BEST AWAY MATCH EVER!
I have a running joke with the wife…around Tuesday I’d gently remind her that Leinster has a home game that weekend, to which she’d say “I know…they ALWAYS have a home game!”, to which I’d say, “of course they don’t, over the season it works out that they have just as many home as they do away”. Or words to that effect.
Which means the final five weekends of the 2013/14 campaign, all of which have seen Leinster playing at the RDS, left me asking : “what are the odds?”. This in turn presented me with a challenge, so for posterity I tried to work them out…
Apr 27 – Biarritz – This was home because of a draw that was made, but when you consider Leinster may not have even been in the tournament let alone having reached the semifinals, I’d put the chances of us having a home game that weekend at around 35%.
May 3 – Ospreys – Final regular season game, easy to calculate the odds of it being at home – 50%
May 11 – Glasgow – this was home because Leinster finished in the Pro12’s top two, something they are used to doing so should be a high percentage, but given where they were at Christmas I’d leave it around the 60% mark
May 17 – Stade Français – The odds of Leinster dropping from the Heineken into the Amlin and reaching the final in a year when the final HAPPENED to be at the RDS? I’m being generous saying 10%
May 25 – Ulster – You couldn’t make this one up if you tried. Ulster finish first on the Pro12 table yet have to move the fixture to the RDS because of capacity limitations at Ravenhill. Factor in Stuart Hogg’s missed conversion in the semifinal and I’m being EXTREMELY generous putting the odds of Leinster playing in Ballsbridge this weekend at 1%.
All of that puts the odds of five RDS games in a row for Leinster at around 0.01% at best. Yet it happened. Well at least I was able to bring the missus to Saturday’s match so she could see for herself!
And what an occasion it was, even before a ball was kicked. There was of course all the pomp & ceremony you’d expect before a final…people brandishing flags, flames shooting into the air, topless blokes with drawn-on tattoos banging drums.
But the real atmosphere that was worth remembering at this RaboDirectPRO12 final was created by the bright sunshine and the crowd.
The blue sky overhead which had some scattered cotton-white clouds contrasted perfectly with the sea of blue flags at one end of the ground which went up against the white ones at the other.
For my personal view of the game (see lead pic), in the Anglesea Stand directly above the tunnel where the players emerge, I have the Blue Magic website to thank, bravo.
So all those words above are enough pomp and ceremony from me…how about the action itself?
You could make a strong case that this match was settled in the first ten minutes. In my preview, I laid out what I felt both sides would be using to get an advantage…
Set pieces will be absolutely vital. Leinster have relied heavily on lineouts & mauls for scoring of late, while Ulster have done likewise with their scrums…
It was a bit of a frenzied start that was made even more confusing by the late, late withdrawal of Rob Kearney, but eventually we saw referee John Lacey setting out his stall at the first breakdown by awarding a penalty to Leinster for not rolling away. A good wind-assisted punt from Sexton meant that we had a lineout deep in their 22.
Anyone who watched Leinster in the second half of the season would know how dangerous we were at this set-piece. So in the first few minutes of a major final I was very surprised to see the Ulster lineout leave such a massive gap for man-of-the-match Shane Jennings and his mauling support to crash through, with Sexton converting for a 7-0 lead.
But it was Ulster’s inability to establish their own set-piece of choice that really did for them in the opening minutes.
Another “not rolling away” call allowed Sexton to stretch the lead to ten, and we had a ten-point cushion similar to that we enjoyed against the Ospreys back in early November. Every Leinster fan knows how that turned out, not to mention a couple of earlier Celtic League finals against the same opposition, so you can be sure there were no chickens being counted by anyone wearing blue.
Yet while I totally understand the need for Leinster to keep a quick tempo going to make full use of the wind at their backs in the first half, when we had a lineout on our own 22 shortly after going 10-0 ahead, that was definitely NOT the time for Isaac Boss to take a quick throw.
I’m loathe to criticise the former Ulster player since he has played a massive role in our run-in but here he was at fault…at least he was able to tidy up though it meant the “home” side had a five yard scrum and a perfect chance to get right back into it. Luckily for us, they butchered it.
For me, the spirit of the “penalty try” rule is that it’s a reward for a team who is legitimately going for a score and then is illegally denied by the opposition. But what seemed to work against the Ulstermen here was that rather than going for the try and letting the ref make the call if needed, they were actively looking for it, even before the ball was put in to the first scrum.
You could argue that Lacey might have awarded a penalty try when he pinged us the second time, but I’m not so sure Ulster had the shove on to take it over the line. So on the 4th scrum of the sequence, for Nick Williams to then start looking at the ref instead of the ball when it’s at his feet was criminal in my view…and in the end it was a very grateful Isaac Boss who was able to pounce allowing Leinster to clear.
This meant Leinster held that 10-point cushion until the 23rd minute, so with Ulster winning the final three quarters 18-14, it seems it was our coming out the gate quicker that got us over the line.
