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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Leinster-22 Edinburgh-16

Sexton try v Embra

STANDARDS

Leinster haven't won three out of their first four matches since September 2009, so you'd be forgiven for thinking this was going to be an optimistic writeup.

But these days standards at the RDS are set by a different three out of four, namely that which permits us to add so many stars to the impressive new Heineken Cup jersey launched last Saturday morning.

So while of course I am happy with the four points that continues our climb up the RaboPro12 table, I can't exactly write an account of this match as a shining example of how those very standards I mention were set.

Before a ball was kicked on the day there were talking points...after the minute's silence out of respect for the Spence family, the Leinster crowd, not exactly renowned for its chanting it has to be said, paid their respects with a rousing chorus of “Stand Up For The Ulstermen” until the match kicked off.

Then came the news that a pulled quad muscle meant Eoin Reddan was taken out of the starting lineup as a precaution. And with injury concerns also to D'Arcy, Sexton and Cullen on the day, we will be more anxious than usual to see the Monday “Leinster Squad Update”.

8014997985_6a0b085ce4_bBut before I look at Leinster's display, I have to mention our visitors, in case there's any mistaken impression that we should have been expected to beat them handily. I felt the bookies' spread giving Leinster a 16-point advantage going into this contest was a bit hard on Michael Bradley's side.

In a short space of time the former Connacht boss has done a hell of a lot more than merely rest swathes of players before Heineken Cup matches. He has also instilled in his squad a belief that by playing to their strengths and making the right decisions in given situations they can not only hold their own but actually beat the very best in the game. They were one strong Dutch-born try-scoring winger away from winning this match, luckily for Leinster they left him at home.

Yet with Sexton dotting down (main pic) in the first ten minutes it looked for all intents and purposes that a haul of points similar to that we achieved in the same fixture back in April was on the cards, but that was just not to be. It's just you'd like to think that we'll always score when given that kind of front-foot platform...the trick was how we would cope when things were made difficult for us, and this is where we struggled going forward as the visiting defence found its mojo and made progress more difficult.

Making hay when the sun shines is all well and good, but when we had the ball I didn't see a whole lot of ideas there to put us into attacking situations. I counted eight times we kicked the ball straight to an opponent, and it may well have been more.

Our offensive problems were most evident during the two Edinburgh sin-binnings. We had done well to get to their line in the first place and there is no doubt that both yellow cards were justified. But of course it's not enough to earn the advantage, you have to exploit it, and a measly 5-3 score in our favour during those dozen or so minutes simply didn't cut it.

While overall our scrummaging was one of our better features on the night, I felt we made an absolute hames of the ones on their try line. Even without the two extra men on the park we should be executing a productive set-play and I wonder was it that Jamie Heaslip didn't have enough confidence in his scrum half that we didn't get the maximum yield from that situation?  If so he should have given young Cooney more credit because he has had a fine start to the season overall.

Whatever the reason, by not pressing home our advantage we sent a message to defensive coaches all around the league (and beyond) that perhaps risking yellows on your own tryline against us isn't the worst thing you can do.

Then there was our defence, which is meant to be the cornerstone to our success, but so far this season only Zebre have conceded more points than us in the competition.

I have a feeling I'm going to be bemoaning the choke tackle all season, but if our players must persist with it like a broken record, then so must I with my bemoaning. Les Kiss' legacy to Irish rugby can be a super weapon, but I believe it is one to be kept in reserve and only used in the right situation.

By spreading a net cordon of tacklers across the field, it is surely more important for the defender making first contact to stop the attacker by hitting him low and trusting his teammates on either side to set about both preventing the offload and trying to wrest the ball free.

chokeInstead our defenders seem to hit them square on or too high to try and establish an arm position where they are able to hold them up and either rip it free or win the turnover scrum, and for me, the risk vs reward numbers just do not add up.

Time after time this season we have been scrambling on our own try-line, not because of a ROG-style kicking game against us, but rather a clean break down the middle of the park. And our opposition will simply keep on doing this until our weak spots heal up and they know that is no longer a viable option for them.

As it turned out, we were able for the most part to compose ourselves when on our own line, the only exception being Edinburgh's only try where I felt Kevin McLaughlin was slow to establish himself at the post position allowing the gap for the prop Nel to go through, but overall we're ok in this situation, it's just I'd rather not be in it at all.

So as you can see, I feel there's much work to be done. Can you only imagine what I'd be writing if we'd lost? Well the fact remains, we very well could have. With just a few minutes left on the clock we won a penalty at halfway and then a rare lack of focus from the visitors saw them back-chat the ref who awarded us another ten. The new laws give us ninety seconds to take a place-kick – however attractive a carrot the try bonus may be, surely we should have gone for the posts at that time? The resulting sequence saw Edinburgh just 6 points behind with the ball on our 22 and anyone who saw the 2012 Rabo Final (in other words, the vast majority of the RDS crowd) knows how that can turn out.

In our pack I have fewer concerns for the time being. Cronin had a few wobbly darts, but for the most part things seemed ok, and it was interesting how they went to Heaslip at the crunch lineouts. In the front row things are holding up well and hopefully we'll be able to give Hagan & McGrath more game time in the weeks to come. As for Tom Denton, it seemed a solid outing for him but right now I would certainly have Cullen & Toner as our marquee pairing with Damien Browne on the bench.

Of course there were positives in the display. Shane Jennings has had an outstanding start to the season and is a major exception to my defensive quibbles. Fionn Carr had probably his best outing since he came back from Galway and deserved a try or two for himself.

And I'd be disowned by the Blackrock College Past Pupil's Union if I didn't rave about the third Leinster try, resulting as it did from a move that began on one side of the pitch with a fine run by Andrew Conway and finished on the other by Brendan Macken for his second after a neat “one-two” sequence with Jordi Murphy, and thanks to the quick hands of the great BOD himself in the middle of the park.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that we seem to have an air about our play that “because we're Leinster” there is always the need to take things up a gear and press home our dominance whatever the situation. This concerns me because I don't want the tale of our 2012/13 campaign to read like the one about the hare and the tortoise. And the opponents we're facing over the next month are anything but tortoises. JLP

Also last weekend…

Glasgow 27 - 17 Connacht

Zebre P v P Ulster

Scarlets 16 - 23 Ospreys

Munster 33 - 13 Dragons

Cardiff Blues 34 - 18 Benetton Treviso

PRO12 TABLE

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