Saturday, October 04, 2014

Leinster-23 Munster-34


EXPECTATIONS

I really couldn't understand the way some were talking down this fixture during the week...whatever form these two may be showing leading into the match, as an occasion it rarely disappoints.

And it's hard to deny that for the neutral, it was an 80 minutes of rugby that didn't fail to live up to those expectations.

Now for the fans of course, particularly the Leinster ones, it didn't exactly make for an ideal 80 minutes of rugby to watch - as one sitting in front of me said at full-time, "That wasn't in the script!"

Or was it?

First and foremost we must look at Munster's display.  Out-bloody-standing.

Without the ball, time after time Leinster were being pegged back - the front-foot possession on which our entire strategy relies just wasn't there at any stage thanks mostly to lightning quick line speed, pinpoint tackling and hungry foraging at the breakdown.

And on the few occasions we did get into their 22, they stopped us dead by conceding a penalty.  Now before I get slated for accusing anyone of cheating, I absolutely am not.  That's an established tactic, we have had it done to us many times in the past, we will have it done to us many times in the future.  We need to be able to adapt to it.

But it was when Munster had the ball that they really came alive.

Unfortunately their three tries all came down at the end where I was sitting but as hard as it is to take the blue goggles off for this fixture, the way they advanced the ball was a joy to behold for the purist.

Every single time it was brought into contact, more often than not there were two in support to clear out would-be jacklers.  And when this happens with the perfect amounts of both precision and aggression three or four phases in a row, a pick and go game will get you from your own half to the try-line in double-quick time.

I knew going into the game that Munster's backrow of Stander, O'Donnell and Copeland would be formidable but even then I was selling them short.  All three were at the heart of their side's successes on the night and not surprisingly they dominated the tackle charts, though a very honourable mention must go to Hurley and Smith who with the exception of one Gopperth break kept their channel watertight - having both your starting centres play a full 80 definitely helps your cause.

The alarm bells were rung when Conor Murray got over the line only to be held up by his opposite number Eoin Reddan (Leinster's best performer on the night in my view) but Munster were easily able to get going again shortly afterwards as Denis Hurley broke into the 22 and a clever pop pass after the tackle had them on our line again.   Soon after it was prop James Cronin (who must have caught the eye of the onlooking Joe Schmidt) stretching over the line to open the scoring and the marker was set for the evening.

Some might say that it was poor Leinster tackling that made it so easy for the opposition to get forward.  For me, it was something much more worrying than that.

The way Munster played on Saturday led me to believe that during the week on the training paddock Anthony Foley and his coaching staff were telling the players - "THIS is how Leinster are going to play.  So THIS is what we need to do in reply."

Now I know that sounds obvious - of course that's essentially what all coaches do - but my point is that Leinster's degree of predictability was alarming, especially on defence.  Having your first-up tacklers attempt to strip the ball in the hit is a high-risk, high-reward strategy but when your opponents are as ready for it as Munster were, there can be no reward.

American football may be a completely different sport tactics-wise but they do have a term called an "audible" whereby the quarterback changes the chosen play on the field based on the way he sees his opposition shaping up.  Leinster's overall approach badly needed an audible on Saturday and I reckon it cost us at very least the 11 points by which we fell short.

6-11 down at the 20 minute mark is far from a losing position.  But even our restarts were predictable - the match kicked off with Darragh Fanning forcing a turnover from Andrew Smith which was great but that doesn't mean you have to do the exact same thing with every set piece for the rest of the night - you're simply allowing your opponents to get better at defending it!

So before we knew it Munster were back on our line almost exactly the same way as they had before only this time a mad scramble under the posts saw Robin Copeland dive over the pile of bodies for try number two.

Even then it would be hard to assume the contest was over, and shortly after we saw some leadership being shown first by Toner making a gutsy lineout call to be thrown long to him and shortly afterwards by Eoin Reddan selling a dummy and surging into the Munster half.

Unfortunately for Leinster fans, we seemed to think that we were just allowed one unexpected move per series of phases.  Or when I say "we" I mean Jimmy Gopperth.  I don't like having too much of a go at the Kiwi but he was our "quarterback" on the night so attacking responsibility must rest at his doorstep.

Anyone who had studied his game would have known he was going to throw that pass inside which was pinched by Ian Keatley for try number 3 - to be fair, Brendan Macken was in a horrible position to retrieve it but that doesn't take from the fact that the play was telegraphed.

So just like that the scoreboard read a thoroughly depressing 9-28 and we were forced to avert our eyes from it all through half-time.  Some might say the interception brought back memories of Croke Park but overall I was more reminded of our 30-0 win almost exactly 5 years ago.

