Friday, April 11, 2014

Ospreys-25 Leinster-19

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TOUGH AT THE TOP

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What would we as Leinster fans have said about Joe Schmidt immediately after the 2011 Heineken Cup final had that historic second half turnaround in Cardiff not happened? And by the same token, what would we say about Matt O'Connor after this match at the Liberty Stadium had Dave Kearney held that pass on the way to a victory?

Impossible questions to answer I know, but still I feel they are ones we need to ask, particularly now as despite being top of the Pro12 by 4 points and having won the toughest pool in the Heineken Cup, O'Connor finds himself firmly under scrutiny after two away defeats in a row. And it's not as though being in first place did much good for Rob Penney down in Munster either.

Of course I wasn't 100% happy with Leinster's display on Friday night and I think my record on this site is decent enough when it comes to pointing out things I reckon we have done wrong over the years. But on a broader scale I think we need to be mindful of just what exactly our provincial coaches are being asked to do with their squads, plus we could do without being so self-absorbed and perhaps give our opposition more credit when they find a way to come out on top.

With that in mind, I have chosen to look at the factors which I feel contributed to this result every bit as much as things like tactical errors on Leinster's part before I address them.

OSPREYS PLAYED WELL

I first coined the term “Those Pesky Birds/Ospreys” after the 2012 Pro12 final and when I tweeted it during the week, it was RTed by both prominent Welsh journalist Simon Thomas and the official Ospreys account itself. I hope they all realise I mean nothing by it but respect.

Amid all the palaver that Welsh rugby has endured off the field in recent years and this season especially, the Ospreys have remained, in my opinion anyway, a leading light, whether their fans choose to recognise this fact or not. They have won multiple trophies and despite being mostly formed by the controversial merging of two intense rival clubs, they have managed to establish a culture of rugby of their own in this much-maligned league.

And even though the conveyor belt of players heading to France keeps on rolling, each season, particularly after Christmas, they seem able to put a string of good results together thanks to players who haven't yet made it at test level. On Friday night there were standout displays by names we wouldn't know so well here in Ireland such as Richard Fussell, Jeff Hassler and most of all number 8 Dan Baker.

Though I will deal with how they got into attacking positions later, when they had them in this match, especially in the first half, they were well able to turn them into points. Their lone try courtesy of Hassler was the result of some slick play through the backs including a flick by Fussell which if a fraction of a second out would have butchered the whole move.

On top of this ability going forward there was also the quality of placekicking from Dan Biggar, which Leinster fans well know can do some serious damage, and there were key contributions by the more household names in the squad, particularly the Bristol-bound Ryan Jones who forced a massive turnover in the closing stages.

Some Leinster fans may point out things like Ospreys players & fans alike bullying the ref throughout but I reckon this is part of the game and and something visiting teams have to deal with, so I’d count this as a positive for the home side.  Wouldn’t hurt to crank this kind of thing up more often at the RDS if you ask me, once it’s not too over the top.

LEINSTER PLAYED WELL

Sorry, but I believe we did, even with a makeshift back line, and what's more, for long periods as well!

First there was our only try from Cian Healy which demonstrates our lineout-maul option is still alive and kicking and it came shortly after the home side's 5 pointer thus we still have the ability to react when scores go against us.

But our best spell by far was at the start of the second half when both Healy and Jamie Heaslip both played out of their skins like the Lions they are. Strong bursts going forward, forced turnovers by both stripping and by choke tackles, it was all there and it is great to see them hitting form at this stage of the season.

And it wasn't so bad on the defensive front either as much like Toulon we were able to scramble with effectiveness on several occasions as well. Plus there were “only” the 16 tackles missed this week, well down on Toulon so that has to be a good thing (ok...maybe that last bit comes with a side order of tongue-in-cheek!)

THE REF

Sigh. I hate singling out the man in the middle but in this case I'm not doing it so I can have a go at the opposition more than I am trying to defend Matt O'Connor for copping complete responsibility for the loss.

Much has been made about the Pro12 refs when it comes to both consistency and accountability. We can go into that in depth another time but in this match there were several things blatantly missed by Marius Mitrea that either led to scores for the home side or prevented ones from the visitors.

  1. 20140414_054158~2Ryan Jones was obviously on his knees praying the ref wouldn't notice when Screengrab 1 happened, and his prayers were answered when the ref awarded the pen to the Ospreys because a Leinster player went in from the side. (Ball had broken loose but Jones was playing the man rather than contesting) The result – from being on the back foot the home side then get a foothold in the Leinster 22 and it leads directly to the game's only try.

  2. 20140414_082512~2Early in the second half as Leinster were cranking up through the gears, Isaac Boss is grabbed by Jonathan Spratt without the ball. It's not seen and the play breaks down into a choke tackle and the Ospreys can clear. The result – no score for Leinster on an attacking opportunity. Maybe a try wouldn't have resulted but the way we were playing at this stage at least a pen was on the cards.

  3. 20140414_083245~2Shane Jennings pinged for not releasing after the tackle even after his arms are clearly open and his legs pinned into the ruck. The result – 3 more points for the Ospreys and a 9-point lead.

