Friday, September 20, 2013

Glasgow-12 Leinster-6

THE PRO-AM 12

As this ridiculous media war rages on over the Heineken Cup I reckon it's important for the Celtic & Italian clubs to at least try and find some moral high ground.

The best way to do that is to first look at their own product critically before putting forward a defence against the onslaught of information about this new Franco-English tournament, which I swear will have its opening fixtures before this Christmas the way they're carrying on.

It all depends on how we choose to spin it...we could look at the table and say “hey...Glasgow are in first place and Zebre not only got their first win this weekend but it was also on foreign soil...things can't be that bad for the Scots & Italians?”, but anyone who has followed the Celtic/Magners/Rabo over the years would surely know that is far from the real picture.

I'd be more inclined to point out that although two of them were victorious, all four teams that made the Pro12 playoffs last season were well below par last weekend and if we insist on being in denial of that, then we may find ourselves without a leg to stand on if and when actual meaningful discussions take place over the future of pan-European rugby.

When I suggested by way of a tweet on Saturday evening that Ulster were poor in their victory against Connacht I took a bit of stick, but I still stand by it. Same goes for Glasgow...they celebrated their win over Leinster almost as much as the Scots did after their triumph in Newcastle over the Wallabies (all that was missing was the head clash).

Sure, it was a victory over the three-time European and reigning Pro12 champions, definitely not a bad achievement on paper. But my point is that if we want to consider ourselves as equals to the Toulons and the Clérmonts, even though we can't match them for salaries, we can at least expect a certain standard, and in my opinion last weekend's fare fell well below it.

Maybe it looks like I'm avoiding criticising my Leinster lads for the way we played? Far from it. Plenty of time for that in this writeup.

Actually it's the fact that we were so poor that makes my point for me. On 79 minutes in Scotstoun, despite allowing the hosts to practically walk into our 22 at least half a dozen times in the final quarter alone, we actually had a decent chance to snatch this game just as the Warriors had done to Ulster a week before. That, for me anyway, says it all.

But as it turned out justice was done and somehow Aaron Dundon failed to find Devin Toner with his lineout throw and the chance, our only decent one in the entire second half I might add, was gone.

To go back to Glasgow for a moment, please don't get me wrong, they were worthy winners on Friday and deserve to sit atop the league as they have been the best team over the three rounds. All I'm saying is that while I can see why Woody Harrelson Gregor Townsend would be singing the praises of his team to Warriors TV right after the match, he must surely have some questions to answer during the week.

At the very least, he has to wonder how he let Leinster away with a bonus point, one that could be significant come season's end. For that he must look at his side's dismal place-kicking, with Hogg, Bennett and Jackson combining for a 1 for 7 haul. And from what I have seen, it seems to be a pattern, what with last season's try bonus v Ulster with the minimum 20pts plus that last-gasp conversion miss against us in May.

But if the standards I'm talking about are to be attained, they must also look at those numerous appearances in Leinster's 22 and ask themselves why they didn't at least give themselves a shot at the try bonus on the night.

Anyway, enough about Glasgow. Time to reluctantly look at my lot.

This stat speaks volumes...our top tackler was Dominic Ryan, who although managed a whopping 16 in a little over a half, was the guy who let sub prop Yanuyanutawa get away from him for what turned out to be the game-winning try.

If you showed me this match and pixelated over the player's faces, I'd have sworn blind that it wasn't Leinster, right from the very off. On our first decent possession from a lineout Shane Jennings of all people hacks the ball forward when he could easily have set up some early attacking phases. I'm not necessarily saying that's a stupid tactic, it's just not something Leinster do, and he apologised for it afterwards as it went harmlessly over the Warriors tryline.

But it was on defence where we struggled most. The organisation that has become a trademark over the years under Cheika and Schmidt, and even has been visible at times under O'Connor, was left back in Dublin. It was as though that memory-wiping stick from the Men In Black movies was flashed in our dressing room before kickoff and we had no idea what was meant by pillar, post or the importance of the first-hit tackler.

Sometimes it seemed as though the Warriors players stopped and looked at each other to see if the wide open gaps before them were because of the referee's whistle before they sailed through for yet another gain. And maybe we did improve the closer the home team got to our line (with the exception of Ryan that one time and Mike Ross in the lead up the first try from Fusaro) but again I point to the standards...they should not have gotten there so easily in the first place.

