Sunday, April 29, 2012

Clermont-15 Leinster-19

[Update April 2, 2014 - This week our trip into the archives goes back to 2012 when Leinster also faced a Heineken Cup knockout trip to France on a Sunday.  It could be said that the upcoming Toulon mission will be a defining point of Matt O’Connor’s role in the post-Schmidt/Sexton/Nacewa era.]

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED

HoR pro logo blueI know this tournament is called the Heineken Cup but the final five minutes of this epic contest reminded me of an ad for Guinness from years gone by.

It features a surfer going out against a series of massive waves which are cleverly depicted by charging giant horses. This is pretty much what Leinster's defence had to do to keep out the all-out Clermont assault in the closing stages and no matter what your allegiance it's hard to deny they deserved their piece of luck when gravity forced Wesley Fofana to fall in such a way that his arm couldn't plant the ball over the line for what would have been the winning score.

And given the overall story of the match, there can be little doubt that the better of the two sides on the day have reached the final, but by God, Leinster sure didn't make things easy for themselves!

Our solid defence wasn't just a factor at the end, it was to the forefront right throughout the match. You could see it in Clermont's choice of options. When awarded a penalty in their own 22 early on, rather than avail of the clearing kick & lineout award, Parra chose the quick tap and even with the defence caught unawares the best result they could get was a Leinster throw-in back in their own half.

But here we had our biggest Achilles Heel – at the time I was berating Richardt Strauss for his darts but that would be a bit unfair to the Clermont lineout operators particularly Hines and Bonnaire as they really did a number on us in a phase of play we heavily rely on for attacking opportunities. Given the moves we do off the lineout we really need all 8 forwards taking part in them and I reckon if this is to be fixed before the final we'll need to work on 4- and 6-man options otherwise Ulster will look to make similar mischief in Twickenham.

In fact, I'm wondering...when was the last time a Leinster team even tried a short “1-2” move between hooker and first man?

Still...in general play, the “visitors” had the upper hand, right from the opening kickoff. Leinster collected it inside their own 22, advanced it to 5m from halfway. Clermont collected it there but were driven back 10m into their own half before turning it over. This was pretty much the pattern for most of the match.

The only way Clermont were able to get attacking positions were from Leinster mistakes, and unfortunately, there were a lot of them.

All the experts said that this would be a “true test of greatness” for this Leinster team for even though it was away from the Marcel-Michelin it was every bit your typical hostile partisan French crowd. And having seen each and every one of these players make the right choices more often than not all season, I have to say it seems to have gotten to them a bit.

Sexton & Rob Kearney struggled with the wind in the first half, with a penalty not finding touch and their normally pinpoint garryowens either going too far or falling too short. Then we had Cian Healy's ridiculous offload which led to the penalty that put Clermont six points ahead going into the break. And of course there was discipline at the breakdown, either being isolated in possession or being too eager without it.

The two biggest Leinster no-nos for me came towards the end. When we went 19-15 ahead there were still 18 minutes left on the clock – after beating 3 tacklers and charging into the Clermont 22 Sean O'Brien chose to kick forward...understandable as he was afraid of being isolated, but still nonetheless a tad reckless.

Then there was Brainfart Of The Day by Eoin Reddan. Absolutely no doubt he made a massive difference when he came on with his speed to the ball at the breakdown plus his accurate box-kicks vital to keeping his side on the front foot. But with the clock past 70 minutes and possession assured deep inside the Clermont half, why does a scrum-half try a drop kick from out wide? I contend that had he taken the high-percentage option of creating front-foot phases we wouldn't have had those heart-stopping moments at the end like we did.

OK, that's enough about the Leinster mistakes, because if I go on any more I may forget we actually won the game! I have been saying all season that one of the biggest strengths of a Schmidt-led side is their ability to get scores when they most need to and if ever this was the case it was after the break. I'm pretty sure the Clermont players were watching last year's final (in fact one of them played in it!) so they will have known the Blues would come at them from the restart.

Yet when Cian Healy touched down for the game's only try there was 41:26 on the clock. Clermont couldn't use their first possession and as things turned out it only took us one good lineout to create enough space for a scintillating line followed by a perfectly timed pass from Rob Kearney to send Church over the line.

