Sunday, May 27, 2012
Saturday, May 19, 2012
When I started this blog back in August 2008, Leinster were about to embark on yet another season in Munster's shadow, still cursed by the “all style and no substance” tag, with a few far less diplomatic nicknames thrown in for good measure.
But still the season-ticket sales were growing by the year, and gradually a new phrase was being used to describe the capital’s provincial rugby set-up : “sleeping giant”. It was clear that sooner or later the team would have to produce a standard of rugby on the pitch to match the size of their support.
So when Brian O'Driscoll spoke of “trying to create some sort of dynasty” in his post-match interview with Will Greenwood at Twickenham on Saturday, it wasn't so much a demonstration of arrogance on his part, rather it was an apt description of a process that involved much planning, hard work and dedication to the pursuit of excellence by himself, Michael Cheika and of course now Joe Schmidt that has rightly come to fruition with the unbelievable achievement of three European Championships in four years.
And if you just take into account the final score of this match, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it came from a dominance by the Leinster offence, but that is far, far from the case. A team that was once known purely for its “champagne” brand of back-play has evolved to a point where it can dominate a major final thanks partly to five tries by its forwards but most of all, that fearsome fifteen-headed blue monster of a defence.
For me the deciding of this contest came towards the end of the third quarter. Leinster fans were accused during the week of presuming the match was won before a ball was kicked, but I can assure you the vast majority who have any kind of knowledge of the sport still weren't comfortable when the score was 24-9, especially when the Ulster attacking threat, buoyed as it was by the presence of Ian Humphreys, put an all-out assault on the Leinster try-line.
That very same assault did eventually result in Dan Tuohy crossing in the corner, but only after a exhausting series of events that included turnovers being handed back to them, an intricate lineout move, a spot of blatant holding by Chris Henry on Sean O'Brien off a scrum (thankfully the man-of-the-match chose not to react as he did with Nyanga at the Aviva last year) and an insane amount of phases by the men in white.
And it was the decision to take that scrum which was key. Conventional rugby wisdom would suggest that when you’re fifteen points down and twenty minutes to go, a penalty directly under the posts should be kicked to bring your side within a two-converted try margin. But that convention doesn't take into account the fifteen-headed blue monster.
Clearly Ulster captain Johann Muller's thinking was that if his side was going to need two tries against that defence, since they were so deep in the Leinster 22 it was important to get one then because who knows if or when they'd be back there again. His decision to opt for the scrum was absolutely right, but in the end it took so much out of his side that their power-bar was reduced to practically zero and the five points from the try, however deserved, were quickly wiped out by two Sexton penalties down the other end and to all intents and purposes the match was dead.
I really hope the Ulster fans are proud of their heroes. Emblazoning the players’ match jerseys with their initials was a nice touch and no matter what the result their value is surely immeasurable. For the first ten minutes it was a white tide coming at the Leinster line much as the yellow Clermont one had in the semifinal and just as I expected they took the lead.
But sadly although he had shown plenty in recent weeks to prove he deserved to be there, young Paddy Jackson clearly wasn't quite ready to produce the goods at this level, and who knows how things would have gone had the more experienced Humphreys started, or indeed if Pienaar had played at 10 with Paul Marshall at scrum-half.
Still though, anyone who suggests they were somehow “played off the park” will have to answer to me. They gave it everything they had, thanks to some outstanding displays all round but particularly by John Afoa, Paddy Wallace and the ever-improving Darren Cave.
It's just that despite their determination and ability they seemed to have that air about them that comes with an imminent change in the head coach's office – something Munster have suffered from this season as did Leinster in 2010. Overall though, the Ulstermen are simply at an earlier stage of their evolution and you can be sure it won't be long before their passionate supporters will have cause to stand up for them again.
Once more I'll leave it to the professional journos to give you detailed descriptions of the five Leinster tries, but one moment has to be highlighted before all others : “that” offload by Brian O'Driscoll.
We weren't having things all our own way going forward by any stretch, but the comforting thing was, as it has been at many stages throughout this amazing season, the offensive mistakes were ours. With our solid defence behind us we knew that with perseverance the try-scoring chances would come and as it turned out they did.
But after all the pre-match hype about the importance of the set-piece, it was ironic that a scrum against the head led to the second try, yet although the move was started by Cian Healy's strength in the tight and finished by his bull-headed determination, in a sport where space must be created by ingenuity and flair, O'Driscoll's backhanded offload to Sean O'Brien, so brilliantly captured by that photo, was nothing short of world class.
