Saturday, October 26, 2013

Leinster-16 Connacht-13

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Leinster v Connacht pen try

One of the things about rugby union most often said to distinguish it from other sports is the way it involves people of all shapes and sizes coming together, united in a common cause.  And this doesn’t just involve the players on the pitch…the differing roles go much wider.

For example, we have Leinster Rugby.  As the professional era has evolved, their role, and indeed that of all top clubs around the continent, has been to promote the game around their catchment area and make matchdays a spectacle for everyone.  This function was more evident than usual on Saturday with a Halloween theme around the RDS for kids, a half-time minis session that involved teams from special needs clubs around the province like the Westmanstown Taggers, and they even allowed some extremely grateful bloggers to view the proceedings from the press box to feel part of the media glitterati.

Then we have the referee.  On this particular occasion it was David Wilkinson.  I’m naming him before I name any actual players involved in the contest because he certainly didn’t seem to be a believer in the need for an official to be seen and not heard.  Below you see a breakdown of the penalties he awarded on the night…there’s no prizes for spotting that the game was ultimately won in the scrum, but it was the offence stats where he really put his mark on this match when he didn’t need to…

Pens conceded

There were barely 30 seconds on the clock when Michael Bent was pinged for going off his feet on Leinster’s opening possession.  In actual fact, he didn’t technically go off his feet…he wasn’t technically supporting his own body weight so technically the ref was correct.  When you have to use the word “technically” that many times, you know the man in the middle is being a stickler, which isn’t technically the word I’d like to use.

But as you can see by the table, at least he was consistent with his calls and didn’t favour either team - it was just frustrating to see attack after attack thwarted on the night when if only he could have made his “gate” just a fraction wider, we could have had more of a contest we wanted to see from this Interprovincial matchup.

One other area of the game where you’re meant to know your place is at scrum-time, where the new laws have made the lines of  communication between scrum-half and hooker crucial.

With Richardt Strauss out and Rory Best leaving early at Ravenhill the night before, Sean Cronin would appear to be front-runner for Joe Schmidt’s bow as Ireland coach.  Well his open play is as strong as ever, but another couple of crooked lineout throws won’t have helped and most of all he really needs to come to grips with these scrum laws, or at least have a better rapport with Conor Murray than he does with Eoin Reddan.

On the ten-minute mark an attempted clearance by Ian Madigan was blocked by Craig Ronaldson and the ever-tenacious Connacht defence put on the squeeze to force a 5-metre scrum.  Then the visitors’ number eight George Naoupu contrived to hand possession back to the home side, and now having the put-in Leinster should have been able to at least clear their lines.

The way it’s supposed to work is that the scrum half hits the hooker’s hand with the ball (though it used to be the hooker himself giving the signal by raising his hand) and then puts it in…and the whole point of the signal is so that the hooker can time his sweeping motion correctly to put the ball back for his side.  Not only was Reddan’s put-in crooked, it sat there for what seemed like an age before any attempt to hook it back.  A decent shove by the Connacht pack eventually put Heaslip under pressure and he scooped it back to Reddan.

Brainfart time.  All the scrum half had to do was fall on the ball and there was a chance of it being cleared.  Instead Reddan tried a similar through the legs scoop that Noel Reid couldn’t have known was coming.  Suddenly there was the ball over the tryline waiting to be touched down, Kieran Marmion was the fastest to react and hey presto it was 3-13 to Pat Lam’s men.

With just 12 minutes on the clock, the visitors knew they still had their work cut out to hold the lead, but I bet they didn’t even consider that they wouldn’t score again for the remainder of the contest!

If there is one aspect of any sport where you most certainly shouldn’t “know your place” it’s when you are facing an opponent who would be heavily favoured to beat you.  The best way to slay Goliath is to approach with a gameplan, stick to it, and then be sure and hammer home every little advantage you get.

After falling 10 points behind Leinster gradually took control of the first half but were thwarted partly by the ref’s pickiness but more from knockon gremlins and solid Connacht defence.  Still, they managed a couple of penalties to make the halftime deficit a seemingly easily-surmountable four.

But early in the second term Jack McGrath was pinged for holding after the tackle and this signalled the beginning of a purple patch for Connacht.  Their offence seemed to come to life, with Parks pulling off a crossfield kick to O’Halloran after which they won a seemingly easy three points on a rare call against the Leinster defence. 

Bravely they backed themselves and kicked for the corner and after an impressive maul Leinster got themselves pinged for a second time as Kevin McLaughlin went off his feet as they attacked the line. 

