Saturday, September 06, 2014

Glasgow Warriors-22 Leinster-20


O'CONNOR OUT!!!

Just in case you didn't read the final part of our pre-season series, the headline you see above for our first writeup of the 2014/15 campaign is totally tongue-in-cheek.

There's a group of rugby fans out there which I have called "ABLs".  Anyone But Leinster.  When you have had the success which we've seen at the RDS in recent years, that's an inevitable by-product and we can't really complain.

And of course when it comes to our own fans, we are bound to disagree when it comes to supporting our club.  Few would select the same matchday 23 week-in, week-out, few would like to see them playing exactly the same way, and there's nothing at all wrong with that.  It's part of what makes sport interesting.

This leads to my identifying a sub-section of Leinster support, one which seems to have been growing steadily over the past 12 months.  I have chosen to call them "Anti-Matt-ers".  The consensus among them seems to be that since Matt O'Connor came to Leinster, he has essentially turned us into a Premiership "boshing" team and he should be replaced at the earliest possible opportunity.

All of that is well and good, but as you can probably tell, while I agree with some of their concerns, I certainly don't agree with their solution.  Yet.

But one thing is for sure, our start to the season has certainly given the Anti-Matters more fuel for their fire.

Look - there is no denying that we were mostly poor in Scotstoun on Saturday.  On the basis of the 80-minute display I was left no more clear about the focus of our pre-season preparation than I was before the first ball was kicked.

Glasgow, on the other hand, made it abundantly clear what had driven them through the previous few weeks..."we need to find a way to stuff Leinster in our opening match".  And for large portions of the contest, there was only one team ready to play.

But to stay with my point about those who are looking for reasons to have a pop at Leinster these days...though I usually don't like using hypotheticals, I reckon one is useful here.

Imagine a mirror-image of this match were played at the RDS.  Leinster race to a 19-0 lead only to have it pegged back, needing a last-gasp penalty to take the spoils.  I have a funny feeling that the ABLs and AntiMatters would still be knocking Leinster with jibes like "the better team lost".  Though I accept we'll never know,  similar scenarios did happen last season with that outcome.

My contention is that while there was much, much wrong with our performance - on one hand overall tactically, and on the other due to disappointing showings from certain individuals on whom we normally rely - it was most definitely not all bad and if you can't see the silver linings, I reckon you are choosing not to.

The first cloud came before a minute had come off the clock, with Noel Reid being forced off the pitch after rotten luck in one of his first tackles of the season.  At least we were able to bring on someone of the calibre of Ian Madigan, but we were also denied the possibility of using him as an fresh impact sub for the last half an hour.

For the remainder of the opening 15 minutes, the respective offensive strategies were there for all to see.

Glasgow were anticipating our tackles (such as they were in some cases) and finding fast, creative ways to offload - and of course to facilitate this there always appeared to be two or three quality support options.

Leinster, on the other hand, were pretty much reverting to type from last season's bread-and-butter matches.  Pass, pass, cut inside, bring into contact, repeat.  It seemed a bit like using a hammer and chisel to get through a brick wall...eventually you'll manage it, but if you're up against the clock you're only making life hard for yourself.  Get a bulldozer, find a way around or find a way over, I say.

After the opening exchanges it was clear that it would take mistakes to provide try-scoring opportunities, and the 15-minute mark was when we started gifting them.  All 22 of Glasgow's points came from unforced Leinster errors.

The first try was after a baffling scrum.  Leinster's put in, we seemed to have control, but then it went pear-shaped and Glasgow were well primed to make the most of the transition after the turnover, shipping it out wide where they had the right combinations to put in Peter Horne for five points.

I had a few sour grapes about this try...thinking maybe Nigel Owens could have gone to the TMO; not for Seymour on the touchline, rather for his pass being forward.  He releases the ball outside the 5m line while Horne caught it well inside.  There's a probability Darragh Fanning got a hand to it however, but I still think it was worth a look.

The second try was down to James Gopperth.  He had just missed a relatively simple placekick which would have gotten us off the mark (though to be fair it seems the wind was against him) and from the 22 drop out he dropped what should have been an easy take.

Of course it wasn't his fault that the Warriors proceeded to march down the pitch and score, I'll grant you, but the error presented the chance and after some woejus tackling from the boys in white, man-of-the-match Johnny Gray grounded for try number 2.

