Saturday, May 12, 2012

Leinster-19 Glasgow-15

gla lei

NIGGLES

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.

sexton glasgowBut 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.

Isa GlasgowAnd 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

Ospreys 45-10 Munster

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