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We have a saying here in Dublin for a match like this…it was a “quare one”.
Even the weather was crazy…around lunchtime the heavens opened yet by kickoff the sun was splitting the skies over the RDS, a stadium that clearly wasn’t designed for a 3:40pm kickoff; just ask the residents of the Anglesea Stand who spent the entire contest shielding their eyes.
And when it came to the rugby, the madness continued…for example, Leinster found it difficult to get their offence going yet were good for all of their 19 points, while on the defensive side, bar one moment of slumber, our standards were about as high as always yet you feel the visiting French champions deserved at least enough to earn a losing bonus.
But of all the elements of this contest that left me scratching my head, the one that gets me most of all is Shane Horgan’s awarding of “Man of the Match” to Jimmy Gopperth.
I have nothing against the Kiwi and I’m certainly not one of those who feels it’s more important to play Ian Madigan…the selection for this match was rightly based on form. But as it wore on, not only was it clear the Leinster offence needed a spark, Gopperth was making more than one glaring mistake and if our standards are such that we want to another star to our jersey, we can’t be rewarding that type of display.
For me Dave Kearney would have been a better choice, though I don’t see why subs can’t be taken into consideration for the honour and he could have picked Luke Fitzgerald or Eoin Reddan for Leinster and on the Castres side prop Saimone Taumoepeau because their introduction certainly made a huge difference to their side’s respective fortunes.
But before I get to the contributions from the bench, let me first backtrack and show why they were needed. Leinster started impressively, putting patient phases together and getting themselves into attacking positions and they were rewarded with three penalties which Gopperth converted as expected to put us into a 9-0 lead.
We were then unlucky in that a bounce went against Rob Kearney otherwise he would have been over, but by the same token a break by the visitors down the other end showed what they’re capable of and had Romain Cabannes held on to the ball instead of grubbering in our 22 they too could have had a 5-pointer. But all told the 9-point cushion at the end of the first quarter was about right.
It was then that the frailties in our offence were starting to show. It suited us in Swansea to let the other team play with the ball but at the RDS the expectations are much different. We don’t need to be seeing champagne rugby all the time, but we do expect something of a cohesive plan going forward and it was never evident throughout the 80 minutes.
And when I say Gopperth was undeserving of MotM that doesn’t mean I pin entire responsibility on him…actually I think that in our last three matches we have been too protective of our 13 position. Of course BOD’s shoes are ginormous but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore those who fill them altogether…and seeing how the likes of Darcy, Kearney and McFadden were willing to run at the gainline I don’t see why Brendan Macken couldn’t have been involved more often as that is something he has shown he can do well.
But as well as the limited options it has to be said our out-half was below his best. A knockon, a long pass thrown straight to a Castres player, quite possibly the worst restart kick ever seen in Ballsbridge, plus the (admittedly rare) missed placekick before halftime all must stand against him.
Of course he wasn’t on his own with the boo-boos; Devin Toner and Jamie Heaslip both misjudged a couple of restarts, Sean O’Brien went for the odd offload when he didn’t need to and the gremlins were returning to Sean Cronin’s darts. Again…all of them did well last week it’s true, but at Heineken Cup level you have to start with a clean slate every time.
The more we failed with the ball, the more our visitors grew in confidence. I saw on social media a few comparisons made between this match and our home opener last year against Exeter - I couldn’t disagree more. That day we struggled going forward but there was no way the Chiefs were going to cross our line either. This time we were up against the French champs who for once sent an elite matchday 23 to foreign soil.
And not only did they come to play, their coach Serge Milhas was a lot faster on the day to identify what was going wrong; where Castres needed change most was in their front row. Then Taumoepeau took the field and we had a whole new ball game.
Who knows what actually goes on in there…I was on the receiving end of a mischievous tighthead or two in my day but whatever it was the former All Black prop transformed the scrum and suddenly the French side had a set-piece they could make hay from, and that is exactly what they did.
I am constantly amazed by how easy they make their set-piece moves look and even more so by how we (both Leinster & Ireland) seem either unwilling or unable to try something similar. And I don’t just mean scrums, I have been harping on for ages about the need for us to add the odd “hooker-number one-hooker” lineout move to our repertoire.