It was definitely a long afternoon for Leinster on the tackling front.  The stats will only be made to look worse by the visual evidence at the DVD sessions down at UCD.  As many as six of our starters were credited with 3 or more missed tackles and no team can win a championship with numbers like that.

But some say you make your own luck; for try number three, there was a case for the opposite.  Nakarawa, or The Octopus as I call him since he seems to grow extra offloading arms at will, was very well tackled by Sean Cronin at our 22.  Though much smaller our hooker grabbed the Fijian lock in such a way as to not only make the offload impossible even for him, but he also managed to free the ball.

Pity it went on to bounce straight into the arms of Josh Strauss who swatted Cian Healy aside and charged over for try number 3.

On Mr Healy...of course overall I'm a massive fan but on Saturday, he was awful.  Strauss wasn't his only missed tackle; he was also "involved" in the build-up to try number two.  And his mocking of Jon Welsh in last season's Pro12 final came back to haunt him as on a rare attacking scrum for Leinster, with Healy now facing the more experienced Euan Murray, he shipped a pen and the resulting clearance actually led to try number 3.  Bad day at the office for Mr P Church...but he'll be back.

So there we were...still a ways to go before half-time and the home side were 19-0 up against their championship-winning visitors.  Sound familiar?

Here's where our offensive mindset also baffled me.  Right after the kickoff after the third try we won a penalty around the Glasgow 22.  It was actually a decent response from us and for once we bullied the breakdown area to force it.

Finally!, I thought, we can at least have a shot at an attacking lineout deep in there territory...their goal line defence has yet to be tested and a try now could make this match look even more like the New Zealand one.

Wait a sec...what do you mean, "Madigan is going for the posts"?

That decision, probably made on the field, made little sense to me.  19-3 looks no better than 19-0 to my eyes, but 19-7 would have definitely given Gregor Townsend's men the jitters.  Yet Mads slotted it and the margin at the break was 16 points.

Definitely a rotten first half for Matt O'Connor all round.  I certainly wasn't too happy, but I was at least still hopeful.

But now we must remember exactly how the contest stood at that point - Glasgow looking certain to earn a 5-0 league points advantage - and compare it to how the match turned out, a 4-1 split.

Something surely had to go right for Leinster in the second half for it to finish that way, even if it involved the home side making their own mistakes.

In the early stages of the second half we persevered with the original game plan.  This seemed even crazier than before the break, as not only did we now have the wind in our backs, the sun was casting a long shadow into the eyes of the home side as well.

Cian Healy's further blushes were spared when he was replaced by Jack McGrath on 45m and it was around this time we started going to the boot more often.   Even that didn't work for our half-back pairing though - Isaac Boss may have made 100 appearances for two provinces but this certainly won't have been one he'll want to remember.

But now we were starting to get a bit of luck to go with what seemed to be an improved defensive showing...Glasgow were still getting the ball in promising positions but that fourth try seemed to elude them at every turn.  At one point Gopperth forced a vital clearing turnover penalty though I wasn't so sure he released his man legally before jackling.

With the match well into the third quarter and just a single Leinster penalty added to the score, it was clear we needed a mistake from Glasgow to help us get back into the match.  And as the final quarter got near, the only error of note from the home side thus far had come from their announcer when he introduced "Tadge" Furlong to the crowd after he replaced Mike Ross.

But with the game beginning to look like it was going to fizzle out, enter Niko Matawalu.  Nothing fizzles out when he's around!

Dominic Ryan wasn't one of our tackling culprits...the stats gave him 16 made and none missed.  When he grabbed Matawalu and dragged him back into a ruck, I honestly thought he was going to ship a pen himself, but Owens deemed it legal.  The Fijian sub wasn't so thrilled, however, and he swung a punch at Ryan, missing with his fist but making some connection with his elbow.

The ref missed it but it seems to have been picked up by the TMO who intervened.  On learning of the incident Owens decided it was just a penalty because he didn't land the punch?  You can work that one out.

But the important thing was that we had a penalty, and yes, this time we did put it into the corner.  Sean Cronin, also one of our better players on the day, had been replaced by young Bryan Byrne, who did well for Leinster A in the B&I Cup last season.  This was clearly a pressure dart for him.

Luckily for Leinster it was no bother to him, he found his jumper and we executed the lineout/maul to near perfection as Jack McGrath got the touchdown.  Gopps adds the two and suddenly it's 19-13 and the bums are getting squeaky!

