put in a full-blooded display whatever the experience or ability, and that's exactly what they did, and full credit to them.

Now...having tried to walk back from Hooky's remark, I can now try and focus on what I really think is going wrong in the Irish camp. And I'll start by pinpointing what I feel was Kidney's biggest error in the August so-called “warm-ups” - selecting Paddy Wallace at 12 for the match in Bordeaux.

I know it seems like I have a complex about Wallace but my point is this – he was already tried there against Scotland and failed. We “only” had the four matches and D'Arcy always had to have some game time before he got on the plane. Therefore I feel someone else should have been tried at 12 when we played France first.

Since they weren't and Wallace again proved ineffective in the areas we need a 12 to be effective (as a case in point see Jamie Roberts' barn-storming display against the Springboks), we're now in a situation where D'Arcy has clearly lost his mojo and while there may be options who have played at their province as inside-centre, there's precious few viable test-level options left.

Basically, I can't see Kidney as having any choice but to let Gordon keep the 12 jumper and “hope for the best”. And that's not the kind of thing you want to be doing when you're facing an in-form Wallabies lineup.

Then of course you have the whole 9/10 combo scenario. Honestly, I can't say anymore about how little sense it makes to have non-provincial pairings play together, UNLESS, as I said after the England game, it's to give them time to gel in case they're forced to hook up through injury or what-not. The only way we'll know for sure it when we see Kidney's selection for next Saturday. Personally, I think he'd be mad not to go for Reddan and Sexton. But we'll have to wait and see.

Not that I'm saying Sexton had a good game, far from it. The only time he showed his true form was towards the end of the first half when he came to life and took charge of the move that led to Tommy Bowe's opening try.

But if you had to find excuses for our outhalf, you could point to the conditions. Cast your mind back to November 2010 when we were lucky to lose by just 2 points to the Springboks. Kidney admitted that day they made a mistake by going for an expansive game given the wet conditions, and it was clear that they were determined not to make the same mistake twice here.

As a result, more often than not when Sexton was passing it was to his inside channel. And with the pressure the American forwards were putting on us, even when it did get to Brian O'Driscoll his only viable option was to kick for territory.

So in other words, it seems like our two star outhalves are like “wet” and “dry” tyres in motor-racing. Unfortunately I'm not sure World Cup rules allow for a pit stop to switch 10s over if the weather happens to change on match day.

But you can't blame the weather for Sexton's poor kicking, that's for sure. He's from Ireland, for crying out loud! However, given O'Gara sent his first one wide plus the failures so far in this tournament by the likes of Wilkinson and Carter, it wouldn't be ludicrous to raise questions about the match ball.

As for Conor Murray, were it not his first full start for his country, I'd say his display would almost make you feel Tomás O'Leary had travelled with the squad anyway. But it WAS his first start, and he had some good carries going forward, with some average-at-best box kicks in the mix. He will improve, but shouldn't start against the Wallabies.

Finally on the negative front, unfortunately I must shine the spotlight on Shane Jennings. Invisible in the first half, he came into view for the wrong reason in the second – in the TV replay of a ruck situation where American forwards were allowed to come piling over an unprotected ball to force yet another turnover, Jenno's number 7 jumper is seen arriving way, way too late to deal with it.

Now, to the positives, of which there were several, and first and foremost there was Jamie Heaslip. Tackling, jackling, lineouts, carries, and most of all a masterclass at the back of our powerful scrum. Easily our best performer on the park, and doesn't seem to be getting anywhere near the praise he deserves.

Also there were the set-pieces. If you have to be cynical and say that they SHOULD have been perfect given the opposition then so be it. But given the aggression the Americans were showing at the breakdown I dare say they'd have been trying to rough us up at our scrums & lineouts and this just wasn't happening.

And you know what, I have a feeling Rory Best may have done enough to earn a start against the Wallabies – not just for his try, but for his mastery of the post-lineout mauls every time. That could be a crucial weapon next Saturday.

