Monday, December 26, 2011

Leinster-42 Ulster-13

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Leinster-52 Bath-27


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere in Europe...

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bath-13 Leinster-18



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere in Europe...

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 02, 2011

Leinster-52 Cardiff Blues-9


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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