And here's a good time for yet another glowing paragraph or two about Rob. Remember what many Leinster fans were saying after our triumph last season? That there was no need for Kearney The Elder to come back into the side because we had Isa? Well you couldn't write a better script for the Louth man to prove us all wrong.

Sky Sports have a graphic device when they want to show a particular player; they darken most of the pitch on the screen and display a God-like beam of light from the heavens on the player they wish to highlight. Since his return to action this season Kearney has mostly played as though such a light were continuously on him, and never more so than his improbable drop-goal. I remember when Sexton went for his in Murrayfield I was thinking : “What the hell is he doing?” Given what I have seen from our number 15 all season, this time I thought “He'll get this, you know!”

Plus – do you remember him pulling off many of his trademark leaping catches? No, probably because Clermont knew not to give him any. Now he wasn't immune to making the odd error himself on the day, but they were very odd and his moments of brilliance more than made up for them and proved to be decisive.

Of the other Leinster starters, Luke was quiet yet again and I was glad to see McFadden given his chance relatively early. I thought Jamie Heaslip deserves a mention because on several occasions especially in the first half he did a good job tidying up when we struggled at set pieces. And there can be no doubt that despite their “advanced” years, the Leinster centre-pairing had the upper hand over their opposite numbers – setting the tone brilliantly with an early combined hit on Rougerie - although if I knew back here in Dublin the ball was going to the Clermont skipper after that lineout, surely they did too! And of course even with the one that barely missed, Sexton was mostly at his usual best for this competition.

But overall despite being the better side it did seem the rugby gods were smiling on us – it certainly didn't help Clermont's cause losing Malzieu and Lee Byrne as they did before the first quarter was even over. And of course there was “that” strike by Leo Cullen.

I never hide from the fact that I'm a partisan Leinster fan, in fact my blog logo has “one eye” partly to demonstrate it. So it won't surprise you that I don't think any more action needs to be taken against Leo Cullen. For me, his swipe was more akin of a player swatting away an opponents arm rather than throwing a punch. Not that it was a clever move by the skipper, however, and I fully expected a yellow. But when it comes to citing, I reckon Lionel Faure's grossly over-stated reactions will work in our favour. That's the kind of antics that will only work in a sport that DOESN'T use video technology.

Besides, if Cullen is to be cited then so will Julien Bardy for charging him with his shoulder amid the chaos at the end. With Clermont having only the Bouclier de Brennus to play for I have a feeling the two incidents will cancel each other out and we won't hear any more. But we have until 5pm Tuesday to find out so you never know…

If anything needs to be called into question it’s Wayne Barnes’ time-management.  With only 2 minutes left on the clock, every second was vital to Leinster if Fofana’s “try” had been legit yet it took him 30 seconds to stop the clock after signalling the TMO, then it went on an extra 10 before it did stop.  Then having signalled no try (in other words Leinster now WANTED it to start ticking) I made it that it took him a further 50 seconds to start it even with both scrums fully formed.  These distinctions are vital at this stage of the game and one of these days it’s going to prove decisive.  My recommendation is that the TMO be used to set the clock, but of course I’m glad it didn’t prove to be a factor here!

Special mention must go to the legions of travelling Leinster supporters – my word they did us proud. Although the arena was every bit as partisan as I described earlier even on the French TV playback you can clearly make out hearty choruses of “Come On You Boys In Blue” and “Molly Malone”.   And by all reports it seems the Clermont fans themselves were more than gracious to their counterparts afterwards and having experienced them a couple of times in Dublin I wouldn’t expect any less.

Meanwhile at full-time there I sat, in the Horse Show House down in the back lounge, still in disbelief that our defence had somehow managed to conquer the advancing waves and slowly but surely it dawned on me that we had reached yet another final, this time an All-Irish one in Twickenham. And not only had it been a successful weekend for Leinster and Ulster, Munster A had lifted the BandI Cup and also of course Connacht participation in next year's tournament had been assured.