And of course it wasn't just SOB & BOD who deserved the plaudits. Awesome the defence may have been, but still the individuals deserve to be mentioned, and nobody has gotten their work done so efficiently without standing out in a Leinster jersey than Kevin McLaughlin. He may have been there for his lineout skills but he was certainly taking his blindside responsibilities just as seriously. Officially our “Unsung Hero Of the Year”, perhaps we should be singing his praise a lot more.
Of course you can't fail to mention a certain Mr Sexton. Didn't quite reach the dizzy heights of last season but he barely needed to. And given his personality I am convinced he was determined to stay on the park to get secure the fifteen points required to pip Ronan O'Gara to the top-scorer's spot.
Then there's Richardt Strauss. With all due respect to Jason Harris-Wright, Strauss' health had been key to our march to the title last year. This season he had Sean Cronin breathing down his neck and on more than one occasion the pressure may have affected his game. But it has to be said his hunger for the ball on Saturday was a joy to see and the Irish hooker selection process will be very interesting to say the least when his name gets thrown into the mix next October.
I feel a bit guilty for leaving out some players’ names but hopefully it's implied that the overall team effort was shared among the match 23. Special mention however should go to Brad Thorn for yet another addition to his impressive array of medals, though the question begs to be asked...did Leinster really need him?
In many ways it's unfortunate the final margin had to be as wide as it was, but this was down to the frustration of another seasoned veteran, Stefan Terblanche. Always sad to see a career end on the losing side, but it's even more tragic to have his final act be one so reckless. Few would have thought Ulster could get this far after Jared Payne's season-ending injury but the 36-year-old South African was more than capable of stepping up when required, and at least the recipient of his disgraceful tackle was able to cross the line himself moments afterwards.
Referee Nigel Owens deserves a mention, but he should be proud that it’s only a fleeting one to befit his solid yet barely noticeable presence throughout.
One last thing about this match...I see already people are saying “ok, fine, but what about the Irish national team?”. Not saying that isn't a legitimate question, but it certainly isn't one for now. To harp on about that as the Leinster faithful rightfully celebrate such a triumph is to take the phrase “sour grapes” to a whole new level if you ask me.
Because whatever about the upcoming trip back to New Zealand, the fact remains the domestic season isn't over. With Heineken Cup number three in the bag, Joe Schmidt, already a Leinster legend before the final began, must assemble his awesome avengers once more to face their arch-nemesis from this season the Ospreys, hoping to complete that word that rhymes with “trouble” which I refuse to type yet. And despite the fact that the contest is in Dublin, you can be sure the Welshmen will come with absolutely no fear whatsoever.
We'll see if the fifteen-headed blue monster has one more mighty battle left in it, but in the meantime, forgive me for feeling on top of the world. JLP
Saturday, May 12, 2012
Yet another semifinal finishes 19-15 to a Leinster team that had to endure a goal-line siege in the final five minutes but this time it was a whole lot less stressful for our fans to endure.
Definitely not the sort of contest you'd want to be over-analytical about, but still there was plenty in the Leinster performance, especially on offence, that neither Ulster nor Ospreys will mind seeing replicated over the next two weeks.
That it took the home side 65 minutes to cross the Glasgow line was certainly much to do with the visitor's stubborn defence. And you can be sure Sean Lineen was able to make full use of their short-handed goal-line stand late in the first half to rally his troops.
But although the Warriors played up to their name without the ball for the first three quarters, this Leinster offensive display left me with some doubts that are far more “niggly” than the injuries that befell Messrs O'Driscoll & Kearney the day before.
And at the epicentre of my concern is Mr J Heaslip. Sure, the stats will show that this was his tenth time leading out the side and he is still yet to be beaten when doing so, but I wonder how proud he will be watching back the DVD?
At this level of rugby, indeed in any sport, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to keeping a level head when it matters and making the right play at the right time. On three separate occasions that I saw, Jamie didn't do that.
First was off a scrum when he chose to fling the ball back through his legs “gridiron shotgun” style when his tight-eight was already under immense pressure. Second was when he collected a turnover in his own 22 and went on one of his marauding rampages that befits the name of his restaurant, carrying the ball defiantly in one paw. Sadly all it took was one well-timed swat and Leinster were back on scramble defence...lucky for their skipper this phase of our game was its usual impeccable self when it mattered so nothing came of it, but given that the clock was ticking down to half-time, a much safer option was required.