  4. Shortly after Dave Kearney's dropped pass for a certain try in the lead photo, Jamie Heaslip forced a turnover on the Ospreys line after the resulting scrum and it looked like another try-scoring chance was imminent. Alun-Wyn Jones tackled a Leinster player, stayed on the ground and held on to the ball, clearly to slow the play down. I will be gracious and say it “could” have been a yellow for him. The result – just the 3 points for Leinster, plus AWJ played a significant role in the next ten minutes when he “could” have been elsewhere.

  5. With Leinster just three points down and the clock past 70, Noel Reid took a bold decision to take a 22 to himself and got to halfway where he may have been isolated but the jackling was being done by a completely horizontal Fussell yet the pen went to the home side. The result – play remains in the Leinster half and eventually the Ospreys stretch their lead to 6 for good.

Sure, the final penalty count was 10-10 but this stat doesn't take into account calls that weren't made nor what resulted from those non-calls. All I'm saying is that if we are to punish Leinster merely for their own part in this defeat, we may be setting the standards up in the clouds when we're also up against officiating like we saw on Friday.

OK – NOW WHAT LEINSTER DID WRONG

Cian Healy may have had a good night but the penalty he conceded at the start of the second half was both unnecessary and costly. He had been taken off his feet yet still went for the ball and it was in an extremely kickable area. Then right at the end Mike McCarthy ignored the calls of the ref at a maul and this gave Biggar the final score of the contest.

There were times when the ball was left unprotected at the breakdown and although we did seem to move the ball better than last week, we were still struggling to come to terms with the blitz defence and didn’t seem to have too many ways around it when it mattered.

Plus, Dave dropped a pass that was there to be taken over the line.  He has had a fine season, but that definitely was an error and in my book, the most costly one.  But can we blame Matt for this?

Overall the scouting report on O'Connor's Leinster would seem to be that if allowed to play we can do wonderful things, but if consistently challenged up at (or maybe even sometimes beyond?) the gain line we find it difficult to get things going. This is most definitely a serious problem for us as we get near the playoffs which could be over before they really begin whether we get a home semifinal or not.

This “masters when we win, team in crisis when we lose” narrative seems to be prevalent in Irish rugby media (mainstream and social) these days, as despite Munster's excellent win over Toulouse last week I see they too are getting hammered for defeat at home by Glasgow. Sure – they were far from perfect themselves in Thomond Park, but I feel we have to take a broader view before we criticise.

First of all, the top three teams on the table may be Irish provinces, but this is still an international competition so although we could be forgiven when we play so many teams from the other nations throughout the season who just aren't up to scratch, we have to give the Glasgows and the Ospreys the credit they deserve when they come out on top.

But also we can't forget that the provinces are not rugby clubs we are following, at least not in the sense of the English & French ones. These are branches of the IRFU who's prime directive is to develop players for the national team. Coaches who take over know this full well when they accept the job, but sometimes I wonder if we do as well.

Having said that, there is one thing I feel we can do better at provincial level - offer at least some explanation when players are left out of the squad…since I’m expecting fans to show understanding, perhaps it would be easier to do if the statuses of all players were accounted for when teams are announced. 

For me as a Leinster fan, although I have been accustomed to silverware over the past few seasons down the RDS, I have to come to terms with the fact that even though after this defeat we are still in with a decent shout of retaining our Pro12 title, there are quality teams around us and it might not happen this time around.

As for Matt, though his public persona may take a bit of getting used to and there is much for him and his staff to work on, I think we should at least be giving him until well into his second campaign at the helm before we judge too harshly. It's not his fault he has no Sexton or no Isa and most of all it's not his fault he's not Joe. JLP

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Other results

Dragons 19 - 23 Edinburgh

Glasgow 29 - 10 Benetton Treviso

Ulster 58 - 12 Connacht

Edinburgh 22 - 29 Cardiff Blues

Benetton Treviso 45 - 27 Dragons

Munster 5 - 22 Glasgow

Scarlets 27 - 20 Zebre

TEAM PLD PTS W PD T PF TD
1 LEINSTER 19 69 14 143 45 455 18
2 ULSTER 19 65 14 169 43 422 23
3 MUNSTER 19 63 14 149 43 434 22
4 GLASGOW 18 60 14 78 33 328 16
5 OSPREYS 19 56 11 151 47 454 23
6 SCARLETS 19 45 9 -22 34 361 -6
7 EDINBURGH 18 35 7 -68 30 325 -10
8 CONNACHT 19 34 6 -97 34 313 -7
9 CARDIFF BLUES 19 33 6 -112 26 371 -22
10 NG DRAGONS 19 31 6 -80 29 339 -9
11 TREVISO 19 29 5 -137 27 334 -30
12 ZEBRE 19 21 3 -174 29 291 -18
 
Positions in red = European qualification spots
 
Next fixtures
 
Fri Apr 18
 
Leinster v Benetton Treviso, 5pm
 
Glasgow v Ulster, 7:35pm
 
Sat Apr 19
 
Zebre v Edinburgh, 2:30pm
 
Connacht v Munster, 6:15pm
 
Sun Apr 20
 
Cardiff Blues v Scarlets, 1pm
 
Dragons v Ospreys, 3:45pm
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