Dare I plug another beverage? I dare. Carlsberg don't do rugby weekends... JLP

Also this weekend

Friday, April 27

British & Irish Cup Final

Munster 'A' 31-12 Cross Keys

Saturday, April 28

Ulster 22-19 Edinburgh

Friday, April 20, 2012

Ulster-8 Leinster-16

SF-KevinMcLaughlin-try-Ulster-Leinster-12_rdax_336x260

OUT OF THEIR DEPTH

Context is everything in sport these days, and in European rugby more so than most.

A quick glance at the final score of this contest at Ravenhill could lead you to believe that Leinster were twice as good as Ulster on the night. Then you could even explore the stats a little further and say that if Ruan Pienaar had brought his placekicking boots it would have been a draw.

But you would need yet more information to have the full picture. This is the RaboDirectPro12 we're talking about here. A league where Newport-Gwent Dragons can finish 7th and fail qualify for the Heineken Cup when all 5 teams below them do.

It's a major European rugby competition spanning four nations yet with just two matches to go, a team with every chance of making the playoffs is forced to rest several of their key players on account of another more important match the following week.

To put it more simply, this was a game that really didn't matter. This insignificance was born out for me by the fact that in all the media build up I didn't see any reference to Ulster and Leinster contesting the first ever interprovincial match back in 1875...and trust me, everyone ALWAYS drags that little nugget up at some stage before these two teams go at it.

Having said all of that, this match DID really matter to me whatever the context. It was my first ever visit to Ravenhill, and even without the final score I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

As for the rugby itself, although Joe Schmidt picked a very strong side, you could clearly see with the style of play they were employing that their mission was to get in and out of Belfast with as few injuries as possible, and who could blame them.

They certainly started at full throttle and were rewarded when David Kearney and Fergus McFadden, both unusually sporting head-strapping, powered up the middle into the Ulster 22 to allow Eoin Reddan to take centre stage and keep the phases moving at a quick tempo before a perfectly weighted miss-pass found Kevin McLaughlin in enough space to get over the line.

Johnny Sexton added the extras and I thought the home fans around me (and I MEAN around me as it turned out I was sitting on my own amongst what seemed like an entire stand-full of Ulstermen!) were a bit harsh on their defence. But it wasn't long before their attention was turned towards referee John Lacey.

I was sitting directly in front of one particular supporter who was the Ravenhill equivalent of me at the RDS – every penalty awarded to Leinster by Lacey was “further proof” that he was giving “everything” to the visitors! His anger and colourful-language usage increased with each raising of his arm. Strangely he was silent when Ulster got penalties!

I was also interested to see just how contentious Johann Muller's try was when I got home (couldn't see a thing from where I was sitting) – now don't get me wrong, it was the result of some good work by Andrew Trimble and others in the build up but with a “try or no try?” question I can't see how that could be given.

I could be cheeky and call into question the “local” accent of the TMO when he said “you may award the try” but instead I'll just say that whatever about Lacey's amount of penalty calls against Ulster on the night (11 in all as opposed to 10 against Leinster), to be handed a very dubious touch-down should at least cancel it out! Plus we must not forget, of the eight points that Pienaar left on the field, six of them were from penalties.

On top of all this, not only were the home side missing Stephen Ferris but throughout the course of the game we saw the cotton wool wrapped both Chris Henry and Pedrie Wannenburg and whatever the significance of a match you can't go without such back-row talent without properly replacing them.

Biggest plus for Ulster on the night was definitely Paddy Jackson. He showed some nice touches around the park and clearly looks at home at this level, and I don't see why he won't see a lot more Heineken Cup action next season than the three sub appearances he got this time around.

But even with his good display there was only ever one out-half in control. One key feature of Leinster's play all season has been an ability to get a score shortly after being scored on themselves, and Friday was no exception. Less than four minutes after both Ulster scores Sexton found himself lining up a kick at goal to strike back, and each time it was the result of pressure on or around the home 22.

And the best sight for me was the drop-goal. Please, please may they take that mentality to Bordeaux. The home crowd may have booed but had the roles been reversed they would have been ecstatic. Why plough through a series of phases on the line and risk injury when you can pop the ball over the bar and give yourself an 8-point lead with 13 minutes to go?

