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.

IRELAND-10 WALES-22


This has been Ireland's greatest ever Rugby World Cup campaign. You do know that, right?

Sure, as my blog banner has pointed out over the past few months, we got to within five minutes of a semifinal in 1991. But had that victory over Australia panned out, it would have been an upset similar to that if Argentina had overturned the All Blacks in Auckland in this year's quarterfinal.

This time, we finished in first place in our pool – something we have never done before at this tournament. And that meant we were favoured, if only marginally, but still favoured nonetheless, to progress to the final four.

That we didn't actually do it will be the topic of debate for many a year to come, but I couldn't start this article without pointing out that what Declan Kidney's squad have achieved in New Zealand has set a standard to be met in future tournaments, and as you can see by my writeup of Leinster's victory over Connacht Saturday afternoon, that future definitely looks bright.

Now – to the match itself. Throughout this World Cup I have been doing a stint as guest writer for The Rugby Blog, where my task was to both preview every Ireland match and afterwards give individual ratings for each player.

The ratings will be up later on when I get a chance to watch the match again at lunchtime – but for this writeup, I want to go on my memory from watching the match at Kiely's in Donnybrook early on Saturday morning, as I feel the haze the couple of days might put on my recollection should reflect the daze with which I was stood there looking at events unfold in Wellington.

In my preview, I was asked to spell out “what to expect” of the Irish, and this was my opening sentence :

Ireland’s success has come more from what they do without the ball than with it. Expect 80 minutes of tough tackling”
Put simply...I expected Ireland to be able to tackle at the gain line just as much as I expected the unpainted grass on the pitch to be green.

So when Gordon D'Arcy leaves a gap down the touchline that Andy Powell could have driven a golf buggy through and still scored, and then later both Keith Earls and Cian Healy can't decide which one of them wants to tackle Jonathan Davies, you don't really have to look much further as to why we lost.

Yes, I know...Wales stepped up the mark which we ourselves had set in the pool phase and players like Phillips, Warburton and Roberts among others contested with just the right intensity for the entire 80 minutes all over the park. And of course I wish them all the best for the remainder of the tournament.

But the fact remains...twelve Welsh points came from those two tries, and twelve points was the winning margin. So if we had been on the ball defensively as we would have expected to be, we could be still be moaning about a below par performance today yet actually be in the semifinals.

And when such a fundamental part of your game goes belly up like that, I can only wonder about our mindset.

We had done the job of getting out of the pool, even exceeding those expectations. That was the result of a long process that went all the way back to Declan Kidney's appointment in 2008.

But at fulltime in Dunedin when we had comfortably dispatched the Italians, that job was done. And a new one lay ahead. So what happened in between to make us lose our focus?

I have said before on this blog how important the week in between matches can be when it comes to the eventual performance...we showed it when we denied England the Grand Slam earlier this year.

So not that I'm blaming this player fully by a long chalk, but why the hell was Keith Earls going on Newstalk radio saying he was “visualising winning the World Cup” during such a vital week????

Either someone in the Irish camp dropped the ball by not warning the players about talking to the press about anything beyond the task at hand, or they did give the warning and Earls ignored it. Whichever one it was, we were given clear signs that the squad just was not fully prepared to get through such a crucial six-day turnaround, something the Welsh appeared easily able to do.
 
Another haze of confusion I retain from Saturday morning is over the direction of the wind. Ronan O'Gara was picked primarily for his ability from the tee, and I also read somewhere that the Wellington “Caketin” Stadium was favourable for placekickers.

So I can only assume that he spurned those early chances to kick for the posts because the wind was against him, and the RTE commentator we were listening to in Kiely's agreed. But when I went on Twitter at halftime I realised that the Setanta folk were suggesting the wind was actually with us in the first half. Which the hell was it???

Well I really hope it was because of the wind. Because otherwise I can't for the life of me work out why O'Gara wouldn't have at least attempted the first kick. Sure, the Welsh hit with an early try, but should this have rattled us?

No way. It was their first attack and they squeezed in right in the corner and followed it up with a monumental conversion by Priestland. There was still plenty of time for us to regroup and to make it 7-3 on our first penalty would have been more than enough to settle us.

