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Pity I used the “Where’s Waldouck?” headline for last week’s writeup because it would have probably been even more appropriate for this match considering who was at 13 for Northampton, but never mind - I see my role here as not to write clever headlines but rather to provide some context which the mainstream media seems to have overlooked.
Why they have overlooked it is for another day’s debate, though my first suggestion would be out of delight that Leinster have proven themselves to be mortal in this competition after last week’s display because if they continued at that level there would be precious few who could stay with them.
I have attempted to break it down into five headings.
1. NORTHAMPTON - FROM POOR TO GOOD
“Not only do the dogs in the street know Northampton are going to go for it this weekend, so do the fleas on the dogs in the street. The only question is how.”
In my preview I pointed out that the Saints were going to have to do something different, and after shifting Samu Manoa to number 8 and George North to 13 I wonder should Mallinder be praised for making the switches or questioned for not doing it last week.
Either way, on Saturday the Saints had a powerful centre who was able to finish when there was a sniff of the line, as well as extra aggression in the back row which, no offence to Shane Jennings, more than tipped the scales in the visitor’s favour when Sean O’Brien was ruled out.
Side note on North - if he goes on to succeed for Wales at 13, particularly in the 2014 Six Nations, it will always be Mallinder who should take the credit as he could have easily been tried there in November and Mr Gatland will have more question marks over him concerning an outside centre ;-)
Anyway…the context I provide here is to haul back the Sky-perbole from Messrs Harrison & Barnes who made it out as though this was some sort of epic display. What Northampton did was raise their levels up and beyond where they should have been last week, and although they did make several errors themselves, their biggest achievement, which was thwarting Leinster’s offence by fair means or foul, is what got them the victory.
For the record I felt the Saints’ biggest error was by Kahn Fotuali’i - with less than two minutes left on the clock and a penalty advantage in his favour, his decision to take a drop goal was pure madness…if he deliberately kicked it wide it would have been genius, but since the pen was under the posts they could have wasted a ton of gameclock with the easy placekick and as things turned out it very nearly cost them.
2. LEINSTER - FROM AWESOME TO AVERAGE
In the whole “Mads or Gopps” debate among Leinster fans, gun to my head I’m on Team Madigan, but that doesn’t mean that he should get a free ride. Leinster scored 6 tries last week and could have had a few more, with Ian a big part of that display.
But when it gets past the 60th minute and we have been denied again and again going forward in a crucial Heineken Cup fixture, it isn’t the time to be thinking about who is getting gametime to prepare for test matches which are two months away. The Saints had made the correct adjustments to their defence, so we needed to do something different, yet we kept doing the same things expecting them to click.
Plus, though I will deal with the referee more closely in the next point, we need to be able to cope with an official who is allowing so little time for the tackled player to present the ball - Garces (for the first 70 minutes anyway) approached this area much the same as it was when we played Connacht back in October, when it was also Madigan starting and we also found it hard to get going offensively.
This isn’t a Leinster failing that is peculiar to Matt O’Connor, by the way, but since we’re focusing on this match I reckon it was screaming for Gopperth to be brought on - sure, it wouldn’t have been great for Madigan’s confidence but the way I see it winning the match comes first, especially in this competition.
As for the pack, we were bossed at the breakdown and sadly I have to look at Shane Jennings. He had been on flying form ahead of his injury but I wonder was he ready for what needed to be a massive 60-minute shift. I’m thinking Dominic Ryan & Jordi Murphy should be getting some serious game time over Christmas with a view to having them challenging for the January fixtures.
Last but not least, Cian Healy’s absence didn’t hurt us because of Jack McGrath replacing him, rather it did because it meant Michael Bent was needed for a 20-minute stint at a level I don’t think he’s able for.
But anyway…the point is, I want to make it clear before I deal with the refereeing that I am well aware that Leinster were way below the standards that put the three stars on their jersey. And as an aside, Madigan’s tackle of North was quality and deserves a mention…my points above were on his general quarterbacking.