The ironic thing about that score is that it was to all intents and purposes Leinster's first real attack of note in the second half. The rest of the time they were holding their defensive line keeping out spirited attempts by the home side to get by, but they were either denied by one of Lacey's “unjust” calls or in one case a perfect execution of the choke tackle which turned it over for a Leinster scrum – I got the feeling that's when the boys in white knew their coach wasn't going to get the perfect Ravenhill send-off he probably deserved.

Elsewhere on the park for the visitors most of them seemed to be doing just what was needed without being outstanding...Fergus McFadden was doing his best Lifemi Mafi impersonation and on the rare occasions he did pass to his outside centre it was like BOD was doing everything he could to get the ball away from him, apart of course from one good burst down the middle before an extremely average pass. And of course it wasn't like the predictable Ravenhill downpours were doing much to help with the egg-chasing for either side.

So I certainly can't fault too many of the players on the night because as I said, this one really didn't matter. The structure of the European rugby season, built on the crumbling foundations of the amateur era as it is, meant Ulster Rugby's brains trust had to make a decision, much as they did when they came to the RDS in December, and I can't deny it was the right one. There will probably be no Pro12 playoffs for them this time around, but all going well next week, a Heineken Cup final berth will make it more than worth it.

Much like my trip to Belfast was more than worth the return journey on the Enterprise. Can't wait to go back – with the talent Ulster are bringing into the club plus the plans they have for the stadium, this match will no doubt become an even bigger stand-out date on the calendar with each passing year. JLP

Also this weekend

Friday, 20 April 2012

Ospreys 31-12 NG Dragons

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Connacht 19-16 Aironi

Scarlets 20-20 Munster

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Cardiff Blues 38-13 Edinburgh

Treviso 8-13 Glasgow

pro12 table

Friday, April 13, 2012

Leinster-54 Edinburgh-13

[Update May 7, 2014 - Edinburgh come to the RDS this weekend and our latest trip into the HoR archives remembers a very unlucky Friday the 13th for them back in 2012.  At the time both teams had Heineken Cup semifinals on the horizon, in Bordeaux and Dublin respectively.]

FIRST AND FOREMOST

The scoreline pretty much says it all, doesn't it? Grand, no need for me to write anything, so!

Well, since I'm here at my laptop anyway, might as well scribble something...

First up, fair play to Michael Bradley for selecting so many of his key players when anyone would have forgiven him for packing them away in their boxes before their next, slightly more important visit to Dublin in a couple of weeks.

However, those very key players themselves can also be forgiven for, shall we say, not exactly putting 100% of an effort in the tackling department, especially in the final quarter.

Case in point...if these two teams contest the Heineken Cup final as they may well do, should Devin Toner be charging towards the tryline at Tim Visser at any stage, I'd fully expect the soon-to-be-naturalised Scotsman to do everything to stop the giant lock. Yet with the match and indeed Edinburgh's entire Pro12 campaign well out of their reach, Visser was actually a bit fortunate not to get himself crunched against the post as he bounced off the tackle allowing Toner to avail of his long reach to plant the ball down.

Fortune played an even bigger part in Leinster's first try, with McFadden's first of his five missed place kicks coming off the post and surely poor Lee Jones will be blaming the date that was in it for the bounce of the ball which twice deceived him before falling perfectly for Shane Jennings to secure the easiest 5-pointer you'll get in this league these days.

Now of course all this talk of missed kicks, fortunate bounces and disinterested tacklers may seem a tad harsh on my beloved Leinster, since they did serve up their visitors a “fifty-burger” which was of course the ideal way to round off yet another more-than-satisfactory campaign for their season ticket holders. But in this game context is everything and I felt the scoreline needed some.

And if the first and last Leinster tries were a tad lucky, the six in between certainly weren't. Say what you want about Fergus' kicking from the tee on the night – it's anything but the primary reason you pick him and once he gets an impressive try himself plus has a hand in a couple more I won't have a word said against him.

Then we have the scintillating lines run by Sean Cronin and Isa Nacewa for their scores. They both made it look incredibly easy but the ability to arrive at such pace at precisely the right moment is one that can only be forged by much, much practise and it really is a wonder to behold.

It was like Leinster were trying to provide examples of every type of try to be used in a training video...the maul that powered into the Edinburgh 22 and over the line for Leo Auva'a to touch down for his 5th try of the campaign was the perfect 8-man effort off a lineout.

