[update October 23, 2013] Archive time here on HoR…Connacht come to the RDS this weekend and the same fixture last season signalled the beginning of Leinster’s transition from three December defeats to three May trophies…
As the rest of the Leinster faithful were being frozen solid at the RDS on Saturday evening, I was tucking in to a nice dinner at a friend’s wedding reception in downtown Dublin. We actually managed to avoid the scoreline before we left, only for our taxi driver’s radio to provide us with a “spoiler”.
Watching the match now I see a result and performance that overall we should be happy with, all things considered. Connacht certainly did not come to Dublin to make up the numbers, we had a patchwork team out on the field, and managed to see out what has been a topsy turvy 2012 with a clean sheet victory that keeps us well in the race for a home semifinal.
Before I look at the action itself, I want to repeat my annual rant about these so-called “festive derby” fixtures. If ever rugby matches could be described as “mutton dressed as lamb” then matches like this one certainly fit the bill. Of course I understand all the reasons why the international players are missing and why, for example, Ulster would send their second/third string team to Thomond Park, but whatever the reasons, the net result are contests that don’t do what they say on the tin and leave the spectators a bit short-changed. Saturday’s double bill of derbies were little more than training exercises compared to some of the equivalent contests in the Premiership and the Top14 where the majority of “marquee” names were on show.
Still, the points were there to be won at the RDS and two squads had been charged with the task of doing that. And Eric Elwood’s side did everything they could from the opening kickoff to keep us on the back foot. I’m not sure there was more than a few blades of grass in the Connacht half disturbed in the first quarter, such was their intense pressure on us when we had the ball. However, tough and all as their defence was, so was ours. Despite a few clean breaks into our 22 by the likes of Danie Poolman and Robbie Henshaw, we were able to keep them at bay.
That’s one thing about Leinster that has continued to impress me this season, that being our defence. With the obvious anomalies of our early season trips to Llanelli and Galway, we have generally been as stubborn as ever especially in our own 22 whatever side we have out on the park. This is why teams feel their best chance of breaking through is to force a turnover and quickly exploit it before we can regroup. And I don’t think I saw any team more “in our faces” than the men in green were in the first half of this contest.
But despite the fact we had makeshift combinations all over the park, unlike previous contests where we just kept trying the same things offensively over and over even though they weren’t working, this time we found a way to adjust to what was being done against us. And it certainly wasn’t an easy adjustment, since it came in the area of protecting the ball after the tackle, one which is of course normally a forte of Shane Jennings who was forced to withdraw from the contest before kickoff.
The series of plays that led to our opening try were a joy to watch. EVERYONE was getting in on the clearing out action. If Connacht were contesting for the ball with two or three after the tackle, then we had two or three doing something about it. This awareness and ability to adapt is precisely what I felt has been lacking and if we can bring that ability into our remaining Heineken Cup pool matches, we could have every chance of maximising our return.
I know I have said before about our tendency to go for the tricky option when a simpler one may have been better, but it’s too late for that right now. We need at least eight tries in two tough Heineken Cup encounters in January so we need to start playing like it. That’s why I didn’t put my head in my hands when Ian Madigan took the penalty with a quick tap as I may have done a couple of weeks ago. And sure enough he reaped the reward with an excellent score.
In many ways the second half was a carbon copy of the first, so much so that the second try from Jack McGrath officially came 33 minutes from the start of the period just as Madigan’s had done. And with Elwood & his coaching staff able to make a few tweaks at half-time, Leinster found themselves with another conundrum that took time to solve, but once again we were able to do it. In one series of phases Isaac Boss was missing so often from the base of the ruck I wondered if he was being treated for an injury…in actual fact he was getting stuck in with a lot of the clearing out himself!
Could we have gotten to four tries? Perhaps if referee John Lacey considered going to his pocket more and adding 10 yards to Connacht penalties less, we may have done with an extra man, but we’ll never know. The visitors certainly put in a good display against us overall (without the ball at least – with it they struggled as Parks hasn’t been in the jolliest Yuletide form) that if repeated should produce more wins than losses in this league. For example I lost count of the times they forced turnovers from mauls, something we usually excel at ourselves.
When it comes to individual performances, I’m most interested in two areas…out-half and wing.
It was another solid outing from Ian Madigan, though for me the player of these Christmastime interprovincials has been Ian Keatley. I have to assume that Declan Kidney has nothing else on his mind other than to have Sexton backed up by O’Gara for the upcoming Six Nations campaign, but I will be very interested to see who gets the nod for the 10 jersey when the Wolfhounds meet the Saxons in Galway on January 25. Given Ulster’s success this season you would think that Paddy Jackson would be front and centre but although I saw little or no reference to this in the press, he was extremely poor against Leinster and surely must be behind Keatley & Madigan in the pecking order right now and will need a stand-out performance or two in the remaining Heineken Cup outings to get back in contention.
For the wing debate we have a three-way contest that between Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden which has been made a lot easier by Tommy Bowe’s injury, though should become even more complicated should Rob Kearney return to action forcing Zebo back to the wing. But since this is a Leinster writeup I will simply state that with the possible exception of being caught out of position for the that decisive Trimble try at Ravenhill, overall Fergus has been “in the zone” this season with tough tackling coupled with his uncanny ability to gain yards after the tackle when it seems there are no yards to be gained.
Elsewhere on the Leinster side Saturday, it certainly wasn’t the finest outing for Andrew Goodman since he arrived and no doubt he will be keen to play his way back into form. Credit of course must go to the starting backrow of Ruddock, Ryan and Murphy, all of whom must surely be knocking on the door of the Heineken Cup squad at this stage. But we should add the name of Ben Marshall to that list as well. He may be only 22 and only have 5 Leinster caps so far, but he certainly looks at home at this level and with Mike McCarthy on the way, could lead to some tough decisions being made before the season is out.
All in all a good win for Leinster but as I said earlier, hardly a contest to warm the hearts of over 18k shivering fans. Not sure what can be done about it in the future? The derbies will still take place at this time, and so they should. The international player protection will still happen, and so it should, at least as long as the Six Nations takes place in the spring. And if the crowd levels remain high for these games, then maybe there’s nothing we can do. But it wouldn’t hurt to see two proud Irish provinces at full strength lock horns more often in 2013, that’s all I’m saying.
Happy new year, folks. JLP
Also this weekend