Not that there weren’t several other key moments & trends throughout the match…
Diack’s botched try – another reason the lead was 10-0 at the end of the first quarter. I had the five points racked up in my head because from my angle I couldn’t see the Ulster flanker’s totally unnecessary spin into Sexton’s tackle which allowed him to be pulled down on top of the Lions outhalf forcing a “held up” call.
Diack’s yellow card – not so much for that itself but for the fact that it came as late as the 43rd minute. Whether you agree with Lacey’s early penalty calls against Ulster or not, he did give captain Muller a warning in the opening stages so why the card didn’t come out, if not for the pen on 24m then certainly the one coughed up on the Ulster try-line at the end of the first half, is beyond me.
Isa’s yellow card – I dare anyone to suggest this wasn’t properly dealt with by the officials. Go on, I dare you. Still, it was a key moment, though given how the Leinster defence deals with assaults on their line you couldn’t say a try was certain.
Williams negated – Kevin McLaughlin was credited for just six tackles, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them were achieved by chopping Ulster’s tank of a number 8 at the ankles. They needed Williams in the loose and at the back of their scrums yet he was unable to produce in either phase of play.
Tone-overs – He snatched a lineout and was superb in the air at restarts, but Devin Toner has work to do on his carrying into contact in the off season if he is to retain the starting 5 jumper when Mike McCarthy arrives. Ulster successfully targeted his carries several times. But we also coughed it up other ways with knockons and un-necessary offloads, with Healy often being the culprit. Still, despite this point and the last one, Ulster were unable to get a try.
Heaslip’s try – Yet another time Ulster dodged a yellow was when Henry stripped the ball from McFadden when he was well off his feet as the game ticked into the final quarter and the margin was at it’s tightest, only four points. Sexton managed to get the ball into the corner (couldn’t get a decent angle off the telly to be certain it hadn’t gone dead but assistant Peter Fitzgibbon seemed sure) and although Ulster were able to fix their maul defence, it stretched them out wide and Jamie was able to crash over.
Heaslip over Henderson – Six points down and awarded a kickable penalty with 5 minutes left, I suppose it was the right decision for Ulster to go for the lineout, though Pienaar was flawless with the boot throughout, if anything getting better with each of his six goals. But save for the odd break from Bowe, Jackson and Olding their backline offered, or at least were only allowed to offer, little. Still, Jared Payne got them into the 22 and it took a solid bit of jackling from Jamie to force the “holding after tackle” call (fair enough as Lacey had been calling it for both sides all evening) that virtually settled the contest. Sorry Jenno, but I’d have been inclined to give our number 8 (can we read anything into his being allowed accept the trophy?) the nod as MotM.
So the clock ticked down, the blue half of the crowd let BOD know it had gone red, and he gleefully kicked in into the Grandstand to draw the final whistle and the celebrations could begin.
It has been a remarkable season for Ulster Rugby. Mark Anscombe can be proud, and in fact so can Brian McLaughlin and David Humphreys for teeing things up for him. Sure, they were deserving of some silverware, and I have said many’s a time how ridiculous the European club rugby calendar is, stretching as it does for nine months yet only awarding prizes for form in May.
Sadly though, them’s the rules and everybody knows them when the season kicks off, and whoever’s “DS” the Ballsbridge ground was on Saturday, there can’t be much argument that the better side won.
Of course the post-match celebrations were laced with sadness, as Leinster said goodbye to many who were off away to other things…Messrs Schmidt, Sexton and Isa were all crucial to our success in recent years. And we mustn’t forget the contributions of Andrew Conway, Jamie Hagan and Heinke van der Merwe and may they thrive (perhaps not TOO much in Conway’s case!) in their new roles.
But how can you be too sad at the end of a campaign that promised nothing in December yet after a string of 21 wins and 1 draw in 23 matches (A side included) produced THREE trophies for Leinster to see off the boys in style. Maybe there could be an asterisk beside the achievement for all the home matches at the end, but the results still had to be gotten.
Once again I come to the end of a season wishing to thank Leinster Rugby for making my season ticket, plus all the playoff ones, worth every single penny.
And despite all the departures, here’s a lineup Leinster could put out next season; I reckon it’s not exactly the worst you’ll see in Europe…
R Kearney, McFadden, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, D Kearney, Madigan, Reddan.
Healy, Strauss, Ross, Cullen, McCarthy, McLaughlin, O’Brien, Heaslip.
BENCH : Cronin, McGrath, Bent, Toner, Jennings, Boss, Gopperth, Kirchner.
It’s all yours, Mr O’Connor. Hopefully it won’t be too hard for you managing a team that had as many as six Lions and won its domestic championship despite finishing second in the regular season standings! Oh, wait… JLP
Also this weekend…
Aviva Premiership Final
Leicester Tigers 37 - 17 Northampton Saints
Top 14 semifinals
Toulon 24 - 9 Toulouse
Clermont Auvergne 9 - 25 Castres