Not to be outdone of course was Ian Madigan, who played his part in arguably the two most aesthetically-pleasing tries. First a deft chip from an improbable angle falls perfectly for Fionn Carr, then a mesmerising spin in his own 22 creates the space for first Noel Reid to break downfield before offloading to Brendan Macken who had the wheels to finish. Great to see the two young lads involved in a score for the senior team...especially Reid, who had such a poor outing for the A team the previous weekend.

One other sub-plot in the contest I was following was the performance of the two locks, who must surely be competing with each other for a spot on the bench in Bordeaux. Well the match started with Toner having a good carry on his first possession and then Damien Browne knocking on with his, and when you factor in the try Toner gets right at the end you have to say he won on points and must be in the driving seat. All that of course can change at Ravenhill next week where the home side will no doubt provide a lot more competition despite their equal need for cotton wool to Edinburgh's.

So with two rounds left to play, Leinster have 1st place on the Pro12 in the bag and thus can use their remaining two matches as training exercises. Not a bad return from a side that lost two of its first three matches, not to mention the fact they used their “elite XV” sparingly in the process!

All we can say now as Leinster fans is that we hope Joe Schmidt is able to use the extra time to full advantage before what lies ahead in Bordeaux. To be honest, I can't think of a coach in the modern game more able for that challenge. JLP

Also this weekend…

Aironi 23 - 26 Scarlets

Connacht 26 - 21 Ulster

Cardiff Blues 12 - 33 Ospreys

Munster 35 - 29 Glasgow

Dragons 32 - 33 Benetton Treviso

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Leinster-34 Cardiff Blues-3



Edinburgh fans will rightly point to their players' gritty display on Saturday as a key component of their famous victory over Toulouse, but going by the 8 quarterfinal teams' performances over the weekend, I reckon Lee Jones' 77th minute try against London Irish back in January was just as important.

That score secured the bonus point for the Scottish capital, and without it they would have been the ones playing Leinster at the Aviva with Cardiff hosting Clermont and Toulouse travelling to Saracens. I'm not so sure the Welshmen would still have advanced even then, but there's a strong possibility Michael Bradley wouldn't be busy preparing for a semifinal right now.

But of course that's all about ifs and maybes – the fact remains that pretty much as expected, Six Nations form was turned on its head (Bradley Davies reference fully intended) with Cardiff spending their Saturday evening in Dublin playing Washington Generals to Leinster's Harlem Globetrotters.

Still, the opening six minutes could have hardly gone worse for the home side. Leinster lost the first scrum, their first lineout, conceded the first penalty and as a result of that, the game's first points. Sexton failing to make ten metres from the restart didn't help matters much either.

The tone was dramatically shifted the other way when Rob Kearney rose majestically to catch his gagillionth high ball of 2012 – soon after, his outhalf had the chance to level, he made no mistake and there really was no looking back.

Normally with these writeups I try to avoid long-winded descriptions of tries but Leinster's four were so clinical and so match-defining I see no other alternative.

The opener came from a quick tap penalty taken by Sexton at halfway. This took play into the Cardiff half, and after a few phases Brian O'Driscoll got his first possession, not taking the ball very far but losing his boot in the ensuing ruck.

While the curiously red-coloured footwear lay on the Aviva Stadium turf, play continued, with Cian Healy right in the thick of it with two strong carries and even a cameo at scrum-half. Eventually enough space was created for Sexton to throw a dummy before passing to Kearney who was spoiled for choice with options, eventually going for Nacewa was easily crossed the line.

Having shown more than once against Glasgow that Leinster could score with just 14 men, they now proved they can do it with just 29 boots on!

A few minutes later Sexton missed an absolute howler of a penalty but got a second bite at it (thanks to Pearson's eagle-eye spotted a Bradley Davies push in the lineout – payback perhaps?) around the 22 minute mark to make it 13-3. Five minutes later, this great competition got about as perfect a display of 15-man rugby as it's ever going to get.

