Saturday, January 21, 2012

Leinster-25 Montpellier-3

RK try v MHR

FIND YOUR INNER HOOK

Considering it was a full house at the RDS and the match was virtually over as a contest, the only word I can use to describe the atmosphere in the 2nd half is “eerie”.

Even though there was still a bonus point try up for grabs which would have led to a top seeding in the quarterfinal draw, the crowd, and probably the Leinster players themselves, had been subdued by a nigh on perfect first half display all over the park.

Much as I hate to say so, it's at times like this when we Leinster fans need to find our inner George Hook and channel him like there's no tomorrow. It's pretty clear that if Joe Schmidt's men can maintain that level of intensity for 240 more Heineken Cup minutes it would take one hell of an effort to prevent us retaining the trophy.

Sure, the semifinal draw wasn't kind, and sure, the injury count from the Six Nations could go against us. But these are out of our control – what the squad CAN do is keep their heads level for the battles to come and in a perverse kind of way it's to our advantage that we have so many players with enough recent memories of that Wellington quarterfinal to help make sure that doesn't happen.

trinh-duc 2Whenever a match kicks off so early and a player makes a mistake, commentators are quick to suggest that he hadn't quite woken up yet. If that's the case, the Leo Cullen must be up at the crack of dawn bright as a button every day. Maybe it was Trinh-Duc who was a bit late getting up for his croissants but the Leinster skipper was the only one alive to the rules and made quite the opening statement for his team with that block-down even if it didn't actually lead to a score.

And it wasn't long before the opening try did come. When I saw the lineups during the week I figured our back row might be up against it. Then I remembered what Sean Lineen said last week after our win in Glasgow : “They played like 15 loose forwards”. Sure enough it was crashing carries from our entire front row that led to Sean O'Brien planting the ball over the line.

Then while the crowd were still buzzing after that, Rob Kearney played himself into the highlight reels. Wasn't quite O'Driscoll v Wasps in 2009  but all throughout he played like a man determined to get on the scoresheet and it wasn't merely his fantastic finish from deep that earned him man of the match award.

Then came the game-defining moment. Did I say moment? It was actually seven minutes on the clock that in real time was closer to twenty.

Conventional rugby wisdom dictates that if a penalty is kickable and it will bring you to with 14 points of your opposition, especially if it's the first half and you're yet to trouble the scorers, you should take the three.

But there was clearly an extra component to consider for Montpellier – this was Leinster in their own backyard, and they’re always capable of finding a score. We're going to need the full seven points to have a hope of getting back into this one, skipper Ouedraogo must have thought.

And so the kick went into the corner, then shortly after they won a scrum, and thus it began. Phase upon phase upon phase upon phase on the Leinster line, with only the one transgression, Damien Browne's brainfart. He wasn't even level with the ruck he was so far off to the side when he dived in – even if the ball was available he had no business going near the thing and got himself ten-minute rest and a nasty-looking head wound for his trouble.

Overall though I wouldn't be too quick to criticise Browne...the aggression he brings to his game is badly needed by the squad after losing Nathan Hines, another who is known to see yellow once or six.

Heaslip v MHRBut even with a man down, we were able to hold the monstrous Montpellier forwards out. Rhys Ruddock, a player I was looking to for a good outing, was able to slot into the second row, and in the end it was Heineken Cup débutante Jamie Hagan who stole the ball back for his side and eventually the danger was cleared.

Whether they award bonus points for it or not, for me that goal-line stand was as good as a fourth try.

After that, I reckon the French outfit resigned themselves to focussing on their big home Top14 clash with Stade Francais next Friday and hope that the previous resident of the coach's box at the RDS will be more forthcoming.

The second half started brightly, sparked off by Isa Nacewa's desire to get in on the act by dancing his way forward about forty yards before a similar crash ball effort to the first try by the forwards saw Cian Healy over.

Then came the eeriness...a long period of play when the play was stuck in midfield, the home quarterfinal was assured, and the only reactions from the crowd were a cry for the TMO to be used to check Kearney's attempt at a second and an ironic cheer when Montpellier decided to take an easy three to banish the duck-egg from the scoreboard.

