Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Castres-16 Leinster-21


Early in the Brian O'Driscoll autobiography "The Test" he talks about a try he scored in the Leinster Junior Cup quarterfinal (which was icing on the cake, they were well ahead at that stage) after which he was actually scolded by the coaches.

"The game was over and there you are giving away our best plays!", he was told.

Though I would have denied it if you had asked me before the start of Leinster's Rugby Champions Cup campaign, maybe a small part of me was presuming/hoping that our primary attacking strategy in the Pro12 of "pass-pass-back inside and bring into contact-repeat" was merely a ruse and that once the stakes were at their highest we would suddenly unleash a raft of plays that would show the rest of Europe that boys in blue were back to their best despite all our injuries.

Yeah, well, that most certainly did not happen.

For the second week in a row, I have been forced to watch a replay of my team's victory to remind myself why I should actually be happy about it.

There weren't even 5 minutes on the clock and we saw both what our game plan is AND what it could be.

It all started fine - we took the kickoff and our chase, led by the returning Luke Fitzgerald, was good enough to force a clearance which gave us a lineout in good attacking position.  Great chance for some early points, I thought.  Then Sean Cronin plants an early seed of doubt in my head with a crooked dart.

Castres take the scrum comfortably and start some phases around midfield, in a manner not unlike that which we have been known to do this season, except after it becomes clear that our defence is pretty solid down the middle, their outhalf Remi Tales takes a mind to try something different; brilliantly finding his full-back with a crossfield kick and with a further kick forward by Palis, Ian Madigan is forced to bring it into touch and suddenly the home side has a lineout deep in our 22.

So from a set-piece down the other end where we were looking to get on the scoreboard early, now we were facing down a goal-line stand ourselves and with a straightforward but well-organised line-out maul the hosts charge over the line and hey presto we've a 7-point deficit to chase already.

Not to worry, I thought - you can never really judge how a match is going to go until both sides have had decent possession, and when Castres opt for a kick down the middle rather than to touch after the restart, Ian Madigan takes it at halfway and we get to see what the Leinster attack is made of.

Well it would certainly be cruel to say we were "going nowhere" as we brought the ball deep into the home 22, but once we got there, we just kept running the same plays, clearly presuming/hoping that eventually a Castres shoulder would buckle and allow us through to level the scores almost immediately.

Thing is though, this is a Castres side that's hurting; after raising the Bouclier de Brennus in 2013 they had a fraction of the talent from that squad on display and it wouldn't take a genius to work out that "seige mentality" was the way to go for their squad in front of their home fans.

So after our 17 phases bringing the ball into contact, eventually it was spilled and they were able to clear.  This did not bode well for the rest of the match, certainly on the try-scoring front.

Yet we continued with the strategy - and to be fair, the pressure was starting to tell in some ways as the Castres defence starting shipping kickable penalties for the remainder of the first half - four to be precise, of which Ian Madigan converted three to put us in front 9-7 at the break.

But a 2-point lead at half time in no way told the story of a 40-minute period where Leinster had 60% possession and a whopping 72% of territory.  Those are stats the home side should be enjoying at this level.  So basically it looked as though once more we were relying on our best quarter for scoring this season, the third one, to pull us ahead for good.

Yeah, well, that most certainly did not happen.

Literally from the first touch after the kickoff things went south for us as Toner (strangely named man of the match) spilled it - we got a brief let offg when Castres knocked it on, but then Cronin's lineout gremlins transferred to the scrum and the home side got an early chance to regain the lead which their full-back Palis accepted gratefully.

We reacted well from the restart and got back into our phases-hoping-for-either-a-line-break-or-a-penalty rhythm but a late draw on a Madigan placekick saw it hit the post and the chance was gone.  It was then when I started to think this was not going to be our day.

One saving grace for us is that during that wild third quarter Castres seemed to be matching us mistake for mistake; it was just that ours tended to hand them more scoring chances.

Now I may be moaning about our offence not trying anything bold, but by that I meant in the right areas of the pitch.  I definitely did not mean Ian Madigan trying a cheeky 22 drop out for Cronin to try and retreive right after Palis missed a penalty attempt.

The move failed miserably but luckily for us when Castres got possession back they tried something equally daft - a drop goal that just wasn't on - so that time we got a reprieve of sorts.  I presumed/hoped that this was a wake up call for us to avoid doing anything else that could jeopardize our chances.

Enter Isaac Boss.  And when I say "enter" I mean into a ruck, miles off his feet, for no apparent reason.  The one sentence of my preview I wanted to be wrong, wasn't.

If I have any concerns about getting the job done, they would revolve around Isaac Boss.

It's a one-point game and the home side have the ball around midfield.  I notice that suddenly our defenders have stopped committing themselves to the breakdown, an interesting ploy I didn't mind seeing played out for a couple of Castres attacks to see how they got on.

Apparently Boss didn't get the memo and his demonic lunge over the ruck looks worse every time I see it in replay and given he effectively leads with his head I guess we were lucky it was only a penalty, but still Palis made no mistake with his second bite at the cherry and suddenly we were 4 points behind.

I am going to give the Leinster coaching staff some benefit of the doubt here.  Eoin Reddan was stripped and ready to go when Boss shipped that penalty, but I'd like to think he would have been called on anyway after that incident.  And what's more, Reddan was on form, at least in the areas where we needed him to be.