If you want to know more about my individual player assessments, you'll see them on my player ratings piece on The Rugby Blog.

Basically what I wanted to do with this writeup is acknowledge that Declan Kidney has a headache or two this week to contend with, while at the same time conveying my overall assertion that we should be happy with the win and, as I have been saying since the start of the Six Nations back in February, reserve final judgement on the coaching staff until full-time in Eden Park next Saturday.

And at least if things go wrong for us then, we'll get to watch Hooky try to extend the misery of his post-match quote further than he did Sunday. Might even be a task too big for The Great Windbag himself.

PS : Here's my 22 to face the Aussies:  Kearney, Bowe, O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Earls, Sexton, Reddan, Healy, Best, Ross, O'Callaghan, O'Connell, Ferris, O'Brien, Heaslip. Bench : Flannery, Court, Ryan, Leamy, Murray, O'Gara, Trimble.JLP   

Friday, September 09, 2011

Leinster-31 NG Dragons-10



I should warn you that this writeup is going to start with a bit of a moan, but hopefully when I go on to relate the story of the match as a whole you'll realise I was happy Leinster were comfortably able to keep their home winning streak going.

My beef stems from the fact that Fionn Carr touched down for our third try with the clock at 76:04, and this made the score 29-10 in our favour. When Isa Nacewa took the conversion the clock had moved on to 77:22, and was of course even later when the Dragons re-started.

Am I being incredibly nit-picky when I say Nacewa could have made an uber-quick conversion attempt via a drop goal to give us as much time as possible to get the fourth try for the bonus point?

I probably am, but still, if we're going to be putting two stars on our jersey, perhaps we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard, and for me this involves displaying a hunger for every league point that’s going.

Consider my moaning over. And let me make myself perfectly clear – it was the nearest thing to a mistake Isa made on the night, and he fully deserved his man-of-the-match award.

Having said that, had the second period not gone the way it did, I could be doing a lot more moaning. Only 6-3 ahead on the scoreboard at halftime, and still no try scored by a Leinster player since Nathan Hines bagged our third in Cardiff, there was much reason for concern.

Not that we weren't doing impressive things, mind you, it was just that for every impressive burst down the middle by Isa or Fionn Carr, once we got in the Dragons 22, even though we chose to vary our attack more than we did last week, one link in the chain would always fail either by a knockon, holding after the tackle or, more often than not, a stubborn visiting defense.

But eventually the mammoth task presented to the Dragons by the fixture computer had to take its toll. Although impressive in defending their red zone, Munster had hit them down the middle from deep twice last week and we made similar hay on this occasion.
I tell you, Fionn Carr couldn't have been too far behind Isa in the man-of-the-match reckoning. In an age of the sport where wingers are expected more to be ball-carriers and tacklers than runners, it's refreshing to see guys like him still around.

And what's more – he proved on Friday night that his style of running can produce results. After Isa took a high ball and passed it to him outside our 22, he proceeded to cut a swathe through the scrambling Dragons defence before flinging a perfect ball at full speed to Brendan Macken, who finished more like a seasoned pro than one playing his first full 80 minutes at this level.

Of course I could add an additional moan about Isa's missed conversion of that try, not because of his kicking, but because of the fact that Leo the Lion, clearly not himself that night, proceeded to bang his drum as the kick was being taken! Major mascot FAIL! But I digress – we'd finally opened our try account for the 2011/12 campaign, and the 14,000 crowd was more than happy.

Then a few minutes later, it was the turn of another Rock boy to cross the line – and Ian Madigan was surely another contender for outstanding player. In our home opener last year against Cardiff he dropped his shoulder and crashed over the line for the decisive bonus point try and it seems he has started this season with every intention to take every chance he gets on the park.

Once again, although the tackle-weary Dragons rearguard may have parted like the Red Sea somewhat, it still takes some doing to carry the ball all the way to the line from halfway, and that's just what Mads did.

