Saturday, March 31, 2012

Munster-9 Leinster-18

SF-IsaNacewa-Munster-Leinster-RaboDirectPRO12_rdax_370x253

Simon Zebo received the opening kickoff – before this game I had visions of him having more than one opportunity to flash his trademark “Z” try celebration. As it turned out, the only z's on the night would come from the spectators!

As the saying goes, this “wasn't one for the purist” by any stretch, but it still struck me that both sides had clear gameplans which Joe Schmidt's men managed to execute more clinically and thus came out on top. Hopefully the onlooking Declan Kidney noticed that too.

For Leinster it seemed like the opening quarter was the time for trickery in order to manufacture a try to break the duck (which now stands at 299 minutes by the way) – there were barely two minutes on the clock when Sexton chipped forward to the corner where Rob Kearney couldn't manage to hold on and touch down. It would have been fitting for him to get it as he was the last blue player to score a try in Thomond almost exactly two years previous.

But it was uncanny...at almost exactly the moment the clock ticked over the twenty minute mark, unless a winger found himself in space out wide, the kicking game was taken off the table by the visiting side. It was either phases down the middle or more often than not lateral passing moves when they had the ball.

Munster also seemed to have a gameplan, and in my book it caused the most controversial feature of this game – Nigel Owens' handling of the scrums.

To call Marcus Horan a “wily prop” would be the understatement of the millennium. And of course everyone knew going into this contest that the home side was missing crucial players, so having seen how much Leinster struggled without Mike Ross and Nathan White the previous week, the best way to level the playing pitch would be to negate Ross' ability to lock the scrum.

Now before I carry on, I hope you appreciate the restraint I'm showing by avoiding all the obvious (if a tad inappropriate in some cases) jokes emanating from a female spectator roaring “C'mon Nigel make up your mind I'm getting frustrated here!” into a pitchside RTE mic at one point. Not easy I can tell you!

But back to matters rugby...yes, Nigel made a hames of the scrums. It took him 12 goes to get a clean feed without a need to reset. If he was guilty of anything, it was paying too much respect for the occasion rather than calling what he could see in front of him. If so, that's a shame to see from a ref who I'd normally fully expect to be able to handle a contest at this high a level.

He knew full well it was Horan that was playing “silly-beggars” but it was his decision to threaten both him and Ross with yellows together in the 11th minute that was to set the tone for the rest of the match.

He even had a word with Horan personally at a later scrum. By rights the loosehead should have gone then, but as Owens had already warned the two of them, he probably felt it would give Leinster an “unfair” advantage in such a big match.

Instead he put the two props off at the start of the second half and it was during those ten minutes that Munster got three kickable penalties, and but for ROG missing one of them they could have actually had a lead to defend in the closing stages.

Now speaking of Munster's outhalf, it wasn't his best night at the office by a long stretch. A couple of missed penalties here, a dropped pass there...let's just say if Gordon D'Arcy had made as many mistakes on the night there would be calls for his head from both sets of fans.

But not so for O'Gara, and it's true he has for the most part played to his usual standard over the season. The point I want to make about this display is that it supports my theory that gifted though he may be, he has just never been captain material. With Mick O'Driscoll on the pitch I was surprised to see the outhalf get the nod and I really think it takes from his game.

Meanwhile his nemesis in blue was busy slotting his placekicks and executing the “non-kicking” gameplan while on offense – for the second and third quarters I don't think Sexton ever looked up once when he had the ball to see if there was space behind the Munster line.  The home side displayed a strong solid defence throughout that forced many a turnover, but Joe Schmidt's plan seemed to be to tire them out so he could capitalise with his bench in the final quarter and as it turned out it proved to be correct.

When O'Gara levelled the scores at 9-9 on 53 minutes, two key things happened – Mike Ross came back on the pitch from his yellow card, and also the likes of Leo Cullen and Sean O'Brien were introduced into the fray – they probably were due at the 60 minute mark but with McLaughlin already off it seemed logical to bring them in at that point.

From that moment on there was really only going to be one winner – Munster were still forcing turnovers but would then lose it in contact themselves, plus their lineout was an absolute shambles all evening. A deft chip & chase from Isa Nacewa, the first of his series of late contributions that got him man of the match, led to the penalty which Sexton easily converted before going off no doubt satisfied with his night's work.

He was replaced by Ian Madigan who has played well above his pay-grade all season and deserved a chance to play his part. I did feel he made a major error by taking that quick lineout in the opposition 22, despite Ralph Keyes' assertion that it was the “right option”. For Munster maybe! Leinster are up by 3, in Thomond Park, with just over 10 minutes left. I can't see any other call but to let the lineout form (especially since you've owned the set-piece all night) and eat up some more time with phases.

But the Blackrock outhalf was to more than make up for that rush of blood...first with the perfectly-executed crossfield kick to Nacewa and then with a win-clinching & bonus-point-denying dropgoal any outhalf in world rugby would have been proud of. I have heard talk that Mat Berquist is off to France next season – I really hope that Madigan is rewarded with a spot on the bench for the Heineken quarterfinal as he has definitely earned it.

Although this was a Pro12 contest, as always is the case when these two rivals meet each other, the question needs to be asked afterwards...how are the two shaping up for those European contests next weekend?

Well in Munster's case, I don't think they need be too disheartened by this performance. The way they played without crucial players like O'Connell, Murray and Ryan simply proved the wisdom in not risking them. Though Ulster will definitely feel they can equal Leinster's result, there is no doubt that those three will do more than fix the various problems Tony McGahan's men were having Saturday night.