Now it's not as though there weren't mitigating factors for the Pro12 champions...just once this season I'd like to see the XV that is named during the week to still be on the pitch after half an hour..is that too much to ask? We have become masters of the last-minute change over the last year or two. And when we already have a shortage of back-three players, for first Fanning to pull out and then his replacement Lote Tuqiri to do a hammer, it really looks like our luck is out.

And that injury to the rugby league convert must have been most frustrating to Ian Madigan. Although he started at full-back, the presence of Rob Kearney on the bench must have meant he was scheduled to move to out-half early in the second period, yet that option was taken away. And given that the core of the side has been very much the same over the three weeks and we had a six-day turnaround, I'm sure Matt O'Connor had fixed plans to use his bench in the second half which were scuppered.

Of course it didn't help much that our skipper Jennings had another dose of misfortune in doing what seemed to be his wrist just after his thoroughly-deserved callup back into the Ireland squad.

Then there was the scrums. Oh, dear Lord, Peter Fitzgibbon what on earth were you doing? Don't worry...this isn't to get Leinster off the hook...he was equally shambolic in calling it for both sides. I don't like dissing the ref but it really seemed as though Fitzgibbon was missing the point about these new scrum laws. Instead of calling early penalties with a view to having proper scrums by the end, we had a lottery at each and every put in. Not sure it influenced the result that much on the night, but it's something he'll have to look at for the future.

But allow me to be clear...I am in no way making excuses. If Glasgow and Ulster were below par, Leinster were lower again, and although 8 points is a decent Pro12 haul for us after 3 rounds given Septembers past, the trend of our performances is going in the wrong direction and the coming week will be the first real test of Matt O'Connor's stewardship.

For the visit of the Cardiff Blues this coming Friday we need a few things...
  • a fair amount of changes to the lineup, whether it's bringing back Lions, players returning from injury or even a light sprinkling of academy players.
  • Root-and-branch examination of the defensive structures. A DVD session with much singling people out (no matter who they are) is in order, complete with a vocabulary more likely to be found on the Sopranos than on Songs of Praise.
  • Finally although this of course isn't in our control, we'll need a squad from the Welsh capital that is prepared to come to Dublin and actually engage, something that hasn't happened in a while either in domestic or European competition. Maybe the Zebre experience will be a wake up call for them.
Look...as poor and all a display as this was, I'm not going to let it get me down, at least not now. With Dublin winning the All-Ireland, my Oakland A's clinching the AL West and Spurs second in the Premier League after yet another clean sheet on Sunday, I'm a lot more glass-half-full now than I was last Friday night.

We came away from a tough place to go with a losing bonus. Let's be thankful for that. And let's get our issues sorted quickly because Munster, Ospreys and Castres aren't likely to let us away with similar in October.

As for the league itself, despite my dislike for the McCafferty's of this world, based on what I saw last weekend they do have a point, especially when it comes to resting players. No disrespect to either the Dragons or Zebre for their successes this season indeed fair play to them, but the top perennial Pro12 finishers seem to view September as a continuation of the pre-season and never mind how unfair that is on the French and English clubs, the fans who pay just as much for the tickets now as they do in April deserve better. JLP

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Also this weekend



TEAM PLD PTS W PD T PF TD
1 GLASGOW 3 12 3 14 4 47 4
2 OSPREYS 3 11 2 39 10 97 5
3 MUNSTER 3 10 2 23 12 96 6
4 NG DRAGONS 3 9 2 11 3 51 0
5 LEINSTER 3 8 1 17 8 77 3
6 ULSTER 3 6 1 3 3 38 1
7 CARDIFF BLUES 3 6 1 -1 1 61 -4
8 TREVISO 3 5 1 -11 4 58 -3
9 SCARLETS 3 5 1 -14 4 61 -4
10 CONNACHT 3 4 1 -13 5 42 2
11 ZEBRE 3 4 1 -26 6 67 -2
12 EDINBURGH 3 4 1 -42 4 49 -8

Next fixtures - Round 4

Friday, September 27

Zebre v Glasgow, Stadio XXV Aprile, 6:30pm
Ulster v Benetton Treviso, Ravenhill, 7:05pm
Edinburgh v Scarlets, Murrayfield, 7:35pm
Leinster v Cardiff Blues, Royal Dublin Society, 7:35pm

Saturday, September 28

Connacht v Ospreys, Galway Sportsground, 5pm
Munster v Dragons, Musgrave Park, 6:45pm
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