And just like that, we were comfortably ahead. Sadly we then took the foot off the gas a little bit, and as much as I hate to say it, it can't be a coincidence that this happened after Willis & Madigan were replaced by Cooney & Berquist.

Now I don't want to be to harsh on a rookie, especially after also bashing him last week, but the fact remains the move that led to the lone Dragons try, brilliantly started AND finished by Jason Tovey, came after we had the ball and lost it because Cooney had held the ball too long in the tackle.

My only problem about him is that although of course he needs the experience, if Leinster are to continue their fine form in this competition, we really need to squeeze every point we can out of the matches around this time, with the second half of our campaign being mainly on the road. So if he appears to be a liability, his presence on the pitch should be minimised for now where possible.

I seem to be only mentioning backs in this writeup, so it's time to give the pack some love. Much better display from them all round, particularly in set pieces and on defence. The McLaughlin/Ryan/Ruddock backrow could well be an Ireland combination one day, and it will do them all the world of good to stay together until the World Cup is over. Also Jamie Hagan looks like he will effortlessly fill Stan Wright's “cult hero prop” shoes with the Leinster faithful.

Then we had late bit of magic from Carr, though it needed a line break from Leo Auva'a (who clearly wasn't just signed to ensure we always have at least one Leo in our squad) to set it up. Although it was actually down the wing this time, it was once again a super finish.

Which of course brings me back to that conversion again, so in case i'm tempted to moan again I'd better sign off and get the Ireland jersey out of the wardrobe for the morning. Great to see Leinster back in the win column – hopefully Glasgow will suffer a similar fate to Newport next week. JLP

Friday, September 02, 2011

Ospreys-27 Leinster-3

DamianBrowne_OspreysvLeinster_action1_rdax_400x272

WHAT THEY HAD THEY HELD

So it's ten minutes into the second half and Leinster get an excellent attacking position with a scrum close to the Ospreys line.

The ball shoots out the back past skipper and No8 Rhys Ruddock, who makes an attempt in vain to retrieve the situation but only manages to knock it on and give the home side, already 27-3 to the good, a chance to clear, which Dan Biggar does as soon as he gets his hands on the ball.

Up in the BBC Wales commentary box, Jonathan Davies is hopping mad. Why? Because as he goes on to point out with his telstrator do-hickey mechanism, Biggar actually had an overlap outside him and the former dual-code Welsh international star just cannot understand why the Ospreys didn't make the most of the situation.

How about I offer a suggestion for you, Jonathan? Maybe, just maybe, they went into the second half with a mindset to kick the ball whenever they got it, taking into account they were playing the European Champions and being mindful what we had done to Northampton up the M4 in Cardiff last May?

Put simply, even with World Cup players out of the picture, most true rugby fans would expect that a team that turns over the ball over a dozen times is going to be punished at this level. And the way we played, especially in the first half, made the Ospreys' task of putting the four points to bed early very easy indeed.

Where could I start with our mistakes? Lineout throws aimed at the back yet sailing over? A mix-up between two of our back three letting the ball needlessly go into touch in our own 22? Our scrum-half attempting a box-kick that went straight into touch? A “clearance” by our normally Mr Dependable full-back that somehow managed to go laterally across the pitch? A penalty at the breakdown conceded that was so blatant and so worthy of a yellow card without getting one you'd swear Rhys Ruddock was wearing a a Richie McCaw mask?

And all of the above errors, I should add, were in the same series of plays that led to Dan Biggar tacking on a penalty to the first minute try for man-of-the-match Rhys Webb.

Now if I really wanted to be cynical I could make this post all about that opening five-pointer, seeing how the ball had been illegally kicked out of the ruck and the slick backline move which followed included a blatantly forward offload (which Davies chose not to use his telestrator for) from Fussell to Beck.

But although that was hardly what any team needs in the first few minutes of a new season especially on the road, it doesn't excuse Leinster's biggest no-no of the first half...an absolute meltdown on offense when it came to protecting the ball after being presented at rucks & scrums.