As for Leinster, well all I can say is that I'm “quietly confident”. The Cardiff Blues have absolutely nothing to lose coming to Dublin next weekend so cannot be taken for granted, but there was enough evidence in this encounter (when the two sides were allowed to play rugby of course!) to suggest that Joe Schmidt & his coaching staff can come up with the right gameplan to get the job done. JLP

ALSO THIS WEEKEND
Mar 30, 2012
Mar 31, 2012
 
pro12 table

Friday, March 23, 2012

Leinster-22 Ospreys-23

Archive time here at HoR, and this week those pesky Ospreys come into town. We may have beaten them in our last encounter in May but I assure you, NO Leinster fan with a functioning memory bank will be taking them for granted this weekend.  Below is just one of several examples where they have hijacked us in the past, and what’s more we have them in (what could be our last ever) our Heineken Cup pool as well.



I say this in the piece but people on some forums don't seem to have noticed so I'll repeat it here...the above photos are merely to highlight the incidents in question, they aren't meant as irrefutable evidence.

When your team takes the lead in the first couple of minutes and doesn't relinquish it until the last few, it's bound to get your emotions running high. Particularly when it's a home game, and even more particularly when there's a long-running unbeaten streak on the line.

So the reactions of the Leinster fans after this one were quite predictable...first you had the more one-eyed protestations about botched TMO calls and unfortunate injuries, then later on you get the more pragmatic fans pouring scorn over the fact that a 13-point lead was allowed to evaporate.

Well some may say I'm sitting on the fence when I say both versions played their part, but I can only call it as I see it and it really was an extraordinary series of events that brought about this final score with plenty of praise and criticism to be fired around at everyone involved.

First let's deal with the Ospreys themselves shall we? Of all the non-Irish teams I have seen come to Dublin over the years, they are the ones who consistently display the least amount of fear in what has proven overall to be a very difficult arena for away sides. They are focused from the get-go, and always seem to know exactly how to extract the most from every given situation.

Of course not everything they do is on the legal side of things, but that's not necessarily a complaint on my part. They have always struck me as a very professional outfit who know exactly which grey areas of the laws to inhabit and do it very well.

And when they are given a chance, by God they can take it with style. Their first try by George Stowers was the result of a sweet move down the right flank when offered only a minimal about of space which they exploited to perfection.

On Leinster's side of the ball, despite the near “dream team” nature of the starting lineup, it was like we were in the same frame of mind as we were for the reverse fixture in Swansea back in September.

Sure, O'Driscoll had some good rushes and tackles and Thorn put himself about but they couldn't hide a rake of errors by the home side –multiple knock-ons in the tackle, falling asleep at the breakdown,penalties from the hand not finding touch.  And of course there was Luke, who had a decent carry or two, but still made a couple of poor decisions trying to deal with penalties at the touchline, the second of which proved costly.

Even the Madigan try, though an excellent finish, only came after an overthrown Leinster lineout which took a ridiculously fortunate bounce for the outhalf who had celebrated his 23rd birthday just a couple of days before and was no doubt grateful of this present.

And crucially many of the home errors were concentrated at the one period of the game where it was there to be won – during the (albeit harsh) sin-binning of Justin Tipur-lake.

You will notice that I have been at pains to point out Leinster' errors before I ever mention the word “scrum”. To lose one tighthead is unlucky; to lose both, even more unlucky. But refusing the option ofuncontested scrums can only be described as inexplicable. Maybe Jack McGrath has played tighthead in training, but you must take every advantage you can in this game and that decision played a major part in the Ospreys literally going the length of the field to get their winning try.

Now...to the two TMO calls. I think both were tries. I've done my best to capture still frames above but when you see the action you can clearly see a partial grounding in both cases. So I have no idea why the TMO didn't award the first one by Heinke van der Merwe (on the left above)? The angle in that picture is the one where you see the grounding – he looked at it once, and I even saw it on the RDS screen at the time.

But the TMO Alan Rogan went on to look at every other angle at least twice each (none of which gave any notion of what happened) and actually went back to the “good” angle only to stop the video before you can see the ball being grounded! I don't understand it myself, and I have done my best to be objective looking at both replays – in Hibbard's case you do see a brief flash where it goes down then up again having disturbed some grass in the process.

And then of course there's the conversion. Before I analyse it, let me make it clear that it was an absolute cracker of a strike by Dan Biggar. We Irish fans were all gushing over Rob Kearney's drop goal attempt at Twickenham and how it “deserved” to count for 3 points so in some ways the same must be said for this, particularly considering the situation he was in.

But even if the TMO is a bit suspect, how on earth can you NOT refer to him for such a vital kick that decides a game? Again looking at the replay, the ball strikes the very top of the post and sails directly over it in the same direction it was coming from. Of course we can't speculate where it would have gone if the posts were higher, but the rule is that over the upright is not a score. So it was definitely worth a look upstairs, and would have been at any stage of the game.

Most sports that have introduced video refereeing have offered a“challenge” to both sides and perhaps it is time it came into rugby? Both sides have one challenge, it's up to them how they use it. Could have been the difference between winning and losing in this match anyway!

However,despite the questionable officiating, I have to repeat there was enough on Leinster's side of things to suggest they didn't deserve to keep the unbeaten streak going, and in actual fact when you look back over some of the results they had more than their fair share of good fortune so we were probably due for things to go the other way.

And it wasn't like there weren't any positives. BOD saw his 55 minutes through very well. Thorn got a game under his belt before his first taste of a hostile Thomond Park. McFadden kicked 6 from 8 but also did enough at 12 to show he was worth a look there in the Six Nations.

You could even go as far to say that it's in some ways a good thing that the streak is broken. With much bigger games down the line, Joe Schmidt can now use his coaching sessions constructively and allow his squad gather their composure to find winning ways once again,something he has proven a master at doing since his arrival in Dublin.

For the time being, pending of course the status report on our tighthead trio, this Leinster fan isn't too worried about the implications of this defeat. Who knows – come seasons end we may end up thanking the Ospreys for doing the league double over us! JLP


UPDATE - Moments after publishing the above, the "Leinster Squad Update" was posted on the provincial website - it seems Hagan is out for a while with damaged rib cartilage, White needs to be monitored with an announcement made Friday, though the good news is that it seems Mike Ross will be ok to play in Thomond and (fingers crossed!) beyond.

