Friday, September 26, 2014

Leinster-37 Cardiff Blues-23

There's no denying, Leinster's display was littered with mistakes.  If we're assuming that every time we take to the park we must play in such a way as to beat Toulon in the Stade Mayol, then a repeat of what we saw on Friday would have meant a bigger loss than that we suffered in April.

However, my 3 concerns going into this match had little to do with individual errors.  I was worried about 1) our offensive approach, 2) our scrums, and 3) the inexperience on our bench; and in my view all of these far exceeded expectations.

The reason I have chosen the number 23 as my title is that I believe the number represents two ways which this match can be analysed.

You can either say there are 23 reasons why Leinster won (our players on the night*), or there are 23 reasons why we need to be worried about Leinster (the points Cardiff put on the board).

I am happy to do both.  Some may prefer to only do the latter.  So let's start there shall we.

A 27-9 lead at home with half an hour to go should be safe for any team, let alone the league's back-to-back champions.  So when the clock hits 65 minutes and the score is 27-23, of course there are questions to be answered.  Well, how did those particular 14 points come about?

The way I see it, the two Cardiff tries ironically came as a result of our offensive strategy which, even more ironically, I think was a sound one.

My principal complaint when we played both Glasgow and Connacht was that I could not see a particular approach, just basic phase play every time we got the ball.  On Friday, however, I saw a plan which seemed designed to take Sam Warburton's many talents at the breakdown out of the equation.

The more phases of possession we would have, the more opportunities he would have to force a turnover as he has done so often in the past.  So what we did instead was either ship it quickly out wide if it was on, or kick it forward if it wasn't.

I know many will disagree, but I can see the sense in that approach.  What went wrong for us on Friday was that on several occasions our senior players were unable to execute.

The first Cardiff try came after an Ian Madigan crossfield kick went over Fergus McFadden's head, and fair play to the visitors; despite the scoreline they were keen to take the quick throw and punt deep into our own 22 which had Madigan, now playing full-back for the (hopefully not too badly) injured Rob Kearney rather than 12, scrambling back.  He took the ball in his slide but lost it in a second contact with the ground and Cory Allen was able to pounce.

Shortly after the restart it was Jimmy Gopperth this time applying the kick strategy and once more it was inaccurate; also the timing wasn't ideal as our defence wasn't properly set for the chase.  When it was set (and either side of this 5-minute, 2-try spell for Cardiff it was) their offence was going nowhere, and this needs to be said.

What also needs to be said is that impressive though the visitors' quick movement of the ball in this sequence may have been, the final pass from Dan Fish (wearing 23) to Sam Warburton was well forward.  Just how the officials deemed the replays "inconclusive" I'll never know...the fact that Sam caught it well ahead of where Dan chucked it was conclusive enough for me.

And even if you go down the "what way were the hands going" road, Fish's may have been heading towards his own tryline by the end of his motion, but not when he released the ball.  No doubt fans of the Welsh region will point out a try they had disallowed in the same fixture last season...though hopefully the TMO doesn't take that into consideration...
"Ref?  I have a decision.  The pass was clearly forward but you may award the try as poor Cardiff were robbed this time last year!"
So although Cardiff got 7 points, they shouldn't have, and on the evidence of the rest of the match, chances are they wouldn't have gotten close to doing so again.

Yet the fact remained the lead was now just four, and we were starting to go to our bench.   And it's from here where I can find most of the positives from our display.

Once more, I fully acknowledge there were mistakes by not just Gopperth & Madigan, but other experienced players like Heaslip, Reddan and McFadden were also struggling to do the simple things at times; more than once after restarts right after we scored, which was mightily frustrating.

But not only did they make several good contributions themselves (like turnovers at key moments forced by Reddan & Heaslip), we also saw names filtering through from the A squad staking their claim for more gametime at this level.

To the forefront was Rhys Ruddock, who literally exploded into the match with the opening try just before halftime. I reckon that score gave us the confidence to go after the other three, otherwise it could have been another long night.  Someone on twitter tried to take from his run to the line because he "only" had the scrum half to beat but that ignores the take and line through two Cardiff forwards to get free in the first place.

Then there was young Mick McGrath, wearing the blue 23 jumper (now I'm committed to that headline I'll link to it any chance I get!).  His turn of pace for try number two was one thing, but the determination to keep going until he was properly put down is something else altogether.  An excellent, well crafted score.