It's true – the Ospreys set themselves up in the first half to come after us at the breakdown, the stray ruck-boot was early evidence of this. But when a player makes an impressive barrelling run forward as the likes Kevin McLaughlin, Eoin O'Malley and new number 12 Luke Fitzgerald often did, they have to expect the support to be there to protect the ball when it's presented after contact.

And time, and time, and time again, it just simply wasn't, and when you watch it over you can see the hesitancy in the Ospreys forwards as if to say “is it really this easy?” while they surge forward to steal the ball back every time.

You always want to be encouraging to a young player trying to get some senior gametime under his belt, but by the same token certain standards have to be employed at a trophy-winning outfit like Leinster rugby, and rookie John Cooney rightly got the hook at halftime.

But that's not to say we were so far behind at the break purely because of the Lansdowne youngster. For one thing, ball protection is also a remit of the backrow and perhaps the responsibilities of captaincy, number 8 AND helping out a less- experienced-yet-actually-older scrumhalf was too much for Rhys Ruddock on the night.

And it wasn't all about the loose ball around the breakdown either. In my Magners League final report I pointed out our poor choice of play on offense, and it was no better here. Until Ian Madigan came on in the second half, it seemed we were so locked in to a gameplan of phase, phase, phase that not even a deficit of Cardiff proportions would snap us out of it.

Speaking of Madigan coming on...did I not mention Mat Berquist before now? There's a reason for that. He really impressed me in pre-season against Melbourne but he won't be facing any more SupeRugby outfits while he's here. Fact is, he has come here to do a job, he has experience at this level if not this competition, and settling quickly would definitely be in his job description given our forced absentees.

Maybe it was the style of game he was forced to play, but one improbable banana-kick does not an amazing competitive Leinster debut make, and he'll need to do a lot more to dazzle the RDS faithful next Friday!

My biggest frustration on the night was when the clock had actually turned red for halftime and we had good possession but rather than have a go out wide and perhaps make something happen, we hopped on the phase train and once again got thwarted by a fly-hack, perfectly legal this time, and what turned out to be the game-clinching try was secured by Ospreys skipper Tipuric after the only true burst of magic on the night from Webb.

As for the second half, well as I have already outlined, the home side chose not to go for the bonus point jugular, and you'll have to ask coach Scott Johnson why that was, I felt we were there for the taking. Instead we got some more time in the red zone only to catch the famous knock-on gremlins again, sometimes the result of carelessness, more often the result of more tough Osprey defending.

And it wasn't as though a yellow card was going to help us either – Tipuric saw the bin and though Cillian Willis and Madigan added some creativity, I think our goose was well and truly cooked at halftime, at least as far as winning was concerned – the home side's second half caution possibly means we left a bonus point out on the pitch.

So to summarize, when at halftime I was hoping to be able to compare this match to the last time we played in Wales, I ended up having to compare it to the last time we played one week after playing the Northampton Saints.

Was it all bad? Pretty much – I could pick out some individual displays that were ok but then I'd have to pick out more individual displays that definitely weren't. I could also have a good moan about referee Peter Fitzgibbon but the truth is that it was Leinster’s team effort from tactics to execution that bothered me most watching this one.

But do I think we can sort it? Absolutely - though having watched the performance of the Dragons at Musgrave Park without their five-star selection of Brew, Burns, Charteris, Faletau & Lydiate, we're going to have to sort out our halfback situation if we're going to make the most of our upcoming schedule that sees us play 7 of out next 10 RaboDirect Pro 12 (it's even a mouthful when you type it!) matches at home.

Besides – Leinster don't do opening day wins, it doesn't seem in our nature, and I reckon we have the right man at the helm to turn things around even more quickly than he did last year. JLP

CLICK HERE FOR A RANT ABOUT A LAW OF THE GAME I THINK NEEDS ENFORCING MORE OFTEN

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