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