Am I done picking out impressive youngsters?  Far from it.  What about our reserve front row of Tadhg Furlong and the twin brothers Byrne?  With players of the calibre of Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins involved, for us to even achieve parity at scrum time would have been a result and for 80 minutes I would say we at least did that.

Credit must also of course go to our starting front row as I'm sure many would have been worried about Michael Bent.  Turns out they, ok ok WE, needn't have been.  Though I will say that Reddan is still feeding the ball crooked to Cronin (who to be fair must be ready for a rest at this stage - maybe Strauss is due back next week?) and was lucky not to be pinged as Cardiff's 9 Jones was.  It all boiled down to what side of the scrum referee Ian Davies was on.

Kane Douglas gave away a penalty here and missed a tackle there but overall seemed to slot in nicely to our side, while Jack Conan made a decent six tackles in his cameo.  Our lineout wasn't as perfect as I had hoped but that never really cost us.

Honourable mention should also go to Darragh Fanning, who I think cops way more flak that he deserves.  Our early 6-0 lead was built on the back of an almost Groundhog-Day series of Cardiff restarts which went Patchell to Toner, Reddan box-kick, Fanning chase to pressure Patchell's catch.  Each time the St Mary's winger did his job superbly and he also helped out an under pressure McFadden in the second half.

For once I had no complaints with the man of the match award.  Gordon D'Arcy played outside centre in the first half, inside in the second, and led from the front in both positions, helping himself to our third try in the process.  And the space for Mick McGrath's 5-pointer came from a super-quick pass from The Power Beard as Cardiff's high defensive line threatened to disrupt us once more.

But the final Leinster player to fall under my microscope has to be Luke McGrath.  Apologies in advance, but I'm about to throw bouquets at myself (hey, if I don't, who else will, right?).   This is from my preview -
I really hope Luke McGrath sees more action than the 6 minutes he did last week
When I saw him ready to come on for Reddan right after the first Cardiff try, I had a hunch and for some mad reason decided to tweet it.
Now I freely admit I was hedging my bets quite a bit with the words "involved in", and you'll just have to trust me that I wouldn't be harping on it if he had simply provided a pass off a routine phase.  But he only went and scored the bloody thing himself (albeit with the help of a nice setup from Bryan Byrne) to reward the Leinster fans who hadn't left the stands ten minutes or more before the end.

So how do we sum up...were Leinster perfect?  No.  Did we deserve the full five point haul?  Probably not, though we did at least look for it, when we passed on an easy 3 to wrap up the win towards the end.  But did we deserve to lose? Absolutely not.

Cardiff put in their best Dublin performance in recent years.  Now most Leinster fans will know that's not saying much, but my point is that they didn't throw in the towel the way they have done in the past.  For example, our BP try came after we turned them over as they tried to chuck it about deep in their own territory to nick a draw...few would blame them for settling for the losing bonus and in the end they went home with nothing.

Hopefully their centre Dafydd Hewitt is ok after what looked like a nasty clash of heads with Madigan when I was surprised both weren't badly affected.  Neither side was able to play a full 80 with their starting centre pairing which had to play a part in what was overall a scrappy affair.

At least we had Gordon D'Arcy telling TG4 afterwards that he wasn't satisfied with the performance, and I am delighted to hear that - it tells me their focus will be in the right place for the difficult matches in the coming weeks, and I don't just mean playing Zebre in Parma either!

Still, when I see so much doom and gloom around the ruggersphere, I can't help myself from trying to see at least some silver linings and when you know where to look, there are plenty.

We are just one point behind what we were at this stage last season, our current "struggles" are nothing compared to those of the other teams in our Euro pool and we have the October visit of Munster to the Aviva next week, a match which has so often been a kick-start to our season in years gone by.

I could probably build that list of positives up to twenty-three to help me link to my headline even more, but I reckon I'll quit while I'm, er, "ahead". JLP

* - yes, I know Crosbie didn't get a game but you don't honestly think I'd let that get in the way of my theme do you?

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Also in Round 4

8NG DRAGONS41-9672-47

Round 5

Friday, October 3
Connacht v Cardiff Blues, Sportsground, 7:35pm
Ulster v Edinburgh, Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm
Zebre v Ospreys, Stadio XXV Aprile, 7:35pm

Saturday, October 4
Leinster v Munster, Aviva Stadium, 6:30pm

Sunday, October 5
Treviso v Glasgow, Stadio di Monigo, 2pm
Scarlets v NG Dragons, Parc y Scarlets, 4pm


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019