ALSO THIS WEEKEND
 
Fri March 23
Edinburgh 15-29 Dragons
Glasgow 24-6 Aironi
 
Saturday March 24
Treviso 23-27 Ulster
Cardiff Blues 14-26 Scarlets
Connacht 16-20 Munster

Saturday, March 17, 2012

ENGLAND-30 IRELAND-9

Preface : The Fabrice Muamba incident at White Hart Lane definitely put sport into perspective for everyone last Saturday. Of course it goes without saying we all wish him all the best in his fight for recovery, and we should also show our appreciation for the amazing work that is done by the paramedic services at grounds all over the world when these major events are on.

tuilagi

HALF-MEASURES

Ireland kick off, England receive in own 22, secure the ball, Dickson box kick, taken by Kearney in his own half and brings into contact. Healy runs, loses ball in turnover, though Ireland quickly get it back. Scrum untidy (Court struggling) Ireland get 2nd chance in English half. Heaslip picks & goes, then Reddan goes himself but then Ferris knocks on. From Eng scrum ball is kicked into Irish half (just). England knock it on, Irish scrum advantage, Kearney takes it, then Reddan to O'Brien, (advantage called over) to Bowe, into contact. Reddan to O'Brien again into contact, ball now at centre of halfway line. Ryan into contact. Reddan to Sexton who passes and backline passes it on laterally, Kearney drops it but it goes backwards. Ball still at half-way. Reddan does poor box kick, taken by Foden, who runs forward, passes to Croft who has clear run to line but spills it in Irish 22. From resulting scrum England win penalty which Farrell converts, score now 12-6, clock at 48m. Ireland bring on Ronan O'Gara for Gordon D'Arcy, Tomás O'Leary for Eoin Reddan, England bring on Youngs for Dickson.

What you see above is my rendition of what happened at the start of the second half of this match. The reason I have chosen to lead off with this passage is that I believe it is here where Ireland played their own part in losing a contest they were well poised to win.

Much has been made between the full-time whistle and now about England's dominance in the scrum on the afternoon. Personally, I don't think this was the reason they won on the day. I firmly believe it is very possible to be dominated in one area of play and still come out on top. Of course our front row situation needs to be looked at, but not until later when going over this match.

Ireland went in to the break only three points down, even though we enjoyed almost total domination in the first half with both possession and territory. When Tom Croft carried the ball deep into our 22 before his unfortunate spill as described above, that was the first time an Englishman had anything remotely resembling clean ball at that end of the pitch.

The problems stemmed from what we did when we had the ball. Sometimes we just plain dropped it. Other times we offloaded when we didn't need to. Other times we ran into a cul-de-sac. Other times we tried a drop goal that wasn't really on. Other times we hoofed it on the full into touch.

And although each and every one of the above was done at some stage by Gordon D'Arcy, the fact remains his team-mates did their fair share of each transgression themselves between them, with the one exception being Rob Kearney's sweet strike of a drop goal attempt which cruelly found the wrong part of the upright.

That England notched three penalty goals in the first half did not surprise me one iota, I would have bet any money on that before the off.  Ireland had more than enough ball to generate their own points in the first half to negate them and flat out failed to do so.

Eng pen tryOf course, you have to give at least some credit to the English defence for this, and throughout this Six Nations campaign they have proven a tricky side to break down. But for all the talk about our failings in the scrum, Stuart Lancaster's men did have one major weakness themselves – their inability to hold on to the ball, particularly when it was coming down from a height.

Sexton and Kearney between them were having great success with the high kicking and you might think that it had something to do with the wet conditions that England were dropping them but we were actually able to grab it ourselves most of the time. So this was clearly an area where you'd think we'd at least be looking to get back on the front foot come the second half.

And we were even given a bonus penalty right on half time thanks to a combination of Lee Dickson dicking around at the base of the ruck for the umpteenth time (will come back to that later) and Donnacha Ryan going all “Incredible Hulk” on their asses with his counter-rucking to win Sexton the chance to pull three points back.

So the lads trudged off into the Irish dressing-room, much as they had done in Paris a couple of weeks before. Maybe we didn't enjoy a lead this time, and yes, maybe we were minus the rock of our scrum, but I can only assume the coaching staff were still setting about formulating a plan to get us points on the board in the second half.

Now we go back to the opening passage. Before you see the words “Reddan does poor box kick”, Ireland had several opportunities to set themselves up for a high kick like those which made sure hay in the first half. I'm telling you, it wasn't even on their radar. Didn't look like it had even been spoken about at half time. If I were Ben Foden in the English dressing room, I'd definitely be preparing myself for that early high garryowen landing just outside my 22, but it never came.

What came instead was a hurried box-kick that fell weakly into his arms, and suddenly England were given the perfect scenario for them to launch a dangerous assault – broken play (it practically got them all their tries in Paris). Two strong bursts from Messrs Foden and Croft later they had a virtual try, with the irony of all ironies being the fact that the Englishman spilled it in our 22 rather than on or around his own.

And of course with the scrum domination playing its part, it didn't really matter who had the put in; before long Farrell is getting that crucial opening score of the half and it's 12-6 to England.

THEN guess what we go and do? We bring on O'Gara for D'Arcy, a swap we had done before to allow Sexton to play at 12. But my question is...why were we doing it then? Surely the sight of the Munster flyhalf on the pitch at the start of the second-half would have made Foden even more painfully aware of an impending aerial assault?

Now, as for Tomás O'Leary coming on for Reddan, it was just as baffling as it had been the previous week. Does Kidney feel he HAS to play with O'Gara? If not, then you could only think it was as punishment for that poor box kick, in which case that's like firing an employee for stealing and conducting interviews for his job in the local prison.

But I went in to writing this piece determined not to dwell on the contributions of D'Arcy and O'Leary, because that would imply I blame them for the result, and I don't.

