“The Ospreys have their number”
“They’ll struggle without Schmidt, Sexton, Nacewa, O’Driscoll & Cullen”
Hopefully Matt O’Connor doesn’t pay too much attention to the media as he prepares for matches but if he did, he’d have gotten all the motivation he needed because everything that was said amounted to one or both of the above statements.
Either way, those two points, both extremely valid, made his task twofold - first, come up with a gameplan the Ospreys won’t necessarily be expecting, and then motivate the players at his disposal to execute it to the best of their ability, thus leaving last week’s Thomond Park demons behind.
I think we can safely say he went two for two, and with a possible exception of Croke Park in 2009 and the second half of Cardiff in 2011 this is up there with the best displays Leinster have produced over the years, and it just goes to show you don’t need so-called “champagne rugby” to do it.
The key was in our defence…that’s not the first time we’ve been able to say that about Leinster, but this was a different system with O’Connor’s stamp on it. The theory was beautifully simple…no more than two men in the tackle; one trying to strip, one bringing the man down. After that, a pillar & post protecting the fringes and if a fifth man sees an opportunity to drive through the middle, go for it. Everyone else must spread out and get ready for the next phase runner.
Of course I’m not suggesting for a second that what I have described above is anything particularly new to rugby, but what made Leinster so impenetrable on Saturday evening was the speed at which players were able to not only identify their roles each time but also execute them with precision.
Then, to back this up, we needed an offensive strategy to complement it. If anything was a weak spot in the Schmidt era, it was here. Our last visit to Swansea saw us 10-0 up after the first quarter yet there was nothing in the player’s mindset that seemed willing or able to defend it, thus we were taking ludicrous quick-tap penalties and trying backline moves that just weren’t on.
This time we managed, most of the time anyway, to play smart and make the Ospreys try to come through us and they just weren’t able. If I were Steve Tandy I would play on an endless loop in training to his squad Wayne Barnes’ statement to Alun-Wyn Jones after pinging him for holding after the tackle on 20 minutes : “Cleaning out didn’t take place”.
It was suggested that perhaps the reason the Leinster defence was able to do so much damage was that more often than not they were offside. I’d invite anyone saying that to sit and watch the match over with me and I’ll show them all the times the same could be said for the home side. Say what you like about Wayne Barnes but he presided over an even contest on this occasion in my opinion.
Now in coming up with this strategy O’Connor needed to make one more big decision…who to play as his out-half. I wonder did he have to consult with Joe Schmidt before going with Jimmy Gopperth? Clearly the Kiwi’s style was more suited to the plan but here we have a clash between the two schools of thought in Irish rugby…are the provinces there to compete in their own right or is providing big match gametime for test hopefuls the prime directive?
Not only was Gopperth “allowed” to start, he got a full 80-minute stint, and he repaid that faith with clinical goal-kicking (including a monster from his own half his skipper had no doubt he could get), excellent quarterbacking (including sensible garryowens from just inside his own half) and on 66 minutes a match-winning tackle on the Ospreys’ winger Jeff Hassler who was only on the park 10m himself. I’m not suggesting Madigan would have done anything “silly” had he been brought on late, but it was more a case that it would have been an insult to Gopps to take him off.
Man of the match was Sean O’Brien and rightly so. Maybe he didn’t lead the tackle stats but he made the ones that stood out and also got the game’s only try. The “Seanie Smash!” hand-off of Dan Biggar played its part as well as more than one key turnover.
It certainly wasn’t a case of Leinster domination from start to finish. The Ospreys had the lead from the 1st minute to the 28th and there were two passages in particular where they will look and see where they threw away that edge.
The first showed up the much-anticipated ding-dong battle in the scrums, and thrust Martin Moore firmly onto Sky’s radar. Forced to replace Mike Ross at the end of the first quarter, he had a mammoth of a task against the wily “hair-bear” Duncan Jones and a scrum penalty against him at his first attempt put the home side right on our line.
When they won another one shortly afterwards out near the touchline, rather than let Biggar establish a 9-3 lead, you couldn’t blame them for going for the jugular and opt for the 5m scrum in the hope of a penalty try and/or yellow card. This time, however, Moore was able to adjust and the pen went Leinster’s way…an immense call but on the replay it was every bit as correct as the one that preceded it.