A couple of minutes after he took the pitch we went even further behind after yet another frustrating penalty, this time for a collapsed lineout, but once Reddan got into his stride our carries went from going in spurts of 1, 2 or if lucky 3 yards at a time, to 4, 5 and more.

Sure, a couple of scrum feeds were crooked and that's not acceptable at this level - I have harped on that many's a time before this season.  But at a stage of the game when we needed the points and didn't have the tactical wherewithal to get through the home defence, Reddan got us into positions where we could at least force more kickable shots at goal.

Now - on the subject of penalties - I have to give credit to Castres coach David Darricarrère for playing the victim card to ref Greg Garner after the full time whistle.  It has been a tough season for his club and he can be forgiven for his one-eyed view on some of the calls during the closing stages of the match.

But one of his biggest beefs was about our defenders being offside during that period...well to that I say, his memory is pretty short, because it's no different to what his own players were doing in the first half.  Not that it was the only reason we struggling going forward I'll grant you, but if anything the missed calls were about even-steven on the day.

So in blocks of three Ian Madigan was allowed to chip away at the lead, and despite the efforts of the Sky commentary team to jinx him plus those of the ref shouting like a sergeant major in his ear ("you have 30 seconds!" "you have 10 seconds!" have you heard that anywhere else?), by the final whistle we had the crucial four away points.

And it certainly wasn't just Eoin Reddan who performed well on the day - once again Jamie Heaslip played a captain's role, leading the carrying stats and given the amount of pens we won around scrums and rucks, perhaps he's starting to learn how to "work the ref" into the bargain.

Then there's Luke Fitzgerald, who it has to be said played like he had never been away.  Naturally with 7 out of 9 from the tee Madigan deserves a mention and apart from that bungled drop-out his work around the pitch was more than satisfactory from the 12 position, and though I still feel Zane Kirchner is being underused, his contributions were still very useful, especially when it came to territory kicking.

In the pack, both Cronin and Bent struggled against their front row opponents while the crooked throw by our hooker I mentioned earlier wasn't his only one on the day.  Anyone ever think of trying HIM for our 13 jumper given his ball-carrying prowess?  I'm not totally kidding you know...he even showed he can do a decent territory kick himself if required!

To be honest I really did think we were sunk when Mike McCarthy came on at a time when we were already shipping needless penalties, something he has been known to do on occasion, but he played his part in our defence's stranglehold on Tales & co which included a key choke tackle towards the end.

But all in all, though I should be delighted for the most part with two European wins out of two given our average start to the season, I still have reservations.  Last season we got out of our pool but without enough points for a home quarterfinal and we hit a brick wall in Toulon.

I can't help feeling that although this one-dimensional gameplan has worked for us over the past two weeks and may well do for the remainder of this pool, it won't be enough to avoid a similar knockout fate.

For example...if the quarterfinals were to be decided now, they would be Glasgow v Clérmont, Toulon v Leinster, Racing Métro v Toulouse, Munster v Harlequins.  (What's that?  Just the one English club???  Hope Mark McCafferty isn't reading this or he'll have the format changed before Halloween!)

But joking aside, my point is that if we're to get further than we did last year, we need to learn from our mistakes last year, and though our game plan is enough to get past the Castres and the Wasps of this world, I'm not sure even an empty treatment room will be enough for us to do the same to Toulon, Racing (something in my bones tells me we will face Johnny Sexton this season) or "even" Glasgow playing this way.

Still, on the evidence of the past couple of weeks, I have to assume that what we've seen is what we're going to get from Leinster offensively this season.  

Which of course means I will be the happiest fan of all if I'm proven to be wrong.


Carmarthen Quins 26-24 Leinster A

I haven't seen any action from this match but I still feel compelled to scribble a few words.

First, I have to set the records straight on some reports I have read in the Welsh online press...yes, I know rugby over there isn't the best and could do with some "talking up", but this result was NOT a case of a "humble Welsh club" defeating the "powerful Leinster".

This was a victory by Scarlets A over Leinster A.

Back at the start of September I pointed out a story I noticed in WalesOnline which said that despite the "qualifying process" used by the Scarlets region to decide their British & Irish Cup representatives, their plan was to bolster the squad of the qualifiers with players from other nearby clubs like Llanelli RFC and Llandovery.

So it would be similar to Leinster A calling themselves Old Belvedere and playing in the black-and-white hooped jerseys.

Like I say, I know why they are doing this.  Nothing said more about the state of Welsh rugby last weekend than ex-Scarlet George North bagging four tries for Northampton against the Ospreys (yes, I know Scarlets beat Leicester but who was there to see it?), so you can't blame them for a bit of smoke and mirrors, but when it takes anything away from my favourite team I won't shy away from calling a spade a spade!

Besides - every Leinster A campaign includes at least one tricky trip to Wales, including the last two which saw us go on to lift the trophy.  We'll see how well "Carmarthen" do at Donnybrook at the end of November.

In the mean time, with just a 5-day turnaround for the senior team and November just around the corner I'd say we'll be seeing a lot of these "A" players in Pro12 action at the RDS this Halloween against Embra...possibly with Ben Te'o among them.

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