But he saved his “best” for last...at a time when Leinster couldn't seem to buy their way into opposition territory in the third quarter, he set off on another raid, this time getting from inside his own half right into the 22. Everyone in the 15k crowd could see he had two men outside him ready to take it further, unfortunately he couldn't and lost it in the tackle. Again...a cool head would have realised that the smart move was to consolidate our position rather than go for the YouTube moment.
Perhaps I'm being a bit hard on the Leinster & Ireland Number 8, but although as it turned out we had enough in the tank to finish on top and get the job done, I'd be worried that this mindset of invincibility could be our undoing if it continues. Ulster built a big early lead over Munster in the Heineken quarters much as the Saints did over us in Cardiff...difference was, they were able to hold on to it and I certainly won't want to rely on another Jonny Sexton pep-talk in Twickenham.
But one way I am being unfair on Heaslip is that I may be suggesting he was the only problem in Leinster's offence. Sexton himself, although named man-of-the-match, could have made life a lot easier for us early in the second half had he found even one of the two touches from penalties out of the hand. Plus towards the end of the first half Fergus McFadden was screaming blue murder for the cross-field kick as his opposite wing had a sun full in his eyes casting a twenty-meter shadow behind him but it wasn't even on Sexton's radar when surely it was worth a shot.
And although Ian Madigan overall had a decent outing at inside centre, I'm not so sure his decision to kick forward early in the second half with Richie Gray towering over him was the wisest!
Then there was Eoin Reddan. The margins are so fine between himself and Isaac Boss that just one poor display should see his place in jeopardy and after two kicks into touch on the full and one chronic missed tackle on Chris Cusiter, if it were down to me I'd feel I'd be insulting Boss greatly by not starting him at Twickenham next Saturday.
Now...I reckon I've been critical enough – I seem to be doing a lot of this recently even though they keep winning but the fact remains that no trophy has been won yet and I'll keep saying it until that status changes!
Still, as I said earlier, our defence was solid and it's a great thing to have in your back pocket. Despite my desire to look for flaws in the performance I'm certainly not going to find fault in the lads for letting in two Glasgow tries at the death...the game had been won at that stage and if anything all credit should go to the visitors for not dropping their heads when few would blame them for doing so, especially after Duncan Weir's uncharacteristic missed place-kicks failed to capitalise on their third-quarter dominance.
And it's not as though the poor execution & decision-making was there throughout the team...after some good work by Sean Cronin & Brad Thorn forced a rare second-half attacking set-piece for Leinster, a burst by Fergus McFadden into the 22 gave us the front-foot ball we needed and when Isa Nacewa gets the ball at full pace when facing someone the size of Warriors lock & skipper Ali Kellock, 10 times out of 10 he's going to get by and that half a metre of space was all he needed to put Dave Kearney in for the score that had the home fans heaving a sigh of relief.
I was also happy to see the lineout working reasonably well though this was mostly down to the presence of Toner who won't be starting next Saturday. I particularly liked the long-ball option to him, a very clever one that should be used again.
Of course the other concern on the day was injuries to key players...first off was D'Arcy who fell foul of one of the game's biggest dangers...a trailing knee when your head is near the ground. Hurts like hell at the best of times, doesn't help much when the knee belongs to Brad Thorn either.
Then we saw Cian Healy limping off – though I thought Van Der Merwe and later Nathan White put in solid displays off the bench it was a relief to hear that both Church and Darce should be ok for next Saturday.
Clearly the unluckiest Leinster player on the night, or indeed the season, was Eoin O'Malley. Still waiting for official word on him but it doesn't look good, and it could be the end of his campaign. Make no mistake though – once he stays fit next season we'll be hearing a lot more from him. Though things were slow on offence, he and Ian Madigan between them kept the centre channel firmly shut throughout every bit as well as their more illustrious team-mates would have.
Finally a paragraph should be offered to George Clancy…I don’t think he was a factor on the night, but I do believe the Scots would be justified in querying whether or not an Irish ref should be officiating a major semifinal involving an Irish club, especially when it’s in Dublin. Still, you’d really have to stretch to suggest he had anything to do with the result. It was an evenly-fought contest most of the night, with the exception of that crazy maul towards the end that had more stamps than a post office (from players on both sides, I might add)!
But at the end of the day, the job was done and now Leinster are just 160 minutes away from true greatness. Though when it comes to match preparation, they must surely go to Twickenham with a mind to leaving it all out on the pitch and taking what's left home to face the Ospreys.