Perhaps the fans' apprehension was also to do with the fact that there were still four pools yet to be decided. Well, now they have all been put to bed and it seems once again our path to Heineken Cup glory involves the city of Cardiff.

Let's hope all our inner Hooks can keep things real between now and Easter weekend. JLP

Elsewhere in Europe

Say what you like about three provinces reaching the last eight for the first time, there was only one contender for top Irish performance of the weekend and that came in Galway. Finished scoring after just 15 minutes, and not setting a foot into the opposition half for the entire third quarter, I've never been happier for a rugby club other than Leinster than I was watching Eric Elwood's brave charges topple the Aviva Premiership leaders. As one tweeter claimed, this was Connacht’s “Alone It Stands” occasion – can't wait to see how they'll reproduce the infamous Galway Gust on stage once the inevitable play is written!

Then there was Ulster...but for a seriously dodgy try they too would have caused an upset in Clermont. I got a sense watching Les Jaunards that they feel they have some kind of sense of entitlement to success, whether its because it's their centenary year, or that they've brought in a host of top names or both. Well the Ulstermen certainly stood up to them and Vern Cotter’s men certainly won't find Saracens at Wembley an easy nut to crack.

Finally in the Heineken, if I feel Leinster needed a devil's advocate to prevent complacency from creeping in, I'm pretty sure Munster need one just as much, if not more. Cracking display running in five tries on foreign soil, no doubt about it. But if anyone is in a position to suggest a bit of caution, it may as well be me. First up, the Saints gave away a HUGE advantage switching the venue from Franklins Gardens. Second, the whole sordid Ashton business during the week had to rattle the side. Neither of those of course are Munster's fault, they had to play what was ahead of them. But I would be concerned about the concession of two penalty tries by a struggling scrum. Re-inventing yourself from past glory days (Zebo is certainly a breath of fresh air to the red back line) is one thing, but this is an area that cannot be ignored. I reckon Ulster would have nothing to fear anyway going down to Thomond in the quarterfinal but certainly Messrs Afoa, Best & Court will be taking several mental notes from Saturday evening's match in Milton Keynes. All that being said, it is genuinely great to see Munster back in the final eight of this great tournament where they belong.

Honourable mention must go to the Leinster A side who comfortably overcame Pontypridd 32-0 at Donnybrook on Sunday in the annoyingly-named British & Irish Cup (I’m trying to get it nicknamed The Bandie Cup (BandI) but no luck yet). Super display all round, with Clontarf outhalf Noel Reid's kicking from both hand and tee impressive to say the least. They join Munster A, Cornish Pirates (who seem to have a liking for this competition) and Cross Keys in the final four...no prizes for guessing which would be the most interesting semifinal opponent!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Glasgow-16 Leinster-23




If I'm a coach, doesn't matter for what team and doesn't matter in what sport, I'd have to be asking myself just how does a team go as many as fifteen games unbeaten at the highest level, winning fourteen of them?

Every Leinster fan knows the run has to come to an end sometime, but even if it does so as early as next week, it has been quite the achievement, and I reckon this match at Firhill had a little sample of everything that has gone to take the streak this far...a tapas of secrets for success, if you will.

DOING THE UNEXPECTED – Leinster are the reigning Heineken Cup champions, and have healthy leads in both their pool this season and the Pro12. This, quite naturally, puts a giant target on their backs wherever they go. If you thought for a second the Scots weren't going to do everything they could to cause an upset in this match, you obviously haven't seen Braveheart.

I'm pretty sure Joe Schmidt & Jonny Sexton have seen it, and so they had to come up with a plan that would confound Sean Lineen's preparations. Well right off the bat we saw Sexton throw a dummy deep in his own 22 and before you could say “Quade Cooper”, his side had an attacking lineout way down the other end of the pitch. Of course we ended up losing said lineout, and at first I thought it was down to the Sean Cronin toss, but on second look I think it was an incorrect call to throw deep at that moment.

