WAIT! DON’T CLICK AWAY YET! The headline refers to the game itself - I promise to try and make the writeup as entertaining as always! [ahem]
If you just watched the highlights of this match offered on YouTube by the league itself (great service by the way - they post clips while the match is in progress) you’d be forgiven for thinking “four great tries, bonus point win for Leinster, with a whitewash thrown in, all good.”
But if, like myself and several thousand others, you were actually there on the night watching the 80 minutes tick agonisingly by, you would put things a little differently, as 27-0 doesn’t go anywhere near reflecting how the match went. Something closer to double Leinster’s total with (to be fair) at least a few points on the board for the visitors would have been more like it.
Even the ESPN statisticians were bored - look at all the tallies they not only screwed up, but also never bothered to fix over the weekend (screengrab from Monday morning).
Still though…before I get to all the negative stuff, it has to be said that with much bigger contests ahead, Leinster’s remit was a bonus point and no injuries and pending their squad update today, it seems like that was accomplished.
There’s also the issue of context…go back 12 months to Leinster’s first Pro12 fixture after the 2013 Six Nations and you see we needed 22 points from Ian Madigan to get past Glasgow who led for most of the night. If you expect a rugby union team to be thrown together with some having a few weeks off and others playing with different coaches to just click right off the bat, you’re expecting the impossible.
Having said that, when you as a fan have spent hard-earned money for your seat at a sporting contest and you know one team is at the bottom of the league and the other are not only top but also reigning champions (whether it’s Pro12 or Six Nations we can debate later!) I suppose it’s fair to be disappointed to see possession after possession go to waste for a variety of reasons like knock-ons, holding after the tackle, and what-not.
It started fine for us - Zebre’s winger-turned-outhalf Ianonne put the kickoff out on the full, and the night never got much better for him. The clock was barely at a minute when we had a penalty which Madigan promptly put into the corner to set up a lineout/maul.
“Here comes a try for Jordi Murphy”, I said to those with me. In the end I was right - note that I didn’t specify that it was to be at that exact moment!
What followed was a series of phases in the Zebre 22 which led to them conceding pen after pen after pen. No sign of ref issuing any warnings, we try different ways to get over until the 4th pen when we just take the three points. Surely we must have thought the floodgates would soon open.
Yeah, not so much. On 8 minutes Mike McCarthy was pinged for holding after the tackle (looked like he was presenting the ball fine to me but I’m biased) and from there the offensive gremlins began. I counted fifteen possessions throughout the match where we ran into dead ends; once in a while we were forced into them, but generally it was our own doing.
See, if we make excuses about our side being thrown together we must also remember that the same goes for our opposition, and sometimes it looked like players on the Zebre team had only met each other that evening.
This made for an extremely scrappy contest, in which the ref didn’t help with penalty calls which lacked consistency. Plus although he awarded one yellow towards the end of the first half, he could have sent several other Zebres to the line for some sloppy and sometimes dangerous attempts at tackles.
It was during that spell with the extra man that we finally got our first try, and you could hear the collective sigh of RDS relief all over Dublin. On its own it was a very impressive score (as they all were actually) given that the move started with a Luke Fitzgerald burst out of his own 22, included another big gain by McFadden at midfield, saw some patient phases in their red zone and ended with another strong finish by Noel Reid.
But birthday-boy and 100th-cap-winning Madigan missed the conversion minutes after also missing a pen (yes, a bit like Sexton in Paris) and luckily for us Iannone was having a similar mare with the boot so we went in with an 8-0 which no doubt had the ABLs watching ready to draw the knives out if the result was to be that close.
And right up to the 58th minute the scoreline was STILL that close as time after time after time the Leinster offence failed to get going.
Now this could be extremely unfair on Isaac Boss, but the fact remains that two minutes after he was replaced by Eoin Reddan we got two quick tries to put the bonus point back on the table, so make of that what you will.