As you can see I have pointed out a few Leinster players I thought did well on the day.  But best from our lot (for the second time in a row against Glasgow IMO as well) was Zane Kirchner.  He did his best to stop the first try coming out of nowhere to tackle Seymour, he made the most of his few bouts of possession throughout, and though it could be said the better option was McFadden outside him, he had the confidence to boom a monster of a kick from deep inside is own 22 to the Warriors' 5m line and into touch.

We would need another gaffe from the hosts, however, and whoever was in charge of their lineout calls supplied it.  I have seen Irish teams do this over the years, ie chucking it long in our own 22 and that's exactly what Pat MacArthur did.  Always, always, always throw one of your safer short options, I say.

Instead the long dart evaded the grasp of Johnny Gray and quick as a flash our sub Tom Denton, another hero from the B&I Cup campaigns, grabbed it and dived over the line as if he was expecting the ball the get to him all along.  Another conversion (credit to Gopperth for this one it was quite a pressure kick), and unbelievably, Leinster were now in a 1-point lead.

I must confess I despaired that there were still a full seven minutes left on the clock at that point.  Surely the Warriors would manage to get themselves into a position to regain the lead, this time for good.

Unfortunately it was a mistake from Luke McGrath off the restart which gave them the chance to have a good run at it for the entire remained of the contest.  From a scrum-half point of view he was definitely an improvement on Boss and I think Matt O'Connor has a very important decision to make when the Champions Cup comes around.

Assuming Reddan is available I feel it would be an awful waste to play Luke McGrath back in the B&I Cup this season.  If this involves someone like Boss dropping down then so be it, and on this performance that is how I'd have the pecking order.

Still it has to be said that it was Luke failing to replicate Kirchner's kick from a few minutes before that gave Glasgow their chance.  It went out on the full and suddenly an attacking lineout gave them phases outside our 22 where we would have to be careful not to ship a pen.

In the end their possession took them all the way to our line, where we did concede a penalty but Stuart Hogg reckoned it was too far out wide so they went for the lineout even though the clock was going red as it was thrown.

They got the ball under the posts and Hogg sat back in the pocket though once more he didn't fancy it (he has history with late kicks against this opposition) but Denton & McFadden got him out of jail by apparently being offside when it was passed to him and he was thus given the chance to deservedly win the match for his side, one he took this time.

Quick question...should Matawalu's surge of blood to the cranium making him attempt a quick tap have negated the kick?  Meh.  The offside call came from the touch judges and Owens had to stop the play to confirm this on the comms.  I'd rather know why the sub scrum half was on the pitch at all after the swipe at Ryan, to be honest.

So although it turned out to be via a crazy path, the right side definitely won this match, and you can't deny the result was also good for the Warriors faithful, the league in general, Sky Sports and of course the ABLs.

I should point out though that I would never go so far as to suggest the Anti-Matters would ever be happy with a Leinster defeat.  We all support the boys in blue and we all want them to win.  And conversely I would certainly never recommend backing a coach no matter what.

But when we have just won a second league title in a row, to lose our next match at the home of the same opposition from that final by just 2 points when we were behind by 19 at one stage is not a time to be signalling a crisis.

Remember, remember - we DON'T DO SEPTEMBER!!!

Next week, we get our beloved Rugby Day Supreme back at the RDS.  The Scarlets will be in town, and all going well, I will be there.  I will definitely want to see better performances throughout the squad, I will definitely want to see more invention going forward.

Over to you, Mr O'Connor. JLP



HarpinOnRugby match writeups are brought to you by the brand new Irish Rugby Store which has the new stash from Canterbury and where the new test jersey will be available soon.


OTHER ROUND 1 RESULTS 

Munster 13 - 14 Edinburgh
Ospreys 44 - 13 Benetton Treviso
Scarlets 32 - 32 Ulster
Connacht 16 - 11 Dragons

Zebre 26 - 41 Cardiff Blues


PRO 12 - ROUND 2 (all times Irish)

Fri Sep 12
Benetton Treviso v Munster, Stadio di Monigo, 7pm
NG Dragons v Ospreys, Rodney Parade, 7:35pm
Edinburgh v Connacht, 7:35pm
Ulster v Zebre,  Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm

Sat Sep 13
Leinster v Scarlets, RDS Arena, 2:40pm

Sun Sep 14
Cardiff Blues v Glasgow Warriors, Cardiff Arms Park, 4pm

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