All that's left for me to do in the meantime is keep my niggling doubts in check and trust Joe Schmidt & his staff to get the boys in blue ready for the battles ahead. JLP
Also this weekend
Friday, May 11
Wednesday, May 09, 2012
So thanks to all who followed this blog throughout the year - keep tabs on HarpinOnRugby via blog, Facebook or twitter to see what is planned for next season! JLP
NOTE = The Roots & All posts from the 2011/12 season have been all kept on draft and are available on request.
© JL Pagano 2012
Saturday, May 05, 2012
How does a writer do a writeup about a match he hasn't seen? That's the challenge that faces me this week.
For the previous 29 competitive matches of Leinster's season I had seen each and every minute, either in person, live on the telly, or by tape delay when the networks didn't deem the match worth showing.
I suppose I could make this article a rant about why it wasn't on the telly, but the thing is I already did that last season for our trip to Aironi.
Besides, it's not exactly comparing like with like. This was the final series of the RaboDirectPRO12 regular season, and thus all six contests were to kickoff at the same time. It would be hard to fault the broadcasters for picking out the contests that actually had something riding on them, and you certainly couldn't say that about what was going on at Rodney Parade (or “Dave Parade” as it is affectionately known by the fans) Saturday evening.
Leinster already had 1st place sewn up and as for the Dragons, finishing as high as seventh last season wasn't enough to avoid being the only team in the league to miss out on Heineken Cup rugby so this year's 9th-place finish wasn't going to bring much glory either.
On the scoreboard, only two Leinster players registered, both of which were meant to be names for the future though one has forced his way to the bench of the Heineken Cup team.
In the lead pic you see loose-head Jack McGrath touching down for our only try – you'd wonder how much first-team rugby he'll see next season with Heinke Van Der Merwe extending his stay but we certainly won't complain about having a promisiong Irish-born prop at the province that's for sure!
And then of course we had the six goals slotted by Ian Madigan. This wasn't meant to be his year at all. If it was, Mat Berquist would never have been brought over from the Canterbury Crusaders. Ironically Berquist's injury that virtually ended his season happened against these very same Dragons, during Leinster's first victory of this Pro12 campaign back in September.
With Sexton otherwise occupied, Ian McKinley tragically being forced to retire and Noel Reid as yet uncapped at the highest level, there was only Madigan to turn to and that's a lot of pressure for anyone to take on board, but take it he did and there is little doubt a large slice of the credit for the first place credit must go to him.
Not that it has been plain sailing, of course. Every time I'd watch him it seemed as though he was favouring one aspect of his game over the others. Sometimes he'd show some great skills dropping his shoulder and gaining yards, sometimes he'd pull off some amazingly accurate long zipped passes which took out up to three defenders, sometimes he'd land some monumental placekicks. Although he seldom managed to put all these together in one performance, it was always enough to see Leinster home and oh, yeah he helped himself to seven tries along the way as well.
Let's just say that my confidence in the young ex-Rock boy is such that I'd definitely be happy starting him in the Pro12 playoff against the Warriors next Saturday. I have a feeling coach Schmidt is going to opt for a strong bench just in case he needs a few front-line players in the final quarter but Madigan has shown he has the ability to put in a match-winning 80 minute shift all on his own.
One name Leinster fans may have forgotten that I feel should be mentioned is Cillian Willis. No disrepect meant to John Cooney, but with Boss & Reddan off down under it was clear the young Lansdowne scrum-half was out of his depth in that opening day loss in Swansea – we needed someone with experience to come in and steady the ship and Willis did just the job until our internationals came back. He went off to Sale Sharks in November and hopefully he'll be able to see more top flight action next season because he definitely played a big part in getting our season back on track.
That's about all I feel I can write regarding this match. But in some ways the incomplete nature of my report is ironic. There have been 30 matches for Leinster in Pro12 & Heineken Cup this season – we have lost just 3, drawn 2 and won a whopping 25. Yet as of now the only Irish province with any silverware to show for this campaign is Munster.
The next three weekends will show how the 2011/12 campaign will be remembered...and let me be clear, I'm totally happy with that. There are those who will question the value of “playoffs” as a means of deciding a championship but even with Leinster's success so far I feel that if you're meant to be that good you should be able to perform on a knockout occasion as well with most of the rugby world watching.
No doubt Leinster will be favourites in their remaining matches this season, but you never know what can happen in this sport...and early red card here, a controversial refereeing decision there, and basic loss of form even. The biggest task Joe Schmidt faces over the coming weeks is to keep his squad focused, but I have to say if he can't do it, noone can.
Here's hoping the boys can make this season complete.
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