Another thing you wouldn't be expected to do on the narrow Firhill Park pitch is attempt a cross-field kick. So what does Sexton do on more than one occasion? And more often than not, it paid off, spectacularly of course in one case as it led to the game's first try courtesy of Rob Kearney.

LUCK – There's no doubting that a large slice of luck is required to string so many good results together, that goes in any sport. Some might say the Sexton kick to Kearney for the try got a fortunate bounce. However, I have a feeling that if a similar kick had gone from O'Gara to Howlett (as it has in the past more than once) then Munster fans would resort either to “he meant the kick to do that” or “you make your own luck”.

And it has to be said that over the past few weeks Leinster have enjoyed their fair share of good fortune – not only Sunday's bounce but also a gust of wind or two in Galway and Cardiff. I'll leave it to yourself to make of those what you will. Personally I'm tempted to sway towards divine intervention ;-)

COMPENSATION FOR WEAK AREAS – Of the five front row players used by Leinster on the day, there was plenty of World Cup, Heineken Cup final, even NPC final experience on show. Of the five Glasgow front rowers used, all were Scottish (even though one was named Welsh) yet despite the fact that there's only two clubs to choose from, not even ONE of the players were in Andy Robinson's original Six Nations squad. Still, Leinster struggled in the scrum, not only losing penalties on several occasions, but also unforgivably losing one against the head from 5m out near the end of the first half.

Yet man of the match was awarded to Sean Cronin. Why? Because of an outstanding performance in the loose that surely had the Glaswegians wondering if he was the other Sean in disguise. And Cian Healy wasn't far behind him in the ground-gaining stakes, with a bone-crunching tackle or two thrown in for good measure.

NOT RELYING ON STARS – The two names that would normally jump off the Leinster team-sheet, Sexton and Nacewa, were both happy to take back-seat roles. Well, when I say “happy”, maybe not so much with our Number10. Schmidt said he got “grumpy” after he rolled his ankle, but he still chipped in a penalty shot from inside his own half to level the scores. As for Isa, although he did give a masterclass in how to avoid being isolated after the tackle at one point, he won't be happy to see his name at the top of the Leinster list of turnovers conceded (4).

But even when they haven't been firing on all cylinders, not only was there Messrs Cronin & Healy in the forwards, much credit must also go to Devin Toner. Is it just me or did he play like he was the senior lock on the day? Is the apprentice close to over-taking his master? Whatever it is I'm THIS close to reaching for some Star Wars metaphors, but not just yet. Still, he owned a lineout that included Richie Gray and wasn't shabby in the loose either.

DEPTH OF SQUAD – If the rumours are true and poor Luke Fitzgerald is out for the season, that is of course a terrible blow for a chap who can't seem to buy a slice of good fortune. But from Leinster's perspective, they were still able to field David Kearney for his first cap in this great competition, and although the lone Glasgow score came on his wing, it couldn't have been much closer to the furthest edge of the tryline (worth a look upstairs to confirm the grounding I thought) and it was all he gave away.

But one of the most embarrassing set of riches we have is at scrum-half. Back in Montpellier Isaac Boss didn't have his finest hour but Eoin Reddan was able to come on and steady the ship. This time the roles were reversed, which in many ways is poor timing for Reddan with a Six Nations campaign on the horizon and Paul Marshall doing such heroics at Ravenhill.

And although the Glasgow try was scored seconds after Boss took the field, the first time Leinster actually had possession for him to use (when Toner hauled in a Sexton 22 dropout), he not only marched us down the field but actually got what proved to be the decisive score (main pic). It was an excellent cameo all round from him, though I doubt it will be enough to get on Declan Kidney's radar.

ALWAYS HAVE A SCORE IN YOUR BACK POCKET – I actually have hard data to back this one up, but I decided to display it on my “#2amrugbyfact” feature on twitter – follow this link to see it, it's quite a stat to behold.  Basically it means that every time Leinster fall behind they've been able to dig deep and turn things back around.

