The 2013/14 campaign may not be over just yet but now that the 22 rounds of the Pro12 regular season have been completed, we have a fair amount of concrete stats with which we can compare Matt O'Connor's first season in charge at Leinster with Joe Schmidt's last one.
We already knew how their respective European campaigns measure up...last season we finished second in our pool while this year we won the toughest pool out of the six. Sure, last season we went on to win the Amlin but that was thanks to victories against teams who have hardly set the world alight since, while this year our “reward” for topping the pool was a trip to Toulon.
Last season in the Rabo we finished second and only got the final at home due to a technicality. We'll never know how it would have gone had it been in Belfast but it surely had to be worth at least a point or two on the scoreboard for Ulster.
This season we have finished top of the table, with more league points (82) than Leinster have ever achieved in the Celtic League. Tries scored may be down on last season (57 v 63) but tries conceded is remarkably better (30 v 46) and all 4 of Leinster's league defeats were by 7 points or less.
Sorry Matt, but that's just not good enough.
Am I tongue in cheek with that last sentence? Well, I guess that depends on what angle I'm taking.
If I were to base my appraisal purely on Leinster's performance on Saturday evening against Edinburgh, well then sure, the statement holds water.
But if you take an overall view, then I maintain my assertion that O'Connor needs to be given until at least a couple of matches into next season's Rugby Champions Cup before we can cast final judgement. Failing miserably in the upcoming Rabo playoffs will heap pressure on him I certainly grant you that, but if we're going to set the bar for success purely at Joe Schmidt levels then I'd have to wonder if anyone would ever fancy coming here in the future.
OK – got that off my chest. This is a writeup for Saturday, so what say I get on with it.
First of all, I have to hand it to Edinburgh for playing their part. I'm not sure they quite had nothing to play for...Scottish rugby in general had a lot to gain with them causing an upset as it would have increased the chances of a grand final in Glasgow for the first time. But still, you would have forgiven them for playing as though they had summertime pursuits like foreign tours and rounds of golf on their minds.
When they had chances on the day, they took them. Who knows, they could have won had they not lost Beard, Denton and Scott in the first half or if Visser and Scott hadn't fluffed their transfer (with no opponents near I might add) which caused the Bezuidenhout try to be disallowed. Right to the end they were contesting and they deserve credit.
As for Leinster, though many may disagree, I thought things weren't all that bad either. It was Rhys Ruddock and Mike McCarthy who were caught napping in the 65th minute when Greig Laidlaw broke through from deep to set up Tim Visser for Edinburgh's only try, but even though it brought the visitors to within 2 points, the RTE replays seemed to be more concerned with the injury sustained by BOD than how the gap was found.
But otherwise things weren't too bad defensively, plus when we had the ball and our goal was simply retaining possession, much like Ravenhill last week we showed we could get the job done.
Let's be clear...if we can restrict opponents to just 13 points at the RDS, we should win every time. Now, here's is where the doubt comes over my use of the word “should”.
If the opposition gets 13, we'll of course need to get at least 14 and on Saturday, we made life very difficult for ourselves turning possession into points. And this could well be the very reason why Leinster fans are so frustrated with Matt O'Connor.
Ball kicked out on the full in open play. Botched lineouts after clean catch. Conceded pen on own scrum put-in. Foot in touch when ball sent out wide. Ball stripped in tackle. Pile those on top of several occasions when we flat out knocked the ball on and you have a multitude of sins committed when we had the ball in our possession.
Yet for the entire 80 minutes we persevered with a strategy of incessant phase play down the middle with the only other options being either chuck it out wide or plant a grubber through. Now to be fair, this actually worked as early as the 9th minute when Jordi Murphy went over after (my man of the match) Dave Kearney had received the ball out wide and forced his way back infield while still gaining yards.
Also to be fair, there was one notable exception to the general offensive rule where Kearney The Younger cut in from his wing on a set move. And guess what, he scored.
So what I'm wondering is...were we toying with Edinburgh? Was it our intention to simply get the win we needed whilst not providing Ulster with a display that shows all of our hand going into next week? If so, that's definitely a risky policy and it's one that only just paid off, and the real fruits of it won't be known until next Saturday.
But while the resulting contest provided little entertainment for the drenched RDS crowd (though at least the rain held off while the match was actually on), I saw just about enough to keep my glass as half full for the time being. The official farewell to BOD & Leo was a significant sub-plot to the occasion and put in that context, for it to take place on the back of any kind of home victory had to be a good thing.
Will we win the league playing the way we did last Saturday? Absolutely not. But do I think we'll play the same way next Saturday? I have to say no.
What the makeup of the matchday 23 will be is a mystery...last week I “demanded” that Ian Madigan be retained at 10 and to be honest I have given up trying to predict what O'Connor is going to do for such a key position.
Maybe that's exactly what he wants the Ulster coaching set-up to do as well, but when his main problem is offensive production, again I say it's a risky route to take.
Still though, as things stand right now, I sincerely hope Leinster fans are united behind Matt O'Connor and his squad. Whatever reservations anyone may have about the Pro12, it's still a major trophy that's there to be won, we're the reigning champions and we definitely have a strong chance of retaining it. Come On You Boys In Blue. JLP
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Also this weekend
Dragons 20 - 19 Benetton Treviso
Scarlets 27 - 15 Cardiff Blues