[update Dec 11, 2013] Not often our archive feature looks back on such a recent contest, but the evolution of Matt O’Connor’s Leinster since the last time Northampton came to Dublin has been noticeable. Not that anyone will be taking them for granted this Saturday, mind…
Rugby occasions in Donnybrook Stadium always fill me with nostalgia…the Leinster Schools Senior Cup matches, pretending to shove my mates out onto the Morehampton Road en route to the ground, piling into the Spar for Tayto crisps and Curly-Wurlys before the match, wolf-whistling at the girls who make excuses to walk back and forth in front of the stand during halftime…
…but enough about what I got up to last spring on the way to Blackrock College’s 67th cup victory…my job here is to tell you about Friday night’s experience so I’d better get on with it!
On paper this was a re-creation of the 2011 Heineken Cup final. On the pitch it one team’s British & Irish Cup side against another’s full Aviva Premiership one. It certainly was a strange feeling to be a Leinster fan watching your team play at home knowing you were the underdogs.
I reckon we got a first taste of Matt O’Connor’s ability to motivate the dressing room on Friday night. When your team is bettered for ability & experience at virtually every position on the pitch (even Shane Jennings had his match opposite him in Phil Dowson) the best thing you can do is rally your troops and get them focused to hit their opponents right from the kickoff.
Goodness knows how many times we as Leinster fans have seen that done to us - we’re favoured by more than a try going into a contest and even though we eventually match or even better that spread by full-time, it’s often the visitors who open the scoring. This is precisely what happened at Donnybrook last Friday.
I’d wager that you’d raise more than an eyebrow in the Northampton Saints camp if you told them that our starting scrumhalf on the night Luke McGrath was technically our fourth choice in that position. Right from the off he was leading the way with speed in both hands and decision-making and after just five minutes Martin Moore was crashing over the line for the opening score after a series of well-orchestrated phases & mauls.
Then the few pre-match pints I had savoured in McCloskeys gave me the arrogance to show off to the people with me (and in turn no doubt to the annoyance of those around me) that I had been at Ravenhill the previous week and that Jimmy Gopperth was flawless from the kicking tee. Cue the Kiwi putting his conversion wide.
And it was no surprise that the visitors were to come roaring back at us when they had a decent spell of possession themselves…again, we Leinster fans are used to the boot being on the other foot.
But there was something they may not have been counting on…the fifteen-headed blue monster that is the Leinster defence.
No matter how much success Joe Schmidt had at the RDS, you couldn’t expect Matt O’Connor or indeed anyone to arrive and just throw his hands up and say “well it ain’t broke, why fix it”. Having played in the centre himself and been a successful backs coach at senior level you’d be surprised if he didn’t want to put his own stamp on the attacking side of things.
When the opposition have the ball, however, you can forgive him for letting the existing culture at the province prevail, and his charges showed on Friday that all seems to be well on that front. The organisation, the resilience, the tough tackling, all still there even with third and sometimes fourth string players involved.
You would think that if George North can throw Israel Folau over his shoulder then he would no doubt make light work of Darragh Fanning but the former Connacht player who himself spent time playing down in Oz was more than up for the challenge and as hard as the Saints tried to bring the former Scarlet into the action, he was snuffed out every time.
Then at one stage as the Saints were exerting pressure on the Leinster line it was great to see a fully-pumped Shane Jennings motivating his front row before the bind. Martin Moore was up against another Lion in Alex Corbiseiro and Jenno suggested to the assistant ref that there was some jiggery-pokery going on…at the next scrum a pen was awarded to Leinster and Moore had his hair ruffled by half a dozen team-mates. Altogether great news for everyone involved at the province going into the new season, with the possible exception of Michael Bent!
No doubt the Saints’ first Premiership opposition the Exeter Chiefs had a spy or two on hand and will have noted how hard Jim Mallinder’s side had to work for their scores.
Yet score they did and on 18 minutes it was the other tight-head prop Gareth Delman who went over, but that touch-down was to provide the visitors’ with their only first half points as Steven Myler missed the conversion and the Saints were thwarted for the rest of the period. Gopperth popped over a pen to put the home side in the lead at half-time.
Then came the break, and the minis poured on to the pitch for their moments of glory, while the fans poured into the Bective and Wesley bars for their moments of refreshment.
When the second half began, we had the visitors resuming their all-out assault, but it still took them a good ten minutes to break through as USA international Samu Manoa got the touchdown to put them in the lead for good. This time Myler’s conversion was good and he added a pen shortly afterwards to make it 8-15.
Now it was time to thoroughly confuse everyone watching. I’m not sure it would have been a logistic nightmare for the two sides to number their jerseys up to 30 or so to ensure we had a notion who was on the pitch at different stages…instead we had Leinster players with no number at all while the Saints chose to just give subs a jersey with the same number as the guy who was on before him (for example my pint intake plus my failing eyesight meant it took a while to notice the number 11 was no longer North).
But thankfully the action was to last right to the very end for us at the Bective end of the grandstand as Leinster advanced down the field as the clock ticked down before young flanker Dan Leavy stretched out for a consolation try.
Though he didn’t have the best outing as Gopperth’s replacement, fair play to Cathal Marsh for having the 7s-savvy to go for a quick drop-goal conversion - had it gone over there would have been a minute left with just six points in it, but sadly it didn’t and that was all she wrote.
People I know who don’t follow rugby that closely asked me over the weekend “what went wrong with Leinster” based merely on the result. I honestly couldn’t tell them anything. It was a highly entertaining evening in Donnybrook and I very much doubt anyone went home disappointed.
I’m pretty sure everyone involved with the Northampton Saints knows full well that Leinster will be an entirely different proposition when they face each other back-to-back in December when it counts.
Let’s face it - the kids are back in school, the Dubs are in the All-Ireland final and Leinster rugby is cranking up for another promising season. Not sure I have ever looked forward to a September more. JLP