The first came off a lineout/maul which worked very well until it was stopped short of the line and Luke Fitzgerald dived into the corner. He got his second also after a lineout though this time there was no maul and we simply passed it back and forth to stretch them and again he had the space to put it down in virtually the same spot.
So it was 20-0 on 66 minutes and it looked like the visitors would buckle making the key fourth try inevitable. But then came a curious phase of play that had me even more convinced that the French Top14 try-bonus point system is much better than ours. Over there, it’s not enough to score 4 tries - you must instead get at least 3 more tries than your opponents.
Credit to our Italian opponents with an uncertain future…in the final quarter they showed great ambition to not merely break their duck-egg but also breach our line. But as our defence was being continuously pinned in our own 22, the clock ticking well past 70 and our tackle count was increasing, I wondered…would we have been better served by just letting them score at that point?
I know that sounds crazy, but we needed to get down the pitch and while 7 points to them wouldn’t affect us, a chance to restart and probably have an attacking lineout around halfway from the exchange would definitely have given us a higher percentage chance of getting try number 4. A moot point given how the match turned out I know, but still it’s a bit nuts that there could ever be a case made for conceding a score.
In fact I reckon it was that “nothing to lose” mentality which led to Zane Kirchner attempting a crossfield kick on his own tryline in an attempt to get McFadden & Fanning away on the other touchline. Although it didn’t quite pan out for us and Zebre had another crack at it, they got their wires crossed on our 22 and we had a chance to clear.
And again, taken on its own the sequence of events that led to our bonus point try was pretty impressive for Leinster. The gremlins were put to bed, the phases all went to plan, penalties were won, quick taps were used to full effect and finally, right as the fat lady started to sing, Jordi Murphy proved my prediction to be spot on as he collapsed over the line following another undefendable lineout/maul.
Richardt Strauss was awarded man-of-the-match and it’s true, he hit all his darts and forced many turnovers. Luke was also a big contender though because his involvement was much greater than just the two tries. Also Murphy and Reid had good outings, while Madigan made up for his earlier misses by nailing two great conversions from the far touchline, the perfect birthday presents both for him and for me!
If you really want to throw mud at Leinster for this one being far from wall-to-wall champagne rugby then go ahead - we got the job done and with a stronger 23 out next week we should be more than ready for the visit of our southern cousins. And it doesn’t hurt to be handed even more motivation by Rob Penney either!
Look…on what he said - there were many on social media yesterday playing the “I don’t see why Leinster fans are so up in arms” card. Really, that wasn’t the case. If anything his quip was a compliment to Leinster and yes, in some ways it could be seen as an off-the-cuff remark meant to motivate his own troops.
Thing is though, if Denis Leamy was out of place moaning about Joe Schmidt’s selection policy then so was the current Munster coach, whether his future is with the province or not. That’s all. If we don’t want our players to behave like football divers such as Luis Suarez, then we shouldn’t want our coaches to behave like football divas such as Jose Mourinho either.
After Paris you’d think this season couldn’t possibly get more exciting, but fasten your seat-belts folks…there’s loads of rugby worth seeing in the coming weeks…and not just at The Palindrome next Saturday. Ulster are still well in the mix for a double and let’s not forget Connacht who have a massive game in Llanelli on Sunday to stay in contention for yet another seat at the top European table.
I’m not sure how we can complain about anything that happened (or didn’t) on Friday with all that to look forward to. JLP
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Also this weekend…
Munster 14 - 3 Benetton Treviso
[Rearranged match played Fri Mar 14]
positions marked red represent proposed qualification for new European competition
Fri March 28
Glasgow v Ospreys, 7:35pm
Sat March 29
Zebre v Dragons, 3pm
Bnetton Treviso v Edinburgh, 6pm
Cardiff Blues v Ulster, 6:30pm
Leinster v Munster, 7pm
Sun March 30
Scarlets v Connacht, 2:05pm