DEFENCE – Of course I had to save the best till last. Sean Lineen said afterwards that Leinster defended “like 15 loose forwards”. Actually it was 14 for the crucial last 5 minutes after Sean O'Brien didn't realise what was meant by a tap on the back and some stern words in a Welsh accent. Yet it was all the Warriors could do to gain ground let alone get over our line, and whatever about Leinster's  weaknesses this season and there have been several, you'd be hard pressed to fault their performance when they don't have the ball. And this a good year and a half after Kurt McQuilkin's departure.

I'd like to add one last contributory factor to the result from the day – although the Monday morning press is full of talk about the “valiant” Warriors display and this is true to an extent, you can't deny they were found wanting in some key areas, not least Duncan Weir's decision-making. No doubt he can boot a ball over the bar from every angle going, but he has a ways to go to show he can lead his team out of a Heineken Cup pool, let alone lead his country at Murrayfield.

So overall, a third away win on the bounce for Leinster. None of them have been pretty, but all of them have been satisfying. Now we have three in a row to come at the RDS, before our next away day – at Firhill Park, Glasgow, no less. JLP

ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE

Looking at the Heineken Cup tables after Round 5, the sight of Leinster as number one seed and Munster as only team with 100% record would have you thinking they're the big Irish story in the competition at the moment. You'd be wrong though.

The history boffins can say all they want about what has happened in the past – Ulster still had quite the job to do in Ravenhill on Friday night and boy, did they do it. Top notch displays all over the park not least from Andrew Trimble, who by logic should have played his way into contention for a starting jumper against Wales somewhere on the park. That's providing logic is used in the decision-making process.

It wasn't only him though...Ferris was more of an animal than usual if that's possible, Ruan Pienaar paid back half of the worth of his new contract with the ink barely dry and Paul Marshall's cameo could lead to his name being read out by Kidney on Wednesday. Sure, the Tigers were found wanting in many areas but still would have run a lesser side close...hopefully the Ulstermen can do enough in Clermont next week to get out of the pool because they definitely deserve it.

Meanwhile at Thomond Park...have you ever heard the crowd there more subdued when their heroes have won a match? The Castres XV, certainly nowhere near their first choice selection, didn't come to make up the numbers but still were comfortably dispatched, but whether it's the standards laid down by history or the continued success of the brethren at the other end of the N7 that's demanding more, I'm not sure. With the Northampton Saints on a high after their win in Llanelli you can be sure they'll have a hostile reception ready for Paul O'Connell & co next week, though perhaps the hostility would be a little stronger if it was actually at Franklins Gardens and not Milton Keynes.

Then there's Connacht. Never really had a chance in Toulouse did they. But they were praised by Guy Noves afterwards, and by all accounts brought a following with them that did them proud. There's no doubt that it's an enormous flaw in the qualification system that Aironi, thumped 82-0 at home, are guaranteed a spot in next year's tournament while Eric Elwood's men have to resort to prayer for one of the other Irish provinces to taste European success to get back to the top table.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Cardiff Blues-19 Leinster-23



If I had to sum up this match in a dozen words, I'd have to say something like “Leinster got an early cushion then did enough to bring it home”.

But since this blog is built around a weekly writeup of closer than 1000 words, I have to expand on the words “did enough” and when I look to do that, a bit of a can of worms gets opened.

First of all, though his missed kicks would have ultimately won the contest, I can't lay blame at Leigh Halfpenny's door for this result in any way, at least nowhere near to the way you'd blame Matt Jarvis and Miah Nikora for Connacht's defeat on New Year's Day. For one thing it was his pressure on David Kearney that led to the 5m scrum from which came the lone Cardiff “try” (more on that later), plus he's a quality performer who has had terrible luck with injuries and I have no doubt he could live up to his billing as the “next Shane Williams”.

Next, the Italian referee Marius Mitrea has to enter the equation. I really, really hate moaning about the officiating after matches. It gets boring when you have to do it every time, and the Laws of the Game have so many grey areas that it's pretty much inevitable that there will be disputed calls on any given day.