But on the half-hour mark a scrum over by the touchline saw the Castres tight eight wheel us with almost clockwork precision for Antoine Claasens to take the ball from the base and hey presto they have a two-on-one against Fergus McFadden down the touchline and the grin on Rory Kockott’s face as he strolled over the line said it all. The best defence in European club rugby had just been made look like a Junior 4ths team. I even looked to see if our flanker was being held and it wasn’t so…we just didn’t cop that this move was even on.
So the halftime whistle came, we had but a two point lead, and things began to look even more ominous in the second half as our error count continued. The infield kicks (which were understandably a feature of the afternoon given the sun position) were being allowed to bounce far too frequently and one fell kindly for Dulin who really should have scored only for an impressive smother tackle by Dave Kearney which allowed the defence to regroup before an attempted crossfield kick from Tales went a fraction too long.
Finally around the 47 minute mark the Leinster coaching ticket saw the need to make changes. Eoin Reddan came on for Isaac Boss and Luuuuuuuuuke was brought in to replace Macken. Both gave us the initial injection of pace we needed to our offence but by this stage Castres were getting a strong whiff of victory so were still able to thwart us. We badly needed them to somehow shoot themselves in the foot more than once. Enter Remy Lamerat and Julien Thomas.
On one of the rare occasions we got the ball out wide Dave Kearney found himself in a bit of space and fired up the jets. Now when I say a “bit” of space I mean it…his best result would have been to set up some phases at the Castres 22, possibly just inside. So why Lamerat decided to come across and charge at him with a raised arm rather than attempt a legal tackle is beyond me. Whatever his reasons, referee Greg Garner had no choice but to go to his pocket.
Since Matt O’Connor didn’t see fit to introduce Madigan at out-half, this extra man proved to be what we needed to get over the French line, though the ten-minute spell didn’t begin well as we threw away the attacking lineout resulting from the penalty.
But not for the first time we were able to count on our defence and an excellent steal from Eoin Reddan around our own 22 got things started. Again we were able to ship it out wide and a couple more good carries by Dave Kearney got us into the 22 when eventually it was Jack McGrath, someone suddenly almost forgotten in all the recent (albeit justified) Martin Moore hype, who crashed over with ironically Reddan there to help him drive over from 5m out.
To all intents and purposes, that was game over, but the French must have felt they had the bonus point well within their sights before their substitute scrumhalf earned himself the softest yellow ever awarded.
I can only assume Rory Kockott was injured to be taken off at the 54m mark because apart from a couple of missed placekicks he was at the heart of everything positive for Castres. His replacement Tomas didn’t seem to understand the importance of a straight put-in with the new scrum laws and again Garner had to flash the card after his third transgression…for me, it should have been shown after the second.
Yet even with the final quarter brainfarts, Castres still had a chance to pull within the 7 required for the losing bonus. Our makeshift 10/12/13 combo of Gopperth/Madigan/Fitzgerald made a hames of what should be a routine loop move and before we knew it the French champions had a lineout in our 22.
Regarding the Wanneberg “try”…I watched it a gagillion times. I did my best to be objective. Gun to my head, I think the TMO should have given it because although you don’t actually see the ball touch the line, it must have at least brushed against a white blade of grass at some point. For me, the official was hog-tied by the question “try or no try”. Had it been the other one, the five points would have been rung up.
So to summarize, no - not an ideal performance from Leinster by any means, and we have many questions to answer. But looking at the bigger picture, the eight points we have now are worth a heck of a lot more than the eight we had at the same stage last season. This time we top the pool and although there are still some massive tests ahead, the task is a greater for those below us.
A slightly marked down report card for O’Connor & co but they now have time to regroup before the back-to-back encounter with the Saints in December and I reckon they have plenty to work with.
Whatever you do, don’t let the George Hooks of this world get you down - this was a clean sweep weekend for the Irish provinces and let’s be proud of it. JLP
Also this weekend
Leicester Tigers 34 - 3 Benetton Treviso
Munster 26 - 10 Gloucester Rugby
Northampton Saints 27 - 16 Ospreys
Clermont Auvergne 23 - 16 Harlequins
British & Irish Cup
Ealing Trailfinders 15-24 Cross Keys