Friday, December 21, 2012

Ulster-27 Leinster-19

[Update Apr 30, 2014 - This week our trip to the HoR  archives brings us to Leinster’s last competitive visit to Ravenhill, also known as the lowest point of our 2012/13 season.  To say much has happened since then is quite the understatement.]
In Touch May cover
Click photo for latest issue of IRFU digital magazine inTouch, including Leo Cullen tribute by JL Pagano

HoR pro logo blueAh, the rugby ball. One of sport's great mysteries.

A physicist will tell you that what happens when it bounces is pre-determined by a set of variable factors.

A seasoned rugby fan, on the other hand, will tell you that what actually happens is magical, as if a spell had been placed on it by Gandalf the Grey himself.


To benefit from this magic, you and your team must be playing the wonderful game as it was meant to be played, with fifteen players of varying shapes and sizes working together to guide the oval-shaped object towards the opponents' try line. Fail in any way to do this, and it will work against you.


Never has evidence of this been more clear than at Ravenhill on Friday night.


Ulster have approached every outing this season with a combination of a deep squad and consummate professionalism. So when Andrew Trimble stretches out an arm to intercept a pass, it deflects off it into the air, only to fall comfortably into his grasp so he can continue on and set up the Nick Williams try which went a long way to deciding the result of this contest.


Leinster, on the other hand, have not only had their issues replacing injured key players, but in the opinion of this particular blogger anyway, have more often than not gone for the complicated option when a simpler one would do.


So when they win their own lineout around halfway and Ian Madigan actually takes the safer territorial option by placing a kick into the opposition 22, rather than take the expected bounce into touch placing pressure on the home side, it instead continues on and goes dead beyond the try-line bringing play back.


I feel I should make it clear that my talk of magic is not tongue in cheek. I'm a firm believer in making your own luck when it comes to sport, and the way these two sides later handled respective situations in their opponents' 22 proved that the way the ball was bouncing was fully deserved.


On the 50-minute mark Leinster won a penalty at halfway and after winning the resulting lineout started running their trademark front-foot phases towards the opponent's try-line. Shortly after entering the 22 referee George Clancy extended his arm for a transgression by the home side, not the first time this had happened early in our attack, and much like Clermont had done a week before.


Rather than take the penalty, however, the visitors chose to continue with the phases in search of seven points rather than three. Trouble was though, a stubborn home defence kept them at bay for so long that eventually the advantage ran out and a knock-on gave away a scrum that brought a massive cheer from the Ravenhill faithful.


Turn the match clock forward twenty minutes...Ulster on the attack, they enter the 22, win a penalty much as Leinster had earlier done, yet with virtually the next phase Ruan Pienaar places an inch perfect cross-field kick which this time Trimble needs no magic to control and the contest is over, if indeed it wasn't already.


Yes, Leinster were outplayed in the scrums, and that is an issue that certainly needs looking at, whether it is in fact to do with merely the front row or the combined eight-man effort. But I still believe we could have gotten something from this match with a different mindset, and what makes it most infuriating for me is that we played the first quarter just as I was hoping we would, only to revert back to the high-risk game that has failed us on many different occasions so far this season. the end of that first quarter, we led 6-0. Paddy Jackson had already missed a couple of kicks it's true, but we were still deserving of our lead and when we had the ball we were keeping the home side at bay. But when first Jackson and then Pienaar pulled it back to 6-6, we then reverted back to Madigan going for the “super-restart” to Devin Toner, and failing both times, so instead of Ulster receiving possession in their own 22 and being forced to clear, they instead had it on their 10m line and could get themselves into a much more attacking position.


In many respects this Leinster performance was a carbon copy of last week's, where we were able to compete from the kickoff but once the opening exchanges were done, we appeared to roll over, only able to wake up and force our way over the opponent's line when the contest was over.


Now it's true, in both cases it has been against one of Europe's form teams, but we need to be asking ourselves why we're not ourselves one of Europe's form teams, and I think the excuses goes beyond mere injuries, for it has to be said Ulster have had their fair share of them, too.


That's not to say Leinster didn't have a player or two who were below the standard required on the night, like Toner, McLaughlin and Reid. But then again the Ulstermen didn't exactly have a world class outing from their number 10 yet still managed to come out on top.


So when I'm looking at the remainder of Leinster's season, I can't help feeling that we need to do a lot more than simply close our eyes and hope the returning O'Driscolls, Kearneys and Fitzgeralds are going to make everything alright. We need a shift in our mentality, one that appreciates that every team we face from here until the end of the season will be studying our last three matches and unless we change things, particularly when we have the ball, more negative results will follow.


For me, our focus right now has to be those two Heineken Cup matches in January. Scarlets at home and Exeter away. Emerging from our pool certainly won't be easy, but at very least I want to come out of those contests able to say we gave it a damn good go.


Before then, we have two Pro12 matches, Connacht at home and Embra away – we should treat them as a “trial run”. It's not about the players (though of course having the likes of BOD doesn't hurt!), it's about our approach. That ball isn't going to magically bounce in our favour simply because we're Leinster.


As for Ulster, well what a start to the season it has been, and saddened as I was by the defeat I certainly don't begrudge them their celebration at being top of the table at Christmas time, we Leinster fans know the feeling well. I do think they need to find a way to deal with Paddy Jackson's handling of big matches, however. I know he's only 20 and is likely to bounce back but no matter how many Pro12 regular season matches Ulster win now, it's the big ones in May that will determine the destination of the trophy - that is also a feeling we Leinster fans know well!


One thing is for 2012 comes to a close, there is a new order in Irish provincial rugby, with the Ulstermen standing proudly up on top. Congratulations to them and their supporters, and a very Happy Christmas & New Year to all HarpinOnRugby readers! May the magical rugby ball bounce in your favour in 2013 ;-) JLP

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