But although Mitrea's calls were at best inconsistent and at worst downright wrong throughout the 80 minutes, I believe we have to afford him a bit of leeway. This is a league that spans four nations, and it needs officials from all of them to work it. If we were to suggest refs like him shouldn't be given matches like this it would be like saying we don't want trainee doctors examining us or to have our kids being taught by trainee teachers.

If we don't expect Aironi & Treviso to be pushing for top four places for a few years, maybe we should afford the same cushion to Italian referees as well.  For now.

Where I DO find fault with the men in the middle is with the nationality makeup of the officiating team as a whole. Sure, the league may save a few bob by backing up the ref with local touch judges & TMOs but the awarding of the Jenkins try was evidence that they should at least spring for the airfare for a neutral guy in the booth.

I have done a long rant on this before but to put it simply, I'm not suggesting that Neil Ballard said “you may award the try” purely because he is Welsh, rather I believe it's wrong to have him in that position in the first place. But as you can see from this photo, you cannot see the ball being grounded, so at least if the same call had been may by, say, an Italian, all we would have to point to is incompetence. The way it turned out, there's enough blame left over for the league itself.

Finally, I can write about the Leinster performance! Offensively, we had it spot on, and this was borne out by crossing the line twice in the opening ten minutes. Clearly Joe Schmidt & co didn't rate the home defensive set up down the middle and the reverse pass inside was reaping rich rewards throughout. Plus the quick offloading was taking the likes of Warburton out of the game more often than not.

It could be argued that we butchered a couple of try-scoring opportunities early in the second half to put the game beyond reach - particularly when you consider the phrase “thwarted by a Dan Parks tackle” can be used not once but twice – but when all is said and done I was happy with what we were doing when we had the ball.

But even the most optimistic Leinster fan wouldn't be happy with an early 14-0 lead. Let's be clear – Cardiff are a quality outfit and the XV they had on the park were streets ahead of the one they sent to Dublin. There was still a lot of work to be done to keep them from getting back into the contest – I'm pretty sure they don't lead the league in try bonus points purely from dodgy TMO calls.

And though it is to our credit that our defensive display limited them to just the one decent attacking opportunity in our own 22, I still find it worrying that we managed to give away so many needless penalties in point-scoring areas, particularly as we had a healthy cushion to protect. I found it even more worrying that it was more experienced names like Heaslip, Healy and O'Brien that were the ones giving them away.

I don't understand why we take unnecessary risks for the first 70-odd minutes yet when it comes to the final ten the required discipline suddenly comes to the surface. Sure, if the scoreline is close then by all means chance your arm with a spot of breakdown treachery but particularly if you KNOW the ref is a loose cannon with his whistle, don't give him the opportunity to use it!

I was impressed by a number of youngsters on show for Leinster...Devin Toner, despite having 83 Leinster caps, was in the unusual position of being the senior lock to his cousin Mark Flanagan, and I felt both did well in the loose, while together with Kevin McLaughlin they caused plenty of havoc on the Cardiff lineout.

Also at the risk of being accused of being as biased as the TMO I felt Rock boys Andrew Conway and Jordi Murphy applied themselves well. More often than not, the only wobbly touches seemed to come from more experienced heads, dare I say it even Isa himself had his moments.

And so I close the can of worms. All in all, it was an away win, one that completed the “double” over a team being hailed as the Welsh “Galacticos”, and after results elsewhere it leaves us with a nine-point cushion at the top and more crucially a ten-point cushion over Munster in third place for a home semifinal.

All Schmidt & co need to do from here on in is make sure that if anyone makes that cushion less comfortable, it isn't someone wearing Leinster blue. JLP

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Connacht-13 Leinster-15

 

The Connacht marketing gurus settled on the slogan “Front Up Rise Up” for this historic season.

While there's no doubting Eric Elwood's men have shown the ability to get the first half of that pledge done, sadly the second has eluded them and if ever there was a single match that highlighted the difficulties they're facing it was this one on New Year's Day.

Even more sadly, there's not much evidence to show that 2012 will be any different for them.