Nor do I wish to blame Nigel Owens, though I have to say he made an absolute hames of the penalty try decision. Having already both warned AND punished the England scrumhalf for delaying off the base of the ruck, he clearly shouted “use it!” and then I make it 5-6 seconds he let the 5m scrum go on before awarding a penalty to the attacking side? Without indicating an advantage at any stage? Wrong call. Plus the penalty try award itself was wrong as the ball was clear of the scrum.

youngs tryThough it has to be said...not only did all the evidence point to England scoring a try during that sequence eventually anyway, in all fairness they should have had one on the board already courtesy of Mr Croft.   And once they had such a lead they were never going to let it go – Youngs’ try was merely icing on the cake.

So Nigel, you got it very wrong, but this Irish fan at least doesn't blame you either. He did do a good job handing the biting allegation given he didn't actually see it – it will be interesting to see how the powers that be handle it from here.

No, I'm still harping on Declan Kidney & his coaching staff. And it wasn't just about what happened on the day itself. In my SportsNews Ireland preview I mentioned the dangers of the pre-match taunts made by Stephen Ferris & Rob Kearney in interviews. Both are experienced and shouldn't have said what they did, but I still blame their coaches as the squad seemed to have as little by way of a PR plan as they did an offensive one all evening.

OK – NOW I'll mention our scrum. We have only one test-standard tighthead prop, his name is Mike Ross. The rugby adage goes “forwards decide who wins, the backs by how much”, but there's a subtext in that the tighthead decides whether the forwards get to decide.

When the French match was re-arranged all we heard was “four matches in four weeks” over and over, almost as a pre-emptive excuse for possible failure. In the most part, I don't hold water with that complaint because we're talking about professional athletes, but having read Bernard Jackman's book I'd be prepared to make an exception with the front row.

But hang on...didn't we play four matches in four weeks at the World Cup? What did we do then with our “golden tighthead”? We “rested” him the third week giving him 31 minutes when the match was already won, and although I know Scotland are certainly a much better outfit than Russia, if the schedule was such a worry, there was definitely a case for benching him then. Yet they didn't, and I'm not so sure Ross didn't go into the Twickenham encounter with the twinge that did for him in the end.

On the subject of Ireland not having anyone else to play a decent number 3, the IRFU will argue they have already dealt with this via their “succession” policy, so really all we can do is wait and see on that one.

So to summarize...yes, we lost badly at the scrums, but I still think we could have won, though as it turned out, over the full 80 minutes, the better team definitely did.

And you will notice that I have avoided any reference to the two missing Lions captains before now. Sure, our chances would have been better with one or both of them on the park, but the fact remains the coaching staff had plenty of time to compensate for their absence and I don't think they got the job done.

Without knowing what goes on in the coaching sessions I can only speculate but I have a feeling the current Irish approach is more down to a series of complicated plans and techniques than it is to an overall philosophy. This could well be the reason for some players being selected regardless of performance because new names would be required to learn the systems.

I still think the time is right for a new philosophy to be brought in now, because I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything will be different in the 2013 campaign otherwise. JLP

ALSO THIS WEEKEND

Friday, March 16

ENGLAND COUNTIES 34-16 IRISH CLUB XV

ENGLISH LEGENDS v IRISH LEGENDS

ENGLAND U20s 20-9 IRELAND U20s

If the scoreline in points doesnt give you an idea of the English domination maybe the 3-0 try count will. Irish frontline tackling was non existent literally from the kickoff and a converted try in the opening minute set the tone. Still it was only 15-6 at HT but despite having the bulk of the 2nd half possession Mike Ruddock's men couldnt turn it into points and England are champs.

Saturday, March 17

ITALY 13-6 SCOTLAND

Given the day that's in it I hope you'll forgive me for using a uniquely Irish word to describe this match: "shite". Scots spent about 5 seconds total in the opposition 22, Italy needed an extra man to cross the line for a try. Only player worth mentioning is Martin Castrogiovanni for playing his heart out, possibly his ribs too. Not sure Andy Robinson will be on the plane to Oz for the June tour.

ENGLAND 23-6 IRELAND (Women's Six Nations)

WALES 16-9 FRANCE

Hardly the pick of their displays, but recent history shows win #5 is tough to secure for a Slam, and the Welsh certainly did enough to beat a mostly disinterested French side. Cuthbert deserved the game's only try but with Warbuton once more unable to finish a match against France it was Dan Lydiate who proved a more than worthy replacement and owned the breakdown. Gatland surely Lions coach now?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

IRELAND-32 SCOTLAND-14

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[update January 29, 2014] This week’s trip into the HoR archives takes us back to the Scots’ last visit to Dublin, which incidentally was one week before the Twickenham Scrum Disaster. 

SUBDUED

Declan Kidney rightly pointed out during the week that Ireland still have much to play for in 2012, with IRB ranking position set to determine seeding for the 2015 World Cup pool stage draw.

Still, I'm not so sure the obscure mathematics used to determine those rankings are the sort of thing that's going to fire up an Irish Six Nations crowd who knew the Triple Crown, Championship and Grand Slam horses had already bolted from the stable.

But  there was still a job to be done, a tough one by the accounts of many Irish pundits leading up to kickoff. The gist of the overall pessimism was that Scots were unlucky not to have at least one in the win column, they came to Dublin with an supreme lineout, plus the home side were suffering badly with injuries all over the park.

And when it came to the supposed crucial “firsts” in the contest, these fears seem to have well founded. The first scrum led to a Scottish free. Our first lineout throw was chucked way too far and ended up in enemy hands. And the first two scoring chances fell to Greig Laidlaw who gratefully stroked both penalties over the bar giving the visitors as 6-0 head start.

However there were a couple of firsts yet to happen. On 11 minutes, Scots lock Jim Hamilton carried it into contact where he was met by (the yet again supreme) Stephen Ferris, Donncha Ryan and Gordon Darcy who clicked straight into “choke tackle” mode, and whatever about Andy Robinson's midweek mind games they were able to execute it perfectly and force a turnover, thus re-setting the tone of the Irish defence which for the most part has been superb in this campaign.