Yet we went for the attacking option of some red zone possession. Fine – it's a positive move, but surely if that was our plan from the start we would have been better served with Sexton at outhalf?

Remember...once again, I'm not blaming O'Gara...wasn't his finest day at the office but even though he's the oldest member of the squad the penalty-taking decisions are out of his hands.

So what I'm trying to say is that somewhere on the flight from Dunedin to Wellington we lost our ability to stick with our basics and get the job done. And although we weren't the only quarterfinalists to fall short when it mattered, we were facing a side who had ticked all the boxes and deservedly won the day. For me, nothing illustrates the match better than the lead photo on this post.

But hopefully the boys will be remembered for what they achieved over the five weeks rather than what they failed to do. Given the disappointment in the air at Kiely's after the final whistle, that may not be easy.

Still, there's a 2015 campaign to prepare for now, and a host of talent waiting in the wings to step up. And should we repeat our pool performance the next time, hopefully players like Keith Earls and Cian Healy can help the squad make every second before knockout games count.

I'll finish with my tweet from full time :
Congrats Wales. You brought it we didn't.JLP

Sunday, October 02, 2011

IRELAND-36 ITALY-6

[Update Mar 5, 2014 - This week’s trip down memory lane takes us back to RWC2011.  The build-up to this Saturday’s clash with Italy (when you take away the BOD stuff of course!) reminds me of how we felt before we played them in Dunedin for our final pool encounter.  It was a match we were expected to win, and once we did there was a much bigger opponent & prize around the corner.  Hopefully the lessons learned will ring true and we will be able to complete both parts of the challenge! JLP]

Herbstreet writeup banner

 
Really, Nick Mallett? Is that all you had to back up your big talk? A spot of eye-gouging? Sorry, mate, but not the best way to end a spell at the helm of a major international squad!
 
Maybe I'm being a bit hard on the Italians, but let's face it...cheating was all they had to stop us, and it got them nowhere.
 
The cynics out there, and some of them are Irish, will point to the fact that Italy's key man was missing for the majority of the match much like Australia's had been, but I'd take some convincing that Castrogiovanni's presence would have done any more than halve the final margin.
 
For whatever advantage the Italian front row might have had in the scrums, and to be honest I never saw it, it was completely cancelled out by their inability to defend when put on the back foot, something Ireland were able to do with consummate ease throughout the contest.
 
And nothing put us on the front foot better than our lineout domination on our own throw, and the second half brace of tries that killed this one off both came from those set-pieces.
 
It really wasn't a tough decision on the part of the coaching staff to see how best get through the blue-clad centres...and the way our back three & back row ran their lines for the inside passes from ROG, Darce & BOD proves that this was a style they were working on all along, which for me anyway is evidence that the lame lateral passing game we saw in August was nothing but a green herring.
 
As always thoughout this World Cup, I've given individual ratings for the Irish players over on The Rugby Blog, so please follow the link to check them out.
 
But although Sean O'Brien was man-of-the-match and deservedly so, I'd like to focus on four Irishmen who have come in for a lot of stick in recent times and all of whom did more than their fair share in Dunedin on Sunday.
 
And yes, they're all Leinster players. Call me “one-eyed” all you want, I don't care!
 
The so-called “expert analysis” on Rob Kearney's game was that his prowess under the highball may have been great under the rule interpretations in '08 & '09 but since then the game had evolved to such an extent that he would probably become ordinary at test level in his position. And let's face it, injuries haven't helped him to prove that theory wrong.
 
But can you seriously tell me after those pool matches there's an Irishman who could do better in that 15 jersey? Nope, didn't think so. The only time Rob will have to worry about his place is when he goes back to the RDS.
 
Next up, Mr Gordon D'Arcy. Stood up to his tackles as he has throughout this World Cup, but now the strong running is back into play as well. Again, we can delete any question marks that may have been hanging over a position in our back line. The way he and our skipper complement each other all over the park makes them an envy of the majority of coaches at this tournament. Like, say, Martin Johnson?
 