I know the remit of HarpinOnRugby is to be a Leinster blog, but I really can't write about this match without making Connacht the focus. Besides...it's a special relationship we have with our Western cousins...it's almost like they're our “little brother” in that we always want them to do well so long as, of course, they never actually upstage us.

That may sound horribly patronising, but the truth is that's how the provincial system has been set up in the professional era. A look at the two team sheets proves it. On the Leinster side, names like Hagan, Cronin and Carr, all of whom went in one direction with their careers on the up...on the other, names like O'Donoghue and Tonetti, who went the other way and may not necessarily be on a down slope but are sideways at best.

And the focus of my negative attention has to be the scrum-half Paul O'Donoghue. I was really impressed with what I saw of him when at Clontarf, but last season when he was called upon by Leinster I never got the sense he was up to the pace the level demanded. While I haven't seen every Connacht outing this season, I really don't understand why Elwood insists on picking him ahead of Frank Murphy for the big matches.

Now just so we're clear, it wasn't all bad for the home side on Sunday, far from it – they should have won the match (as should London Irish & Clermont have in 2010 - we really do get lucky when it comes to opposing kickers don't we?), and it was largely due to the contributions of prospects like Tiernan O'Halloran. But you see that's exactly where their problem lies – even though the youngster is a locally-born talent you can't help presuming that he will be snapped up by one of the “big brothers” before long if he continues with the line-breaking and the try-getting.

In every aspect, Connacht just could not catch a break on the day. Actually that's an unfortunate choice of words, poor Brian Tuohy suffered a broken leg. The chronically poor kicking of Matt Jarvis (very tempted to make my headline “Jarvis Cockup” but that's not something one does to one's little brother is it) and Miah Nikora didn't help them much either. And yes, I'm counting the last-minute attempted ROG impression as a poor kick.

While we're on the subject of kicking, what can be said about Isa Nacewa that hasn't already been said. Actually, quite a bit.

As if the blustery conditions & the banana-skin nature of the contest weren't enough pressure, he had to deal with “The Elephant On The Pitch”™ that was the recently-announced IRFU dictat which basically told him he was no longer welcome on these shores.

Yet consummate professional that he is, the man somehow managed to slot all five penalties on a day when he'd be forgiven for missing at least two. Whereas other Leinster players, skipper Leo Cullen included, seemed hell bent on handing victory to the opposition, with this display alone Nacewa probably tacked another 10% onto his asking price when the Top 14 or Super Rugby inevitably come a-knocking.

Elsewhere on the Leinster side of things, there was huffing and puffing but let's face it – as an offensive unit they played like they were up well past the singing of Auld Lang Syne the night before. I'd have to single out Rhys Ruddock not just for his unnecessary coughing up of the ball on the Connacht line towards the end but for overall invisibility. I'm seriously questioning the wisdom of handing him the captain's armband during the World Cup, a time that could have been better spent letting him focus on the three different positions he was asked to play.

Of course it's churlish of me to moan about our performance since we returned to Dublin with the spoils AND a renewed 6-point lead in the league, but with a tricky trip to Cardiff around the corner where mostly fringe players will be selected, there will be many wishing to leave their cobweb-filled displays at the Sportsground.

But going back to the home side, I really hope they can get out of this rut they're in. When normally coaches would look to rest key players for a match, especially one that's away from home, that comes a week before a Heineken Cup series, I wonder if Eric Elwood can afford to do this when they travel to Viadana next Saturday – the losing streak really needs to be halted at 12 and no offence intended but when it comes to brotherly relationships Aironi are the Fredo to Treviso's Michael Corleone in Italian rugby so this has to be seen as an opportunity to turn the tide.

You'd really like to think that even with a few injuries, with their best available XV Connacht can go over there, win 2 tries to nil for the second week running, only this time finishing ahead on the scoreboard that matters. I'd wish nothing less for our little brother and hopefully it can spur them on to an improvement on their two European pool points and then they can "rise up" the Pro12 table down the line.

Because if things don't improve, whatever deals have been done recently, there's always the danger that Daddy will banish him from the house altogether. JLP

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