A few moments later, Ireland won a kickable penalty, but Sexton had no hesitation in holding the ball up to his face and and asking his skipper Rory Best if he agreed they should go for a set move. The hooker in turn had no hesitation in approving the plan.

As with any similar situation in sport, the wisdom of such a bold decision is directly related to its success, so when Ryan took a clean lineout, O'Mahony passed it on quickly and Best planted the ball over the line in the corner, it was of course proven to be a stroke of genius.

Then came the conversion, ironically further out than the penalty kick RTE analyst Donal Lenihan suggested Sexton wasn't too confident in making. Well, despite Sean Lamont's best efforts to get in the kicker's head, he got it over the bar, though going by the reaction to his second kick, which also made it, his contact with the ball was anything but perfect. Only thing I can criticise the Leinster outhalf for is not following that old sporting adage “if you screw up but it still works, make sure it looks like you meant it”!

So despite the early hiccups Ireland quickly got themselves into the lead, one which they were never to relinquish. And to be perfectly honest, that wasn't so much down to the Irish defence as it was to the extremely poor Scottish offence, which seemed to lurch from one touchline to the other like a drunken crab whenever it had the ball.

The one try they did manage seemed at first glance like it was a surging line break from an unstoppable Richie Gray. On further inspection you see he breaks the line first by Eoin Reddan, about half his size, going too high with his tackle on one side while on the other Tommy Bowe, who would have easily felled the giant, being taken out of it by the Scottish rookie full-hack Stuart Hogg.

Before my email inbox gets flooded with tartan taunts, I'd like to make it clear I think Hogg's block was accidental. He was simply running a line so as to take a sneaky offload but once Gray had gotten himself some momentum and open space, there was certainly no stopping him.

So now there was just the three points in it and once more Ireland showed a quality that has been prevalent in Leinster all season, that being an ability to strike back immediately after conceding. Sexton's restart caught the Scots napping and before you could sing a bar of “500 Miles” Ireland were back on the front foot in the 22 pummelling with the phases and eventually notching their third try of the evening courtesy of Andrew Trimble right on the halftime whistle.

The third quarter was easily the most subdued of the four. The only real try-scoring chance was that which fell to Tommy Bowe, after his outhalf found him yet again with a perfectly weighted kick. There's all sorts of ways to argus over that incident. If he was deemed tackled, should Morrison not have rolled away? For me the most logical call would have been a stalemate between the two players on the ground and since Ireland had possession they should have had a 5m scrum.

But what got my attention the most in that period was the substitution on 53 minutes. I get that Rory Best was nursing a rib injury so it was probably planned for O'Gara to come on and assume the captaincy. That's fine...but did Tomás O'Leary, who let's face it is a blow-in to this particular Six Nations squad, really have to come on for Eoin Reddan at that moment?

I know I have argued for the provincial halfback pairing in the past and in general I still do, but in this case Reddan was having a fine outing, and his quick distribution topped off by his (dare I say it Stringer-esque) opportunism for Ireland's second try surely had him in the frame for man-of-the-match. When someone is playing so well, no matter what your pre-match plan, he deserves to left on in my book.

The way it played out, he was only made out like a blow-in himself who could do nothing to force his way ahead of Conor Murray in the pecking order, which for me, is no way to run any team in any sport. There was only an 8-point lead for Ireland at that point so it was still very much a contest, and the perception was that Reddan wasn’t up to the task of seeing it through.

In the end it was Donncha Ryan who took the man of the match award, and I won't say it wasn't deserved, but I will say that he played every bit as well as I would have expected him to had he started every game as so many think he should. I can only assume that much like Reddan and probably Peter O'Mahony (who also had an impressive outing), he is merely keeping the starter’s jersey warm for somebody else whatever he does.

So then with the benches mostly empty and the clock ticking into the final quarter, the Scots got themselves some rare front foot ball of their own in Ireland's 22, and there is certainly a case to be made that Lee Jones having his bell rung at this point gave the home side a chance to re-set their defence. Personally, I'd be inclined to think we would have cleared the danger anyway.

Of course everyone is delighted to hear that Jones is making “good progress” after that nasty clash of heads with Trimble - I really feared for the lad as he fell to the turf with his arms by his sides, not to mention when his head whipped off the ground after the fall.

But Ireland were able to clear the danger and soon found themselves back down the other end creating chances again. And here I feel a paragraph or two are required for the Max Evans sin-binning incident.

First of all, though all weekend folks have gone out of their way to bash the officials, I know I may seem one-eyed in this but I challenge anyone to tell me they didn't get the call absolutely right in this case. Earls clipped it forward, Evans tugged at his arm impeding his progress. There was no way to know if a try would have been scored, so no penalty try, and a 10-minute rest for Evans.

I also would like to address those who berated our centre (many of them Irish) for his tumble after the infraction, particularly the notion that he was somehow reacting “like a wimpy soccer player”.

I'm not a fan of exaggerated diving, but I am a fan of professional sport, and I absolutely 100% back Earls for what he did and would encourage anyone else in a similar position to do the same. He hardly went down like he'd been shot, for crying out loud! He simply went with the very obvious challenge and tried to sell it – for all he knew, there could have been a penalty try for him in it.

To those who say there's “no place in rugby” for actions like that, I'd say instead there shouldn't be any place in the sport for such unnecessary snobbery. A little gamesmanship is part and parcel, and if you dislike what goes in soccer, don't watch it, then you won't need to keep making comparisons!

Anyway, back to the match, all that was left was Fergus McFadden's impressive cameo. I have a feeling Luke Fitzgerald's presence in the training squad during the week must have influenced him (afraid to be another shirt-warmer like Reddan & Ryan) and given only a couple of minutes of game time you could see he was determined to make the most of it and was duly rewarded with the fourth try that made the final margin so comfortable.

