Saturday, November 26, 2011

Benetton Treviso-20 Leinster-30



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Leinster-38 Glasgow-13

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BRIAN WHO?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere in Europe…

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

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

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

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Montpellier-16 Leinster-16



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere in Europe...

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

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

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

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

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

Great to have the HCup back, innit? JLP

Friday, November 04, 2011

Leinster-24 Munster-19

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RESTARTING OVER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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