After being allowed to clear, we got the ball to halfway yet a poor lineout handed back possession and in the phases that followed, for a split second it looked as though Andrew Bishop had found a way through us. Mr J Heaslip had other ideas.
You have to see what happened next to believe it. Stripping the ball in the tackle is one thing, but that normally only works while you are absorbing the hit as the player runs at you. I don’t know what to say about someone not only stripping the ball as a centre is motoring past them, but also retaining it and returning in the other direction at pace. The Ospreys defence was pretty good itself on the day, but this Heaslip steal gave us the millimetre of momentum we needed to get into their 22 and then it was up to Sean Cronin.
We all know what he can do from close range when in space as he did against Cardiff, but it has to be noted that on this occasion he broke through would-be tacklers Beck & John, neither slouches, before getting a deserved slice of luck in seeing his offload go straight into the arms of a well-marked O’Brien who got the ball down.
The conversion left the halftime score at 6-13 and everyone expected a backlash from the Ospreys in the second half, and this began with an early Biggar pen to cut the lead to 4. Enter Tito Tebaldi.
In many ways you can’t blame him for taking a quick-tap on a pen awarded shortly afterwards even though it was well within his out-half’s kicking range. Leinster’s defence needed to be caught off-guard. Thing is though…we had a sampling of the same thing just a few weeks ago at the RDS, when our defenders couldn’t resist trying to stop him and as a result victory was taken from us.
This time around, we responded well to the “fool me once…” challenge and everyone within 10m let him go and once he was legally tackled he had no team-mates with him - Isaac Boss gratefully scooped up the loose pass and before you could say “what the hell was that Italian thinking?” there was a Leinster pen down the other end and the 7-point cushion was restored.
Now it wasn’t all perfect from Leinster. Soon after our try, Cronin went for a couple of bursts down the touchline which he is capable of doing but weren’t necessary at that stage and ended up in our losing possession both times. Plus there was a needless no-look pass from Jamie in the second half and we looked a little sloppy going forward.
Yet time and again our defence bailed us out and more often than not we were able to play the possession game and it may not have been highlight-reel stuff, but was still a joy to watch for me at least.
This was a result achieved mainly through a team effort…there were many impressive moments from the likes of Gordon “Power-Beard” (nickname trademarked by HoR2 columnist Keego) D’Arcy and Rob Kearney, and one of the best prop-on-winger tackles you’ll ever see by Cian Healy on the silenced Osprey threat Eli Walker.
But I want to single out one name which I often miss in my writeups because over the past few seasons he has proved a master of the “unseen work”, namely Kevin McLaughlin. A “2009 Elsom” type of number 6 he most certainly ain’t, but for what we needed from our back row on Saturday I’d have Locky over Rocky any day. Top tackler in the forwards despite coming off on 68m he is certainly a hard man to drop.
One side note on Sky’s coverage…they seemed to be trying to mix things up as a way of rising to BT’s challenge; I get that but PLEASE stay away from the “ref-cam” shots more often lads? The producer stayed with it right through scrums - that’s all very well but part of the drama comes from seeing the ref’s arm go up for a pen or free-kick…this experiment took that away and was way more tedious than the new scrum laws themselves. Besides, there’s only so much of Adam Jones in HD I can take at close range!
Before kickoff we would have taken a 4-1 split in the pool points in a heartbeat, but on 77m we were handed the icing to our cake and fittingly it was down to Gopperth to stroke over a simple pen to deny the losing bonus. We were just that fraction ahead of our hosts all evening…who knows what would have happened if Cronin’s toss hadn’t gone straight to Seanie, or if the Ospreys had secured even one of their short restarts.
The thing was, we stuck to our sensible plan for the most part and reaped the reward, and seeing how Castres v Northampton was also a low-scoring affair, it seems we have laid down the gauntlet to the rest of the pool showing they will have to find a way through our defence to take us down from top spot.
Much, much rugby to be played in this Pool One of Death. But after this display from the players we had, and given the quality of those still waiting to return, I’d say this new version of Leinstertainment not only has the Ospreys’ number, but can also more than make up for the talent it has lost from last season. Bring on the French champions next weekend. JLP
Also this weekend
British & Irish Cup