So as Chris Pollock blew for full-time, not only had the Aviva Stadium crowd been subdued all afternoon, it seemed so too had the Scots who couldn’t change their side of the scoreboard at all in the second half. A good win & performance for Ireland, but with Andy Robinson's side seeming so limited, I still can't be sure how to rate this Six Nations campaign.

So far we have failed once more the Welsh, handily dispatched the wooden spoon contenders, and kissed our sisters in Paris. If only we had the chance to, oh I don't know, stuff the English on St Patrick’s Day in their own backyard – maybe then Declan can get a thumbs up from us? Sorry , but right now I can only answer that question with a subdued “meh”. Come back to me at full-time next Saturday.  JLP

ALSO THIS WEEKEND

Friday March 9

IRELAND CLUB XV 26-21 SCOTLAND CLUBS

Click here for report on IRFU site

IRELAND U20s 26-0 SCOTLAND U20s

Always comfortable for the Wolfpuppies, a super individual effort early on by Shane Leyden opened the scoring, although they found possession hard to hold on to the 2nd & 3rd quarters. MotM & scrum half Luke McGrath darted in for a 2nd and Jack Conan added a third. Jackson had problems with the boot in the first half, will need to sort if Slam to be clinched at Adams Park next week.

IRELAND 20-0 SCOTLAND (Women's Six Nations)

Click here for report on Scrumqueens.com

Saturday March 10

WALES 24-3 ITALY

Had the Italians not come merely to defend this could well have been closer. In the end they tackled themselves to death tho the Welsh were certainly too cocky for their own good, needing tries from deep by Roberts and Cuthbert (my MotM) to pull away. If the French can still smell a Championship next week Gatland's 2nd Slam will be hard earned. George Clancy about as popular in Wales now as Rolland.

Sunday March 11

FRANCE 22-24 ENGLAND

Huge win for England, though Morgan Parra proved when he came on that had he started things could have been very different. Two early tries built a 11pt lead similar to Ireland's last week then the French didnt wake up until the 3rd qtr. In the end a strong finish from Croft sealed it tho the French once more had a late drop goal chance to pinch it but Trinh-Duc's effort fell short.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

FRANCE-17 IRELAND-17

[Update March 12, 2014 - We do so much harping on how we rarely win in Paris it’s easy to forget that the last time we were there, they didn’t win either.  Still…by choosing this match for this week’s archive slot I’m actually remembering something else - a failing that has dogged this Irish team not only since Joe took over but well beyond.  When we build a lead against these top tier nations we HAVE to be able to knuckle down and bring it home.  Here’s hoping we can do it Saturday. JLP]
 
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Am I the only one seeing a pattern in Declan Kidney's record as Ireland coach?
 
He won the Grand Slam at his first attempt, then for the following 3 campaigns couldn't win more than 3 out of 5. He won his pool at the World Cup including a famous win over Australia then horribly failed against Wales. And yesterday he out-schemed the French on their own turf in the first half but then let them claw their way back to a draw.
 
In my writeup of Leinster's win over Aironi this weekend I had a pop at a couple of Irish dailies for being overly negative about the performance. It could be said I'm being hypocritical by going all glass-half-empty myself over Kidney when his Irish team gets a better result in Paris than any other has done for over a decade.
 
Then again...Ireland aren't exactly on a twenty-game winning streak like Leinster, are we? Anything but.
 
But hey, I'm happy to start with the positive, and like I say, the bulk of it was in the first half. All the pre-match analysis was focused on a need for Ireland to make a statement by doing something far different to that which they showed against the Welsh, and that's exactly what they did.
 
As we all know, Paris is the city of romance, and when you go there you're pretty much expected do at least a bit of flirting, so luckily for us our players chose to do it with the offside line rather than the pretty mademoiselles.
 
That's not to say we were “cheating” per se, but we imposed ourselves from the word go and once we got away with it the first time, the referee couldn't exactly start pinging us afterwards (at least in the first half - I'm pretty sure someone from the French camp had a word in Pearson's ear at halftime).
 
But it wasn't just a case of playing a high defensive line. Once a French ball-carrier was hit, he still had to be dealt with, and we were going with our trademark choke tackle. A risky move sure, but again, it was an occasion for taking calculated risks. I counted four times in the first half where the French had possession going into a tackle and we had it coming out thanks to the upper body strength of the likes of Sexton, Ferris and D'Arcy.
 
While I mention our starting out-half, I must also mention his opening place-kick which was an absolute howler. I went on a bit of a gush-fest about him last week, deserved though it was, but I know he won't be happy with that crucial first effort, and the fact he made his next three together with Parra missing two himself won't be much consolation.
 
One thing is for sure, though...that Sexton miss did not cost us victory.
 
It wasn't so much that we didn't have an offensive gameplan. Our problem, the way I saw it anyway, was that our defensive gameplan WAS our offensive gameplan to all extents and purposes.
 
Everyone talks about Brian O'Driscoll's famous Parisian hat-trick in 2000. And ironically it was two more 13s who helped Tommy Bowe come close to replicating it. First up his intercept of a blind Rougerie pass had to be the result of work in the DVD room, and bravo to all involved. For his second try though, he had a lot of work to do with the space he had, it wouldn't have been there for him at all without a super quick offload from Keith Earls.
 
Neither score, however, seemed to be the result of a pre-determined set of offensive plays designed to create space – and such a set was never to come.  Here is where I ask a question...given we had no dedicated backs coach, is there a rule against an existing player helping out with the coaching brains trust?  Say, for example, someone who would have had the captain's role but for an injury?
 
Anyway...thanks to our devilish tackling, all the home side could muster in reply for the first period was a few penalties, only two of which Parra saw over the bar.  A 17-6 halftime lead was as deserved as it would have been surprising if you somehow knew of it before kickoff.
 
