I know a large part of Castres centre Remi Lamerat’s disappointment at the end of this thrilling tussle comes from the ending of his side’s long home unbeaten stretch, but it also surely must have to do with the fact that they let the 3-times European Champs peg them back when they were there for the taking.
Which definitely begs the question…how can we even consider an entire rugby season without a pan-European club competition when it means so much to the players? But I harped on that particular topic enough last week…
This was as unworthy a match of Sky’s red button as you’ll get before a ball was even kicked, and it most certainly did not disappoint. There were so many key moments that the word “key” isn’t really justified…the simplest way I can put it is that the match was an 80-minute bout of turnover tennis where Leinster proved far better at cleaning up their own messes.
Rather than being a game of two halves, this was more like a game of four quarters, which is probably the best way to approach the writeup.
1ST QUARTER - PRECISION GAMEPLAN
Any doubts about the Top 14 champions’ ambitions in this contest were put to rest in the opening few minutes. It was clear as day that coach Serge Milhas & his team had done their homework in all the right places, namely Leinster’s scrum and more importantly, our defensive structures.
For me the difference in the two number 7s was at the heart of the 14-0 lead being established. Jordi Murphy had earned this Heineken Cup start by right, but it didn’t take him long to learn just what a big step up it is from the Pro12 when faced with the likes of Ibrahim Diarra.
The Castres openside was turning up everywhere particularly in that opening 20 minutes…the first try by Richie Gray came after Diarra took full advantage of both his opposite number and Gordon DArcy going high in the tackle by laying off an innovative offload to Lamerat who’s perfect line took him deep into Leinster’s scramble defence and they made no mistake setting up Gray for the finish.
Then we had the start of our scrum woes…many of these came from the battle between Mike Ross and Castres loosehead Yannick Forestier which the latter was winning. More on the scrums later.
But it certainly wasn’t one-way traffic in the opening stages - Leinster’s offence were finding gaps as well and a burst from Heaslip followed by a great support line from Sean Cronin got us to the try line only for that man Diarra to force the turnover…whether he came through the gate is debatable, but so were other calls that went both ways on the day.
There was nothing wrong with his being first to pounce on a mistake from Murphy at the 20-minute mark after a seemingly routine Leinster lineout…Castres were quick to make hay from the transition as not for the first time outside centre Seremaia Bai put the visitors’ D on the back foot and once again there was key involvement from Lamerat as he bounced off (the once more way too high) challenges of O’Driscoll and Dave Kearney to create the space for Max Evans to charge down the line and slip a sweet inside pass to Dulin who stunned the travelling support with try number two.
2ND QUARTER - THE FIGHTBACK
Again we looked decent enough going forward but as the clock got closer to the 30 minute mark I began to wonder if we were going to get anything before the break, especially when Jordi got close to the line only for it to be stripped off of him. Luckily the call was for a 5m scrum to Leinster and Messrs Reddan & Gopperth, not often a starting pairing this season, had something in their box of tricks.
Crucially, this one scrum gave us a decent platform and a decoy run from Dave Kearney plus Reddan’s body position drew the Castres scrumhalf Garcia right the way around the scrum providing the space for the Kiwi number 10 to crash over the line and hey presto we had a ball game again.
The Leinster & Ireland scrum-half had a great shift overall, taking advantage of his reputation as a quick-passing 9 by running through pillar gaps often for huge gains. He lost points with me for a ridiculous no-look pass in his own 22 at one stage but luckily it didn’t cost us.
But then the scrum gremlins began to hit us again. I was a prop in my day but I won’t profess to know anything about the modern game…it’s just that every time I see the ball go into a Leinster scrum without the ball being hooked I cringe. It would be harsh to entirely blame Sean Cronin for this as it is surely part of some grand design, but I can’t see the logic in it and this has not been the only match this season where it has cost us at crucial moments. Particularly with the new laws, hookers gotta hook!
It was ironically when Castres re-stretched their lead to 10 thanks to a Garcia penalty that the cracks began to show for them. When their number 8 caught the restart the clock read 39:28. Simple thing to do was run out the half and take the much-deserved margin into the dressing room, but Jack McGrath had other ideas.
The St Mary’s loosehead stripped the ball from his opposite number and from that position about 30m from the Castres line Leinster managed to work over a dozen phases including big gains from Heaslip, Cronin and Fitzgerald before once again it was Mr Twinkletoes himself Gopperth who got himself under the tackle of Richie Gray to plant the ball down and not only halve the lead before the break but also provide a massive confidence boost.
3RD QUARTER - WHO SCORES NEXT?
