A popular gritty Irish drama returned over the weekend for another season, one that has viewers divided over who the good guys are.
Of course I’m not under any illusions that anyone from outside Leinster was going for an away win…when a province earns seven trophies in six seasons while the others only manage two in that time, they don’t win themselves many new fans outside their own borders.
I can especially understand the rhetoric from Munster fans around social media after this result, suggesting the tide has turned and what-not, because that’s what we expect after big occasions like this one.
All I try to do on this site each week is cut through all the hyperbole as the sporting weekend draws to a close, focusing on Leinster’s performance and seeing where it leaves us in relation to the rest of the season. And you know what, I reckon it’s not half as bad as people are making it out to be.
When the fat lady sang, the difference between these two sides was the Keith Earls try. Simple as. Yes, it was a definite yellow card for Ian Madigan, yes it was a stupid move by him, yes Rob Kearney was skinned on the outside for the second week in a row. Not disputing any of that for a second.
But despite owning the scrums, dominating the positional kicking game and playing at full tilt with the maximum amount of passion we expect from Munster in front of their 16th man, the final margin was just four points. Much like our defeat in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago, I put it to you that the home side will have to ask themselves a lot of questions about why they didn’t put away a team that was there for the taking.
A lot of it comes down to defence. Put a pin in the Rob Kearney thing and it was superb all round. Both teams struggled to turn visits to the 22 into points from start to finish and that’s a credit to the opposition - if Joe Schmidt can harness that defensive resilience throughout November we can definitely reap the rewards. Memorable moments from Leinster were few and far between on the night, but seeing Mike McCarthy and Devin Toner execute a textbook choke tackle on the two presumptive Ireland starters certainly bodes well for our lock options at test level.
OK now it’s time to have a look at where things went wrong for Matt O’Connor’s men.
Last week I said Leinster had to work on four things in Limerick…defence, defence, scrums and defence. Unfortunately we seem to have forgotten about the third one.
When our tight eight comes together this season I just don’t see any evidence that we’re even trying to come to grips with the new scrum laws. It’s like we think if we ignore them they’ll go away. Maybe we’re putting too much concern into the fact that our hooker needing to actually hook gives us one less pusher? Whatever it is, we seem to be late to the shoving party more often than not. It HAS to be sorted before we go up against Adam Jones & co or it will be a long evening in Swansea.
Then we need to talk about Eoin. Whatever about our injury crisis in the back line, that is not the case at number 9 and quite frankly we should not have issues there and we do. It’s not so bad a problem that Messrs Cooney & McGrath should be called up from the A squad just yet, and I have no doubt that Reddan can do a job for us off the bench next week. But we just couldn’t get things going when we had the ball and the difference to our offence was telling when Isaac Boss took the field and he should be rewarded with a start next week as far as I’m concerned.
Of course responsibility for offensive output also rests with the number ten; Ian Madigan has had issues with his positional kicking before and they were definitely back to haunt him on Saturday. It was the play-calling as well that baffled me - given that we had proven ball carriers like McFadden, O’Brien, Cronin and Healy on the park we appeared way too impatient going forward, attempting the no-look pass or fancy switch move several phases too soon.
How about the ref? Well again I suppose I can’t blame the Thomond Park crowd for assuming that Poite’s only nonsensical calls were against them, but truth be told he dished it out pretty evenly, and if he was leaning any way it was towards the home side, much as you’d expect from a Top14 official.
First of all, that shoulder by Stevie
Janowski from Eastbound and Down Archer? Always a penalty. He was trying to hide it, Madigan was trying to show it, the Leinster man won. End of. But from a match perspective, this was one of three incidents in the second half where Poite could have (not necessarily saying should have) produced his card.
A few minutes before we had Duncan Williams breaking early from a ruck just as Madigan had done to earn his ten-minute breather…granted it wasn’t in a similar try-scoring area but it still slowed down our momentum.
What did happen in a try-scoring area however was Niall Ronan’s perfect hat-trick of breakdown no-nos under his own posts. Off his feet, hands on the ball, in from the side. If that’s a penalty, that’s a yellow. I can guarantee you that Nigel Owens would have given one. Not that we would have definitely scored with the extra man, or even scored had the play not been so blatantly slowed down, but my point is that if Munster fans think Poite was against them as the booing suggested they should think again.
Also like in Glasgow, we had chances towards the end. A fully fit Lote Tuqiri would have won the match with his late burst. I reckon questions need to be asked about his acquisition given the fact he has had to withdraw early on both of his outings…we cannot afford that in Europe. Then a dubious knock-on call denied Rob Kearney his shot at redemption. Still though, given the way the match went we have to consider ourselves lucky to have gotten a losing bonus.
Just what on earth Tony Ward was thinking about giving Ian Keatley the man of the match award I’ll never know…sure, he’s bound to have a degree of sympathy for Munster 10s but although he had the odd break and executed a perfectly-weighted crossfield kick for the try, I know placekicking isn’t everything in an out-half’s game, but if we reward a display that included two missed sitters plus a woefully ill-advised drop goal attempt then we’ve set our standards way too low. Although I often see it as laziness to give it to the try-scorer, Earls was a pretty easy call to make and would have been the right one for me.
Munster definitely deserved the win, but I hope for their sakes they can keep complacency at bay. They have a walk in the park of a Heineken Cup pool and it’s not out of the question that they will find themselves with a home quarterfinal without so much as having to break a sweat, so we will see how they perform when proper questions are asked.
For our part, we’re in no doubt as to what we need to work on. Hopefully we have enough time before we face those pesky Ospreys. Our Pro12 situation is not so bad - we actually have one more point on the table now than we did at the same stage last season and I seem to recall that story had a happy ending.
It is in next week’s performance where we can properly evaluate the transition from Schmidt to O’Connor in the Leinster squad. BOD in a blue 13 jumper wouldn’t do us any harm either.
For now, all things considered, I’m loving our chances more than hating them. JLP
Also this weekend…