So it's half-time, and there Declan Kidney was again, in that Bermuda Triangle of a time-period. When once it was a year between winning a Grand Slam and retaining it, another time it was a week between reaching the World Cup quarterfinals and playing in them, this time it was for just about ten minutes in a Stade de France dressing room.
 
One thing was for sure, the French weren't done scoring for the day – they were certainly going to come back somehow. I would have thought we needed a mindset whereby we would get our side of the scoreboard moving every chance we had. Is that how things transpired?
 
Well, here's where I talk about the ref. I HATE blaming the man in the middle for a bad result, I think it's an extremely lazy analysis and comes with the assumption that your team was doing everything perfectly themselves.
 
Still...as I suggested earlier, it really did seem as though Dave Pearson was favouring the home side in 50/50 calls. The most blatant example of this was two knock-ons, one he called against us, one he didn't call for us.
 
The ball did indeed tip Paul O'Connell's hand as he reached for an overthrown Rory Best dart soon after the break, but did it go forward as it landed? I'm not so sure, yet Pearson called it, and rather than escape their own half, Ireland remained pegged back inside it until France got the crucial first score of the second period.
 
Then came the French try, and here is where we must mention Rob Kearney. Yet another herculean effort from him overall, and apologies to all Tommy Bowe fans (my daughter included!) but our full-back should have been man of the match. Maybe he didn't get involved in Irish scores, but were he not so solid under the high ball there certainly would have been more French ones.
 
Sure, his kick from deep went a little further than it should've done. But did that bring about the try? No. Though Poitrenaud brought it back into our half, our defence was still doing all that it had done prior to then and eventually Conor Murray tackled Parra and forced the ball out of his hands.
 
Here's my question for Mr Pearson...when the ball dropped from Parra's hands, did it go any less forward than the one that dropped after O'Connell had tipped it earlier on?
 
After that non-call, it took a lucky bounce and a quick offload from Trinh-Duc (his second and last significant contribution on the day) to Wesley Fofana who it has to be said took his chance well however fortunately it came about.
 
Parra may have missed the conversion, but the ref was to give him a chance to make up for it. As on many occasions at the second half breakdown, Irish fans could argue that it was like he was looking for reasons to penalise us. I'm not so sure that was actually the case but he did seem quick to award the chance in front that brought the scores level again for the first time since kickoff.
 
So now the clock was ticking towards the 60-minute mark. By fair means or foul, the lead was gone, but the match was still there to be won. What happens next?
 
Well first there was the unfortunate injury to Conor Murray. He still wasn't quite at the top of his game but given the defensive set-up we were adopting he was probably the right choice to start. Hopefully he will recover quickly as Michael Corcoran's tweet suggests but I'd bet any money that Eoin Reddan was in the frame to come on at virtually that very moment anyway.
 
And around the 61-minute mark, after Rory Best pinched a ball in a manner even the watching Nicolas Sarkozy couldn't have deemed illegal, a spot of garryowen tennis led to Kearney going on one of his surges from one 22 to the other, and hey presto, we're on the front foot much like we were in the second half against Italy.
 
But here's the thing - this wasn't Italy we were playing. So why we went on to play the same offence I'll never know.
 
First of all, Sexton brilliantly drops his shoulder and charges deep into the French 22. But the home defence is solid and a few phases develop.
 
Meanwhile, back in Dublin, an Irish fan with a tendency to harp on rugby is frightening the life out of his in-laws by shouting “DROP GOAL!!!” at the telly. “They can't hear you,” came a reply from one of them.
 
Drop goals should always be in a rugby team's playbook. And I totally get why French teams are as willing to go for them in the first minute of the match as they are the last. Not only does it get you on the board, but once your players are more used to doing it, it will come more easily to them in those “squeaky-bum” situations late in a tight game.
 
Now the first time I think Sexton DID briefly drop into the pocket, but Reddan seemed to usher him into a three-man passing line towards touch. The ball went there, the French defence intervened, the ball went into touch, luckily for us off a blue jumper.
 
Let's put a pin in the drop-goal thing for a moment. Here Ireland has an attacking lineout deep in the French 22 with the scores level. Whatever we plan to do with the ball, we must first secure it. We've failed at both short and long throws already, but with the rain teeming down, it made absolutely no sense to throw it long. Yet we did, and thus lost possession.
 
Still, Trinh-Duc nervously hit it into touch, and this time we saw sense and won our lineout, albeit much further out. Few more surges and phases, and we're back into 22, and now I have finally reached the point of my screengrab which leads off this post. Keith Earls has gotten us this far.
 
I can't see it any other way. You take the blinkin' drop goal here. OK – maybe the world's best exponent of eleventh-hour heroics was still on the bench at this point, but from this position under the posts, any outhalf should at least bloody well try it. The mindset of the international team should be geared around going into drop goal mode in those situations.
 
But no, we go back to the phases. And yes, Gordon D'Arcy screwed up a pass, but given the conditions, the more phases we went through the more it was likely something like that was going to happen. I don't blame our inside centre, in fact defensively I thought our 12 & 13 did extremely well together on the day, I blame the overall offensive mindset of the Irish squad, like when Jamie Heaslip risked Earls along the sideline when clearly it wasn't on.
 
And look what happened next..the French marched down the field but once more couldn't get past our defensive barrier and whether it was excellent Irish discipline or sudden blindness from Pearson we'll never know.  The point is, had we a 3-point lead, chances are we would've held it.
 
At least they took a couple of bites at the winning-drop-goal cherry, but thanks to the efforts of the likes of Stephen Ferris, another powerhouse on the day by the way (his defensive display plus ripped jersey reminded me of Richard Dunne for the Irish soccer team in Moscow), we kept them out.
 
I was glad to hear Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe and even Kidney himself express disappointment afterwards. I felt it too, though I was trying to convince myself, as were many Irish fans on twitter, that I “would've taken the draw beforehand”.
 
Now that the dust has settled, however, I think we should stop wasting time arguing over the Ireland coach's team selections and start evaluating his legacy. He's not going to change what he does – that's the way he is.
 
