Saturday, December 01, 2012

Leinster-37 Zebre-7

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[Update March 19, 2014 - This week’s trip into the HoR archives takes us back to Leinster opponents this Friday Zebre’s one and only previous visit to the RDS…can you remember who wore 13 for us that night?]

WHAT YOU'D EXPECT

It certainly had been a day for things not happening as they normally would in the world of rugby.

The All Blacks getting pummelled by England? Nathan Sharpe taking a conversion? Anyone predicting those events would have been both laughed and pointed at by most on Saturday morning.

Thankfully for the RDS faithful, though they saw a lot of things in this Leinster v Zebre match they wouldn't necessarily have expected, a first victory for the new Italian franchise wasn't one of them.

It all started with the team selection...Gordon D'Arcy's name beside the number 13 raised many an eyebrow, though I'm pretty sure most people were comfortable that he could do a decent job there, and he most certainly did.

I'm sure a lot more eyebrows went up at the 0-0 scoreline after 20 minutes. However, this surprise would be unfair on the visitors. They have put in some good displays this season despite their dozen defeats, they seem to have a good mixture of youth (like their winger Santo who has a look of Shaggy about him, physically at least if not in execution just yet) and experience (Tebaldi, Bergamasco, Sinoti) in their squad, and given time should be able to make a decent impression on the Pro12.

After all, it's not like they're a schoolboy organisation...they are professionals who spend a week preparing for the opposition that lay ahead same as any other. This was borne out by the fact they started both halves impressively, going out with a set gameplan each time and being able to carry it out for the opening exchanges.

Thing is, though, in team sports, particularly one like rugby union, you need to be ready for your opposition to counter your gameplan, and once Leinster found a way to turn the screw, the Zebras were unable to change their stripes.

The first of our five tries was certainly worth the 26-minute wait. Fergus McFadden, who went on to win the man-of-the-match award, set it up by virtually showing everything from his skill set in one fell swoop...good line, clean take of the pass, strong running, no fear taking the ball into contact.

Then it was a certain Mr Sexton with a precision long pass to Sean O'Brien, who you'd swear had never been away given how he easily steadied himself, drew the final tackler and put Conway in for his second try of the season.

The nerves were nicely settled, the visitors were promptly rattled, and it wasn't long before the Italians' repeated breakdown offences had them a man down. A drop of the shoulder and outstretched arms from Sexton later, and it was all but over as a contest at 17-0. Perhaps his opposite number Daniel Halangahu didn't exactly fall over himself to stop him getting through, but with the Heineken Cup around the corner it's great to see our out-half willing to back himself in those situations.

Halftime saw the cotton wool brought out earlier than usual, with Sexton and O'Brien getting deserved rests, and once we had weathered the early second half “storm” that was Tito Tebaldi's try, it was time for the Fergus McFadden Show to really take off.

Both his tries came from a clear-cut determination to find the line, with first Darcy and then Ian Madigan helping out on the supply front. And Ferg even added a couple of place-kicks into the bargain, leaving his starting spot against Clermont in no doubt, and also putting it up to Declan Kidney that he must at least be in his matchday squad come Six Nations time.  But it certainly wasn’t anything less from him than Leinster fans would have expected.

Best moment of the day for me was Cian Healy's try that sealed the bonus point. It was a typical “deadly from three yards” dot down for him, but the sight of Eoin Reddan “helping” him over the line gave me a chuckle or two!

So overall a satisfying evening at the office for Leinster, and of course with no disrespect meant to the opposition, the fixture was played with that back-to-back series with Clérmont firmly in mind.

Slot in David Kearney for Andrew Conway and I reckon the backline that started Saturday will be the one that starts next Sunday. Back in September we certainly wouldn't have been expecting Goodman at 12 and Darcy at 13 for such crucial contests, but both seem to be playing with more than enough confidence to stand up to the likes of Fofana and Rougerie.

On the bench we should have our nippy winger Isaac Boss who I hear can also play a decent scrum-half, Madigan of course and finally ABC...no I don't mean Andrew Conway as I don't know his middle name, I mean Anyone But Carr. Sorry if I'm hard on Fionn but I'm not sure how many times you can find a way to draw negative attention to yourself before dropping out of matchday 23 recognition!

As for the pack, well it would be hard not to start the front row that did similar for Ireland, but with Van der Merwe, Cronin and Bent in reserve we should be able to give ourselves a decent platform at scrum-time for the full eighty minutes. And with McGrath, Hagan and Moore all doing reasonably well in their cameos it seems we're well stocked.

When it comes to our selections at lock, maybe we need to talk about Devin? Much was made about Declan Kidney's attack on Mike Ross through the press during the November series...I'm wondering if Joe Schmidt is doing similar with Toner.

The lad hasn't exactly been awful for Leinster, but given the Brad Thorn rumours were about this time last year and now a bid for Mike McCarthy has been mooted, it really seems there isn't an awful lot of love for him round the coaching table.

I could be wrong of course, I just thought it strange he wasn't mentioned at all when the side was announced for this match. Maybe I'm falling into the age-old blogger trap of reading too much into something that's nothing.

All of which means Leo Cullen is likely to be partnered by Damien Browne in Clermont, with the back row of O'Brien, Jennings and Heaslip surely picking itself. Given both Ruddock and Locky can play second row maybe both can take to the bench if Toner is out of favour? I think lineout prowess will play a large part in the selection here as it is an area Clermont will be looking to dominate.

But all that will be revealed during the week. Definitely our biggest match of the season so far awaits us, and there's one thing we can certainly expect... a battle of epic proportions similar to last season's semi-final. Despite the odd wobble we have had this season, you can bet your bottom euro their fans are every bit as anxious as we are. JLP

ALSO THIS WEEKEND

Ospreys 33 - 12 Cardiff Blues

Benetton Treviso 32 - 13 Dragons

Connacht 23 - 24 Edinburgh

Munster 31 - 3 Glasgow

Scarlets 12 - 19 Ulster

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