3. THE REFEREEING
Good Lord - where do I begin? Please remember before I go on that I have made it clear that Northampton deserved the win, but the fact remains there were several glaring inconsistencies that played a part in thwarting the offence almost as much as the visitors did.
Worst call of the night was in the above screengrab. Garces is blowing for a penalty and says it is for “not releasing after the tackle”. What is interesting about this is that it was actually Brian O’Driscoll who made the tackle, and as you can see he has long since released Saints number 7 Tom Wood - it is Eoin Reddan who gets pinged even though he is on his feet - the reason he ignored Garces’ call of “release!” was because he knew he wasn’t the tackler.
For the first 70 minutes of the match Garces penalised both sides if they held the ball for a fraction of a second after being tackled. Therefore this should have been a pen to Leinster.
But the inconsistencies did not begin nor end there. At the start of the second half a Lee Dickson fumble from the kickoff saw Leinster pummelling the Saints line. Garces found penalty after penalty as the visitors did everything they could, both legal and illegal, to stop us but all we got out of it was a three-pointer - not so much as a warning afterwards to skipper Dylan Hartley.
To be fair in a way, in the passage of play leading to the Fotuali’i drop goal, the ref didn’t warn us either after finding several penalties on our part, but how he didn’t see one in that final frantic spell as the clock went red, I will never know. All the greatest hits were there - in from the side, hands on the ball, beyond the last foot, even not releasing after the tackle.
Again, there are no guarantees we would have gotten the match-winning try had a penalty been called. BUT - we absolutely must NOT fault Jamie Heaslip for dropping the ball when he did. It was his quick tap and charge down the pitch which was reminiscent of his Grand Slam 2009 form that set up the chance in the first place.
The fact remains, the series of phases should not have gone that far and we should have at the very least had the option of going for a penalty try, assuming the ref had actually left his cards back in France.
4. THE BOOING
Stu Barnes suggested Dylan Hartley was substituted because he had given everything. He didn’t have a bad game alright, but I reckon he was taken off before he got himself sent to the line. He had just conceded a blatant pen as we had good attacking ball and if the ref had issued a warning earlier as I mentioned, we could have had a man advantage for that last spell.
The reason I mention that here is that the booing started when Hartley’s not-so-pretty mug appeared on the big screen just as Stephen Myler was lining up a penalty kick. Sadly when we have a crowd as big as this one there are those who just don’t “get” the game of rugby and while those who booed the sight of Hartley may have stopped, others misunderstood it and carried it on through the kick, which is of course inexcusable.
But to those who used that incident to take a pop at Leinster fans in particular, a resounding boo to you. It is has been a blight right throughout the sport since it went pro and anyone who says they never hear it at their own ground is either selectively deaf or blatantly lying. At smaller grounds it is easier to stamp out, but it still happens and in this age of spiralling wages we unfortunately need every 40k+ crowd we can get.
What can we do about it? Short of pro-active “please respect the kicker” announcements at the beginning of every half, I’m not so sure. But on behalf of the tens of thousands of genuine Leinster rugby fans, apologies to the Saints for that particular incident.
5. HOW POOL ONE STANDS
One year ago we got a late try that pinched a losing bonus against Clérmont - this time around, we had it taken away by Elliot’s opportunist sprint down the field. We may have played below our usual standards, but we did not deserve that.
Still…does this mean it’s armageddon in Pool One for Leinster? Absolutely not. Not only would we have taken a 5-4 match point win in this back-to-back series when the draw was made, we would have offered a couple of limbs to go into round 5 with a 4 point lead atop the pool.
But since the media are so keen to remind us that the Saints did to us what they did to Ulster last season, maybe I should offer another Northampton stat for reference…in the 2010/11 campaign, they won all their pool games which meant nothing in that second half in Cardiff, so losing a pool match, even one at home, is not the end of the road for Leinster.
So don’t go ruling us out just yet. JLP
Also this weekend
British & Irish Cup