And without hindsight, I doubt many would go back to 2008 and not replace Eddie O'Sullivan with Declan Kidney. But it's 2012 now, with Scotland, England and a trio of Tests in New Zealand to come before the cycle begins again before the next Six Nations campaign.
 
I think we've all seen enough evidence that Kidney is capable of bringing this group of players only so far, and whatever about the time left on his contract, perhaps the time is getting near for him to step aside so we can all see what happens next. JLP
 
ALSO THIS WEEKEND

IRELAND-36 WALES-0 (Women's Six Nations)
 

Friday, March 02, 2012

Aironi-6 Leinster-22

 
 
Leinster win but fail to impress”,  Irish Times.  “Madigan drags limp Blues over the line”, Irish Independent.
 
See, this is why I keep on bloggin'. In what other country would a top-level sports team go unbeaten for 20 matches yet get have the 20th one summarized so negatively by the national press? Is it that Leinster is but one province and they feel the need to placate folks outside the Pale somehow?
 
“Ah, sure, take heart folks, maybe it looks like nobody can beat them but they were really, really jammy this time”.
 
I mean, let's be clear...they didn't exactly have things all their own way in the Stadio Zaffanella. But was that all down to a poor display on the part of the European Champions? Maybe Aironi are the Pro12 cellar-dwellers and are likely to remain so for a while to come, but does that mean they go out there just to make up the numbers?
 
Not at all. Of course I don't watch the “Herons” play every week, but on this occasion they set themselves up like an away side, almost assuming a 12-man defensive curtain BEFORE they were sure Leinster had the ball. And looking at their record, can you blame them?
 
The visitors were also set up like an away side, because guess what – they were. Sure, if you take a top v bottom fixture in isolation you'd expect the the former to blow the latter off the park whatever the location – but with already an 11-point lead established at the top and much bigger fish to fry down the line, are you really going to go into this one all guns blazing?
 
Leinster poked and prodded at the 12-man curtain as much as they could from the start and it's true, there were a few slip ups along the way, but there were also some penalty chances forced, and Ian Madigan, assuming a rare primary placekicking role, hit three out of four in the first half and with little happening down the other end, a 9-0 lead at the break was very much deserved.
 
The main reasons Aironi weren't clicking going forward was their halfback pairing of Tebaldi and Oliver, who had about as much creative rugby between them as you'd find in my mother-in-law's toenail. And as for the outhalf's placekicking...given the desperate need the Italians have for someone able to punt the egg over the bar, I can only imagine a porky pie or two was told in the process leading to his transfer to Viadana from South Africa.
 
But although he JUST managed to squeak one inside the upright early in the second half,  his coach opted to pull him in favour of Orquera, who at least had some recent experience against Leinster & Ireland to draw on. This switch together with a new prop pairing that included the wily Perugini led to a purple patch for the home side which saw them spend a decent amount of time in our 22.
 
Yet still, our defence was easily able to hold them out. This is something the headline-writers fail to notice – only a half-dozen tries down the other end would have appeased them it seems. All the home side could muster was a penalty Orquera easily converted which saw the clock tick into the final quarter with just three points between the sides.
 
And as I have been saying about Leinster all throughout this run of theirs, they have shown this amazing knack of being able to reach into their back pocket for a telling play or score when required, and when Aironi dared to breach our 22 again, it was Leo Auva'a who dug himself into a breakdown and forced a turnover penalty which told the Italians their side of the scoreboard wasn't going to change again.
 
This was a realisation that no doubt led to frustration in the home side, especially after Madigan restored the six-point advantage shortly afterwards. It's a frustration that no doubt builds up over the weeks as your side loses again and again and again and finds themselves at the bottom of the league. And it's the kind of frustration that will cause a utility back to come in off the bench and follow through on a routine tackle on Eoin O'Malley by lifting him up and driving him into the turf in plain sight of the ref!
 
Here I'd like to thank Setanta Sports not only for doing their best to bring the match to Irish fans by screening it on the Saturday morning, but also for their commentator Will Downing who delivered the line “What a muppet!” as Gilberto Pavan trudged off to the sin-bin after his transgression. The resulting penalty saw Madigan make it 15-6, and shortly afterwards Noel Reid's interception try where he sprinted three-quarters of the pitch wrapped up the contest.
 
On the most part, a positive display for Ian Madigan. I'd give him a C+. It was a stodgy defence to break down and six out of eight placekicks really isn't a bad tally at all. Apart from the odd burst from the backs, particularly one trademark dance from deep by Fionn Carr, there was no standout player on the Leinster side, they just did enough to stay ahead, a fact which made this here blogger very happy indeed.
 
Of course many eyes were on Luke Fitzgerald – perhaps they should have looked away! It was a long lay-off and a double-injury to boot, but those poor misguided lateral passes were rearing their ugly head again, plus he dropped the offload after the Carr run I mentioned, but the man needs an injury-free run in a position he's likely to stay in, and I for one can afford him some leeway for now.
 
So to summarize, right before a two-week layoff after which they face the Ospreys, Munster and of course Cardiff in the Heineken Cup in successive weeks, Leinster travel to Viadana, restrict the home side to six points, come away with a victory, and with the Ospreys slipping up at home, stretch their unbeaten run in all competitions to twenty and their lead at the top of the Pro12 to 14 points.
 
Any online journos out there willing to see the glass as half full?
 
Leinster march on”, Yahoo! Eurosport UK.  “Madigan inspires Leinster to win”, Setanta Sports.  “Leinster Finish Strongly In Italy”, 98FM.
 
That's much more like it!
 
And speaking of online contributions, many thanks to the OLSC courtesy of Leinster superfan Aisling O'Connor for keeping us all back home up to date via twitter of the action as it unfolded. JLP
 
Also this round

Ospreys 20-26 Glasgow
Ulster 38-16 Edinburgh
Scarlets 38-10 Connacht
Treviso 13-20 Cardiff Blues

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