Perhaps only Michael Swift knows why having kicked for the corner before, now on the Leinster line they instead chose to take the three.  At that stage they had no reason not to trust their scrum but even if they didn't, the lineout would have been fine, and what’s more a pen would probably have led to a Leinster yellow.  Maybe it was the ref and his eagerness to penalise the offence?

Whatever the reason, the rugby gods chose not to smile on Connacht this time as a loud “ping!” off the upright met Parks’ goal attempt and although Marmion recovered he got a ping of his own for holding after the tackle and the chance was gone.  The sun was certainly (metaphorically) shining, but no hay was made and as it turned out, the Leinster 22 was to remain unspoiled for the remainder of the evening.

But with the referee on the night there were certainly no guarantees that the home side were ever going to touch down over the line, and in actual fact they didn’t.  Instead they needed to impose themselves as Goliath and force that advantage of resources home.  The ability to bring on such quality from the bench as Isaac Boss, Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kirchner certainly highlighted that advantage, but not for the first time this season it was Martin Moore who stood out from the replacements.

First, Leinster had to get into the visiting 22.  The first half strategy of persisting through the phases and more often than not charging back into a pack of forwards was getting them nowhere.  There were a few impressive bursts from the likes of Noel Reid and my personal choice as man-of-the-match Fergus McFadden but they were never able to make anything meaningful from breaking the gain line before getting smothered by either the defence or the ref’s whistle.

It took an uncharacteristic drop from Gavin Duffy for the home side to find a weak spot and if you look back at the table of penalties above, all six of the scrum pens that went against Connacht happened after that moment, and all were in their 22.  It didn’t help their cause that a probably-knackered Rodney Ah You had to come back on after Ronan Loughney saw yellow for offside (he had Robbie Henshaw’s first half pings to thank for that), but mostly it was Martin Moore’s ability to lock down the scrum that made the difference.

A series of scrums, penalties, warnings and even a second yellow this time to Marmion for jumping the gun made the penalty try that won the match nigh-on inevitable…if you REALLY wanted to be a stickler there could have been a third yellow flashed with the score but I doubt anyone in the ground wanted that.

[Meanwhile, up in the press-box, a blogger who should have known his own place was shouting at the ref to award the penalty try and clapped vigorously when it was awarded, only to receive flaming daggers from the Connacht-supporting Irish Times columnist seated beside him!  Oops…hopefully the citing commissioner will look kindly on him…]

Former Sportsground favourite Mike McCarthy seemed to do his best to help his old mates out with a couple of late knockons but they were able to press home the advantage. With much irony it was a scrum penalty against Connacht on their own put-in that ended the match.

But when all was said and done, although it certainly wasn’t a match for the neutrals(whether they were those who wanted to see Goliath slain or just to see some classy tries from open attacking rugby) it has to be said that over the 80 minutes the better side won.  Just. 

Hopefully Connacht won’t feel their proper place is at the foot of the Pro12 table because it most certainly isn’t.  Leinster for their part will feel they have much work to do (particularly in the try-scoring department…they haven’t had the ref to blame every week) but with the three teams they have failed to beat  this season occupying the top three places on the table, there is plenty of scope to pick up points against those below them.

There is certainly no harm in being given a fright in a match labelled your “Halloween Thriller”, but this was a little too close for comfort!  Best place for it now is in the history books so we can hopefully look forward to more exciting contests ahead. JLP

Also this weekend

1 MUNSTER 6 22 5 48 16 151 10
2 OSPREYS 6 22 4 73 20 192 11
3 GLASGOW 6 21 5 19 9 94 6
4 ULSTER 6 20 4 46 13 127 8
5 LEINSTER 6 18 3 30 13 142 4
6 NG DRAGONS 6 13 3 -3 8 107 -2
7 SCARLETS 6 12 2 -6 8 111 -3
8 CARDIFF BLUES 6 10 2 -16 7 131 -7
9 TREVISO 6 10 2 -17 8 107 -6
10 EDINBURGH 6 8 2 -65 6 90 -12
11 ZEBRE 6 7 1 -56 10 107 -5
12 CONNACHT 6 5 1 -53 8 84 -4

Next up (all times GMT)
Fri Nov 1
Dragons v Leinster, Rodney Parade, Newport, 19:05

Fri Nov 1
Edinburgh v Zebre, Murrayfield, Edinburgh, 19:45

Sat Nov 2
Cardiff Blues v Benetton Treviso, Cardiff Arms Park, 14:30
Sat Nov 2
Connacht v Glasgow, Galway Sportsground, 17:00
Sat Nov 2
Scarlets v Ulster, Parc Y Scarlets, Llanelli, 18:30
Sat Nov 2
Munster v Ospreys, Thomond Park, Limerick, 19:15

* = stats are unoffical - I took note of them myself on re-watching the match


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019