If you told me after fulltime on Friday that this was to be the most entertaining rugby match I’d see all weekend I would have laughed, but sadly it was.
Even with my bluest of blue goggles on I have to say the Dragons lost this more than Leinster won it, and while technically speaking it was basic handling errors that cost them, I feel they had a wider problem in that they paid their visitors too much respect, as though they were playing the three stars over our crest instead of the players we actually had out on the park.
And this was just the kind of match where they would have needed the most from their two acquisitions from Edinburgh over the off-season…Netani Talei’s remit at Rodney Parade was surely to minimize the loss of Faletau to the squad around international windows, while Richie Rees brings much experience to the key number 9 position. Sadly for the home side Talei didn’t have it on the night while Rees, who definitely did, was inexplicably substituted with a four-point lead to defend and more than 20m left on the clock.
Let us first examine how that lead came about. The first quarter was one of total dominance by Leinster when we found some remarkably innovative ways of denying ourselves points on the scoreboard…a crooked feed here, a high pass there, but best of the bunch was Shane Jennings failing to hear the ref shout “use it” in a maul situation with the Dragons tryline within touching distance…not altogether his fault as his scrumhalf John Cooney was too busy getting Martin Moore out of the way to inform his skipper, but nonetheless a basic communication error that really shouldn’t happen at this level.
But like I said it wasn’t the only way we were misfiring going forward, and while we did have a bit of bad luck when Noel Reid’s toe grazed a blade of white grass on the touchline before Gopperth got the ball down on 27 minutes, the fact that Matt O’Connor’s side once more struggled to make the most of trips into the 22 means he will have to start switching his priorities from defence to attack before the season-defining back-to-back series with Northampton in December.
Still, it has to be said that his focus on the defensive side has been a major factor in what has, from the results side of things anyway, been an impressive start to the season for Leinster’s much-changed setup.
The only way the Dragons got over our line was by taking a quick tap (possibly further away & ahead of the mark than it should have been) and shipping the ball out wide with pacy runs and accurate offloads before centre Ross Wardle crossed the Leinster line. Perhaps Lote Tuqiri’s positioning for the break didn’t help matters, but over the 80 minutes it was more of an exception to our defence rather than a rule.
For the most part while the Men of Gwent were racking up the handling errors, in many cases it was down to smart tackling from Leinster and in the final quarter in particular there were excellent smother tackles from Reid and Macken plus a “where do you think YOU’RE going?” head-on stop from Tadhg Furlong which kept the home side at bay.
What we needed to get ourselves back ahead on the scoreboard was the home side shooting themselves in the foot, and not for the first time this season, they obliged when lock Adam “not the hair bear” Jones lost all sense of reason on an attacking Leinster lineout and drove one of Dominic Ryan’s lifters out from under him, an extremely dangerous play that even the Rodney Parade boo-boys couldn’t justify.
Luckily for Leinster they were able to make hay as the sun shone with two tries in that 10-minute spell, one from the forwards as Aaron Dundon deservedly got over the line and then Noel Reid finished off a clever move set-up in midfield by Jennings and Kirchner exploiting the gap made by the extra man.
Before I get to the drama at the end, a word or six about the referee Peter Fitzgibbon. It was said around social media afterwards that he had a good performance, I wonder if that is entirely true.
One of the things we want from a ref is “consistency”, I can’t argue there. But it is only ONE of the things. It’s just a gut feeling from me, but I think Fitzgibbon was TOO mindful of that on the night and this affected the overall flow of the game. And that’s not entirely his fault either - I have been harping on for years about the insanity in a league with four nations using Irish & Welsh officials in clashes between provinces and regions. Also to be fair to him, he wasn’t down to be the ref on the night as John Lacey cried off.
A case in point was the yellow card. The way he went over to his assistant Ian Davies and practically stuck his microphone into the man’s face so everyone could hear a Welsh accent hear his recommendation of yellow card was almost laughable. But there were other times as well when the ref seemed to find himself swaying from being selective with his calls on the one hand while feeling the need to “be consistent” on the other. All I want from a ref is to be allowed to officiate on what he sees in front of him and the good ones are those who manage it.
Unfortunately for Fitzgibbon his eagerness to appear impartial was to go unrewarded as he was faced with the most important decisions of the match in the final series of plays that really should have resulted in a home win.
First we had this week’s Leinster Brainfart Supreme, this time by Jack O’Connor. A little too eager to be involved in our defensive effort, he reached forward while off his feet and swatted the ball away from the replacement Dragons scrumhalf, nowhere near as dangerous as the earlier binning but every bit as justified a yellow.
Then we proceeded to hold them out before John Cooney inexplicably chose a box-kick at midfield - it landed outside the Dragons 22 but thanks to a mis-read of the blocking by Brendan Macken the Dragons were able to get all the way into our own where Luke Fitzgerald did well to get the result of a 5m scrum to the home side. [Luckily for us it wasn’t Tuqiri and his dodgy leg doing the chasing at that point!]
And so there we were. Five metre scrum to the Dragons who had an extra man, three minutes on the clock so enough time to get the match-winning score, even if Leinster did stall. The referee would have to make a decision at some stage. After one reset, he awards a pen to the Dragons - they take a quick tap and go over but he calls it back, ironically because it wasn’t from the mark!
Then they take another scrum but this time Leinster held it up and John Cooney made amends by taking full advantage of Talei’s hesitation at the base of the scrum and the Dragons couldn’t regroup before we won the ball back to secure the four points.
BBC Wales gave man-of-the match to Rhys Ruddock, and it is true he had a solid shift. But despite Leinster’s problems going forward, there were some decent enough individual displays without anything breathtaking - Michael Bent may have found a new lease of life for himself as a back-up loose head prop, Zane Kirchner was solid on his first full 80 minutes and Darragh Fanning on the wing continues to have positive involvement in the action.
Overall, Matt O’Connor’s Leinster are still very much a work in progress and will need every bit of the time off before their next engagement in Treviso. But given those problems, I’d say any other team in Europe would be more than happy with the points they have managed to put in the bag in both competitions up to now.
You certainly won’t find me going too hard on this coaching regime until I see how they play in Franklin’s Gardens. JLP
ALSO THIS WEEKEND
Fri 22 Ulster v Edinburgh, Ravenhill, 19:05
Fri 22 Glasgow v Dragons, Scotstoun Stadium, 19:35
Sat 23 Ospreys v Zebre, Liberty Stadium, 14:30
Sat 23 Connacht v Scarlets, Galway Sportsground, 17:00
Sat 23 Cardiff Blues v Munster, Cardiff Arms Park, 18:30
Sun 24 Benetton Treviso v Leinster, Stadio Comunale di Monigo, 14:00