How on earth the answer to that question turned out to be Leinster I’ll never know.
In the very first minute of the second half we once again saw Castres make fools of our defensive line-runners - not the clearest screengrab I know but basically DArcy is staring at his opposite man as Kirkpatrick, the man he should be focusing on, sails by him.
But there was something different about Leinster in the second half…yes, the line was being broken more often than not leading Castres into our 22. This time, however, we were not only well able to scramble and hold them out, and not only were we able to clear our lines, but also I believe our kick chasing proved to be what finally closed that 14-point deficit for good.
That the side which had the wind behind them won either half made it a significant factor, but sometimes it was a hindrance more than a help, like when O’Driscoll caught a clearance kick too well putting it out on the full and his side right back under pressure in his own half.
But if I had to pick one “key” moment out of the entire contest it had to be the turnover forced on his own line by BOD himself to more than make up for the over-cooked punt (try saying THAT ten times fast!).
Bai and Kirkpatrick had combined to get from the 22 to the tryline but somehow O’Driscoll hauled down the sub outhalf, got to his feet and assumed the proper jackling position before the clearout brigade could arrive. Try for Castres there and it could well have been game over.
Then came the kick chasing, which was clearly frustrating the home side, once to the point of Garcia planting his studs firmly into the thigh of Mike McCarthy in a ruck more than once which rightly drew the ire of O’Driscoll. This led to the penalty which unbelievably gave the visitors the first score of the half, and when Rob Kearney’s opportunism took full advantage of both the wind and a poor Castres clearance to land a drop goal, suddenly we had the lead.
Watching this match a second time I am wondering if there could be a possible citing for Luke Fitzgerald for a tip tackle on Dulin at 58 minutes…but shortly after that Gopperth was stretching our lead to 7 points with one that fell the right way off the upright.
4TH QUARTER - DIGGING DEEP, AND I MEAN DEEEEEP
In many ways it did appear as though the rugby gods were smiling on Leinster for this match…beforehand Castres were denied their South African-born match-winners Kockott and Claasens and then one by one by injury or design the very players who were doing the most damage seemed to be trudging off…Tales, Bai and even Diarra, who was still causing problems for us in the second half particularly at restarts.
For our part, it appeared as though we wanted to see out the game by way of a 40-minute defensive drill. Like the last thing we wanted was actual possession, and we even made things a little more interesting by going down a man for the final ten minutes as Cronin inexplicably went around the side of a ruck too early and slowed down a Castres attack and rightly saw yellow. Sheer lunacy at that stage of the game.
And what’s more we were extremely lucky not to go another man down as Jordi Murphy did virtually the same thing on our own tryline. As he moved I thought the game was lost…thankfully Nigel Owens was a little more forgiving (maybe we deserved that break after the Garcia no-call? Not sure ABLs will agree somehow) but we had a hell of a lot of work still to do.
By thunder, did we get that work done in spades. Hard to single one player out for us on the day defensively…McGrath & McCarthy forced multiple turnovers throughout but late on it was subs Healy and Jennings who put themselves in the right places when it mattered.
Man of the match for Leinster though had to be Gopperth (overall I’d lean towards Diarra) - if the 24pts including two tries weren’t enough for you, his jackled steal which led to the Jordi Murphy try was made all the more remarkable by the fact that it came after a hard 76 minutes of action. Ian Madigan & Cian Healy also played key roles in getting the ball out to him and the score killed the match.
In the lead photo you see Lamerat reacting to the result even though his try pinched a much-deserved bonus point for his side right at the death; thankfully our slackness late in a period wasn’t quite so costly as that of the home side.
Definitely not a perfect performance from Matt O’Connor’s men - and we need to work on our defensive set-up because it does look as though opponents are starting to work it out, at least in midfield.
But having said that, it was our play without the ball that has largely gotten us to this position in what has been an extremely difficult Pool One, and although we owe a debt of gratitude to the Ospreys for doing Castres over at the Liberty Stadium, it is one we cannot afford to repay them for this Friday.
For now, I’m going to leave you with a couple of dates - May 1, 2010 : the last time Leinster lost away in the Heineken Cup to a team that wasn’t in the midst of a 70-match unbeaten home run, and January 17, 2009, the last time we lost away in the Heineken Cup to a team that wasn’t French. Not a bad record in this great competition I reckon, and something to dine out on for the five-day turnaround. JLP
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Also this weekend
Benetton Treviso 19 - 34 Leicester Tigers
Harlequins 13 - 16 Clermont Auvergne
Gloucester Rugby 7 - 20 Munster
Ospreys 17 - 29 Northampton Saints
British & Irish Cup