“COME ON, EX!!!”
If it wasn't for the distinctive English west-country accents of the folks behind us at the RDS on Saturday, you wouldn't be sure if the above shout, given several times during the match, was for the visiting Chiefs or if it was by a Leinster fan hoping for the tablet he'd just popped in exasperation to kick in so he could forget what he was looking at.
There's no denying this was a below-par performance from the reigning champions, and you can be sure I have plenty to moan about in this writeup. But first I must look at the positives, for surprisingly enough, there were some.
Rob Baxter's Exeter Chiefs ran the underdog playbook to near perfection on the day. Be pesky at set-pieces, do what you can to force mistakes, punish them when you do, and be sure and limit your own. If they failed at any of those it was the punishing, though of course Ben Moon's brainfart of a tackle that won us what turned out to be the game-winning penalty certainly didn't help either.
It looked to all intents and purposes that their entire season was leading to this fixture and although they did take away a losing bonus point as consolation, they certainly could have had several more. They have a great set of fans, too – it was definitely the best atmosphere the RDS has seen since Clermont’s visit in 2010.
But it wasn't all doom and gloom on our side of things, and when you look at how our season had gone before Saturday, you would certainly need to take some heart from it. To an average rugby fan, this certainly was a brutal game of rugby. But I wonder how a top defence coach would see Leinster's display. I'm not one, but for what it's worth I reckon we were nigh on perfect without the ball, and it's on this defensive strength that our success in this competition has been built.
The key turnover of the afternoon for me was Brian O'Driscoll's in our 22 on 77m, but overall the credit has to go to our back row. Sure, it was Kevin McLaughlin that coughed up the penalty at the end, but the stat-man gave him 20 tackles with Jennings & Heaslip bagging 17 each, plus on top of that over a half a dozen turnovers at the breakdown. Please, please don't ever discuss this match without acknowledging their contribution.
And they had more than adequate help from the rest of the team. Exeter held a couple of wrecking balls in reserve for the final quarter like Naqelevuki and Mumm but the 15-headed blue monster held firm throughout for me only Ulster's defensive performance at Thomond Park could be considered better.
Pretty much everything Leinster did wrong on the day happened when we had the ball, and it all seemed to stem from our decision-making. As much as I love to see a “champagne” style of rugby, I still feel there is a time and a place for it, and the scoreboard being close is neither of those for me. So why we kept going for the long, flat passes that weren't really on like Sexton tried in their 22 or why O'Driscoll tried a no-look pass, both in the opening portion of the match, I'll never know.
We seemed to be getting it right in the third quarter, doing the simple things like controlling the phases and using centres and wings to cut a swathe through the middle, but the trouble was at that stage, Exeter had been pumped full of a major dose of belief that they could get a result, and with the scores close, it put extra pressure on us to make that final pass like BOD's to Sexton that went awry.
Perhaps if we had kept things simple early on, when we would have been a bit more composed, we could have used that superior experience in this competition (graphic of the match from Sky was Leinster's winning the HCup appearance count by a whopping 540-41) to build a lead, THEN turn on the crowd-pleasing moves in search of the bonus point.
But we seemed to choose to ignore that experience advantage, especially on the 77th minute, which is the source of my biggest beef against Leinster from the day. You may think it would be the McLaughlin penalty, but no, it was two minutes before it.
After forcing a gagillionth turnover, the ball popped loose and Heinke Van Der Merwe, complete with bloody headband, showed extremely un-prop-like agility to pounce on the ball. A bit of protection followed to help secure it, and in the process a Chief knocked the ball on, and the ref's arm went out for a Leinster scrum.
I don't care how many stars are on your jersey. You're 9-6 up in a tight game, you win a scrum around half-way on 77 minutes, YOU TAKE IT. I can't see any way around it. Perhaps the Chiefs had caused us some problems in the scrum, but they had caused us problems everywhere. Take the scrum, eat up some clock, give them less time to cause us problems. Worse thing that happens, they win a penalty I know, but when it's our put-in, we should have faith in our tight eight.
For me, THIS is why we were biting our nails as Jim Carrey, er, I mean Ignacio Mieres was lining up his kick at the end. Thankfully although it wasn't a day for try-scoring, the conditions weren't ideal for goal-kickers either and his miss meant we didn't taste the medicine we dished out in Montpellier last season.
Can't go without mentioning the referee Pascal Gauzere, or “Monsieur Le Peep” as Mark Robson called him. Perhaps his willingness to go to his whistle is why that scrum wasn't taken, but in my book his performance will be more noted for things he missed. Yes, Exeter were more like the MisChiefs at the breakdown, but you must apply the McCaw principle here that when it isn't called, it's good play. But Leinster fans should feel lucky the officials missed a transgression or two of ours, like Isa's trip on Whitten - I wonder how our defence would have coped with a man down.
As for the troubles we had been having at 12, I still think Fergus McFadden is the answer, it’s just we're not using him properly. What hay he made on the afternoon was mostly in broken play. As Dewi Morris said in commentary : “He actually carried it too well!”, in that when he puts his head down and pumps his legs he gains yardage but leaves himself isolated. Were he used more often off set-pieces, he should have enough support to take full advantage of his skill set.
And as for Eoin Reddan, I have read a lot of criticism around the ruggersphere about him; I reckon this is mostly based on one poor box-kick in to touch and I certainly wouldn't drop him for that. Let's just say over the weekend's showing by Irish starting 9s, he was not as good as Marshall but DEFINITELY better than Murray (didn't get to see Connacht's match yet).
Finally there's Ian Madigan at full-back. Do you leave him there? There's a possibility Rob Kearney may be fit, but if he isn't I reckon Ian will be tested from start to finish by the Scarlets. Here may lie Joe Schmidt's biggest selection headache during the week...perhaps put Nacewa to 15? Though of course this decision might be taken out of his hands by the “greater good” principle because we're trying to bring Mads on towards test level and to drop or even swap him wouldn't exactly do wonders for his confidence.
So overall, how should we feel about our visit to Llanelli? Well we certainly know what they can do to us, but I doubt they'll be expecting to mete out a similar hiding. If we can keep the defence at the same level and tweak our gameplan when we have the ball, I reckon we can show them why we've won three out of four. We shall see. JLP
Also this weekend