Criticism levelled at our number 8 of late was more for things he wasn't doing, and I doubt anyone would ever seriously consider dropping him. And once more I'll say I believe that criticism is unfair, particularly when O'Brien is forced to play at seven.
 
Heaslip made his tackles, played a key role in our lineout dominance, but was an absolute terror in the loose on defence. He's getting his head whacked so many times by his team-mates after turnovers in rucks he's running the risk of concussion!  By rights the man of the match award should have been split between him, O'Brien and of course Stephen Ferris.
 
And last, but certainly not least, I can't ignore Jonny Sexton's cameo. The 8:30am Sunday kickoff coupled with my being out the night before meant I was watching the match at home and thus was fully plugged in to my twitter timeline throughout the match.
 
I lost count of the amount of tweets after O'Gara's first kick sailed over the bar which read something like “THAT'S why he's in the team ahead of Sexton.” I didn't lose count of the tweets by the same people after his second kick struck the crossbar, however, since there weren't any.
 
But my conscience is clear on this particular debate when it comes to “one-eyed” accusations...I made ROG's selection for this match the focus of my writeup last week and I still believe it was the right call.
 
And perhaps I was a tad mischievous when I tweeted that Sexton was the only 100% Irish kicker on the day, but I will say this – whatever about the scoreline at the time, there was a ton of pressure on him, most of all no doubt from within himself, to nail the conversion of Earls' second try at the end. And nail it he did.
 
When you add that to his tackle on Gori in the last 10 minutes which secured a turnover and held out the Italians who clearly were motivated to end the Mallet era with a try, you have evidence of a man who is winning the battle with his gremlins.
 
Not that I'm saying O'Gara played badly, far from it. But the Welsh are going to be a much different proposition, particularly in positions 9 through 15, and surely no matter how many eyes you use to look at rugby you must see a strong case for Reddan and Sexton starting next weekend.
 
Now I repeat – I'm not saying the Dunedin result is all about Leinster, but the four players I singled out had all been copping some flak and to a man they vindicated Declan Kidney's faith in them.
 
 
Another one, it could be said, is Keith Earls, who on account of his try double AND his birthday we'll forgive for his horrendous dive over the line at the end. More than a touch of irony in that try being set-up by a burst from the man breathing down his neck for that 11 jersey, Andrew Trimble, I might add.
 
And as for Tommy Bowe...he can't seem to buy a try in these big matches, can he? Nobody will remember the two he got against the USA, but although fatigue plus a herculean effort by James O'Connor stopped him in Auckland, in this match it was downright shoddy South African officiating by Jonathan Kaplan and his TMO Shaun Veldsman that kept the Monaghan-born winger off the scoresheet.
 
Here comes the “be gracious to the opposition” paragraph...but cheating notwithstanding, you have to feel for Sergio Parisse – he's a man who deserves to have more success on his cv than a mere 33 minutes' appearance in a victorious Top14 final in 2007. But hey – if Isa can't swap nationalities, neither can he.
 
Ireland's victory could have come at something of a cost – I saw the fall that did for Rory Best's shoulder and at the time of writing he is listed as “doubtful” for the quarterfinal. When you've put so much emphasis on your front row, to lose one hooker is unfortunate, to lose two, (no, not careless!) a near tragedy – and all eyes will be on Sean Cronin next Saturday should he start, particularly his darts – we badly need that quality lineout ball as a platform.
 
Still, I say we take a day or two to look back on an immensely successful pool campaign. Of course much bigger battles lie ahead. But if those who bemoaned our four defeats in the “warm-ups” are still finding fault after four successive wins in matches that actually matter, then I'd suggest they're more expert at moaning than rugby.
 
As for me, I'm going to let my anticipation build over the coming days for what should be an absolute barn-burner of a World Cup quarterfinal in Wellington on Saturday morning. Warren Gatland will have a lot more up his sleeve to back up what will surely be a barrage of pre-match trash talk. JLP

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Leinster-26 Aironi-7

photo by Ken Bohane


Tried to be a bit different with this writeup by doing an audioboo report from my car immediately after the match, but sadly the app let me down.  Still, I've done my best to get it out there - play the file below and hopefully all will be explained, including what happened in the match!

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