Leinster may have conceded a free kick at its first scrum but pretty much dominated it ever since. From a Blues put-in at halfway they actually won a free-kick themselves thanks mostly to a powerful drive from its second row which had a combined age of 71 years. They used this superiority to set another scrum only this time their backs would have the front-foot ball...what would they do with it?

After strong contributions from Sexton, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D'Arcy (who for all his poor form of late had a fine afternoon which befitted his 200th provincial appearance), O'Driscoll and Eoin Reddan, Leinster were deep in the Cardiff 22 then a quick pass from Strauss to Rob Kearney saw the fullback easily over the line. Only Nacewa failed to be directly involved in the move but sure that's fine, he was already on the scoresheet himself.

Some might have suggested that was one of the tries of the tournament but even better was yet to come.

Leinster got a penalty on their own 22 and a perfect Sexton spiral gave them a lineout on the Cardiff one. This is the very situation where Leinster are most dangerous, and ironically also where Ireland failed multiple times during the Six Nations.

Well, there was no failure to be seen here. The play was called and boy, was it executed to perfection.

Strauss threw a perfect dart to Cullen who comfortably guided it down to Reddan. Jamie Heaslip was next in line for it rather than Sexton and this gave the outhalf the space to offload a text-book no-look pass to the arriving Fitzgerald. The Blues were effectively sunk at this point but it took a final pass to the almighty BOD to finish it off.

34 minutes gone, 27-3 to Leinster. Contest effectively over. And I'm not going to apologize for my excessive use of praise in my descriptions because the fact remains it was a display worthy of the words whatever way you look at it.

The second half began with Cian Healy virtually sealing his man of the match award with a crunching tackle on Michael Paterson, then before long Leinster were back in the opposition 22 again, thankfully this time right in front of where I was sitting.

Again Reddan was alive to doing something a bit different and his clever fake before going the other way created the space for O'Driscoll to crash towards the line before a last-second offload to Kearney for his second. The way the number 13 fell to the ground proved he could have taken it himself to equal Vincent Clerc's all-time Heineken Cup try-scoring record but he'd probably argue the pass was the better call as it made the conversion easier!

Now...if you don't happen to be a Leinster fan and you're still reading this writeup, I have some good news and bad news. Good, I won't be doing any more gushing about Leinster's offence from this match. Bad, I'll be doing a spot of gushing about their defence.

Fair play to the Cardiff Blues – they were well beaten when that final try went over but they really did do everything they could to get scores on the board for the final 33 minutes. The only problem was that their opponents, knowing a tough away trip awaited them in the semifinal whatever happened the following day, needed a spell of competitive defensive training and that is effectively what they got.

If it wasn't for Ulster's heroic 187 tackles in Thomond Park I could probably really impress you with the stat that Joe Schmidt's men made 134 on Saturday. Plus there's the fact that overall Cardiff enjoyed 59% possession and 62% territory, which means those figures are probably far greater for the second half. Yet they were restricted to just the three points in 80 minutes.

There really isn't that much more to be said. Whatever happened on the day Welsh fans would always remember the 2011/12 season for the Grand Slam anyway, so it could be argued that the visitors had nothing to lose, and of course not having key names like Warburton and Roberts plus the ice-capades of Mr Henson wouldn't have helped matters either.

But I'm pretty sure the 31-point winning margin shows that Leinster were primed for this match whatever the opposition, and the victory stretches their unbeaten record in this competition to 13 matches.

In actual fact our last Heineken Cup defeat was to Clermont Auvergne on French soil. Guess who we play next and where? Long way to go yet before the destination of this year's trophy is decided, that's for sure. JLP

ALSO THIS WEEKEND

Friday, April 6
BRITISH & IRISH CUP SEMIFINAL
LEINSTER A 29-36 MUNSTER A (aet) 
Such are the standards at the RDS these days that an outhalf should be able to easily see home a 20-9 2nd half lead but sadly for Leinster Noel Reid could not manage this on a poor display all round for the lad. Luke McGrath and Dom Ryan had tries wiped out by O'Mahony & O'Dea and it went to extra time where prop Kilcoyne deservedly got the winning score. Still dont regret going tho!


Saturday, April 7
Edinburgh 19-14 Toulouse
Sunday, April 8
Munster 16-22 Ulster
Saracens 3-22 Clermont

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