As the halftime minis got their 15 minutes of fame, I could only see the margin growing wider and what was worse, I couldn't see us crossing their line at all.  I wondered if maybe Johnny Sexton could Skype a Cardiff-esque speech to the dressing-room?

Well whatever happened at halftime in the Leinster camp, it didn't seem to change us much early in the second period.  Our attacks were still going nowhere, and Munster were still getting the ball into our 22 and Simon Zebo came within millimetres of earning his side the try bonus.

But fall short he did, and for me it was the introduction of Rob Kearney that finally got us going, though the 14 points we eventually put on the board thanks to Fanning and a penalty try could actually be spun in as a positive for the visitors, because without their "smart" penalties and resilience with multiple players in the bin, it could well have been more, at least enough to pinch a losing bonus.

So fair play to Munster and congrats to Anthony Foley; this was a massive win for them and it was clearly the result of a job well done in preparation.  Of course, they still have many questions to answer, since the past few seasons have seen results like this which went on to be "one-match-wonders", but if they can replicate this display in Europe they will definitely give both Sarries and Clérmont something to worry about.

OK.  Time to talk about Matt O'Connor.  This should be fun.  Not.

The reason I coined the term "Anti-Matters" after defeat in Glasgow was that I didn't want to be associated with a certain portion of Leinster fans who wanted him gone long, long before now and weren't even appeased by last season's Pro12 title.  The whole "losses are down to him, wins are despite him" mentality is one I find hard to grasp.

And another thing that annoys me about that position is that it is so extreme that anyone who dares to disagree on any level must therefore be a Matt O'Connor fan who thinks everything he does is wonderful.

Well I refuse to be labelled as such.  My writeups this season have pointed out what I felt Leinster have done wrong this season but by the same token there have been positives that I'm not afraid to harp on for fear it might go against a narrative I'm trying to force home.

Obviously if I'm going to criticise Leinster for playing predictable rugby last Saturday, this is a reflection on the coaching staff, and O'Connor is the head man on that team.

But two weeks before Europe do I think it will help anyone involved in Leinster for me to be screaming for his head?  Absolutely not.

I will say one thing...assuming his post-match quotes are accurate, he could do with a spot of media training.  Whatever about your opinions about the referee's performance, when your opponents get as many as four yellow cards it is extremely bad form for a head coach to whinge about the officials after a result like that.

Did he at least have a point about the refereeing? Meh.  Maybe, just maybe mind you, the warning from Ian Davies against persistent Munster penalties could have come sooner, which in turn would have brought out the cards sooner, but again I say it's not the coach's place to be pointing that out.

For me it's always better to hold your hand up, praise the opposition, and knuckle down to preparations for next week.

So is there anything I can say in O'Connor's defence to keep my stance away from the Anti-Matters?  Let's see...
...my worry is how we will adapt to either the Munster backrow gaining an early advantage or an injury causing our 11-15 combinations to play musical chairs as they have done more than once in this young season so far.
This was the thrust of my match preview on Friday; though I had Leinster by 7 pts or less, you see above the two things I thought could go wrong.  My biggest fear was that one would happen.  As it turned out, we got hit with both.

I have already pointed out how our back row got outplayed...Dom Ryan did show some good aggression, but sadly it was a little too good at times like his early hit on Copeland after which he was pinged for not releasing.

But on the injury front, I gave two names in that preview I thought were key to our XV - Jack McGrath and Rob Kearney - and between the team being named on Friday and the match kicking off, both were ruled out from starting.

The loss of McGrath hurt us more in the loose than the scrums, but with no natural full back to replace Kearney, it meant the Madigan-Darcy experiment at centre had to be put on hold once more before a ball was even kicked.

Losing McFadden to what looked like a horrible leg injury after just 16 minutes didn't help, and springing Kearney from the bench was always going to mean the centre pairing needed to be changed yet again.

Let me be clear once more - I'm not making excuses and I have already said more than once that Munster won this fair and square...but it has to be said no provincial side could take that much unplanned chopping and changing to their backline and expect to be consistent.

So...what happens now?  Is Leinster's season doomed to failure simply because O'Connor is in charge?

Well, he could definitely do with some good news from the treatment room...Richardt Strauss got 40 minutes in for the A side who also lost to their Munster counterparts, plus Noel Reid, Shane Jennings and Zane Kirchner also would be very welcome returnees.

But it is to the areas which Matt can control that he must look.  I think he needs to swallow his pride and admit he is willing to do something different.  One big change that springs to mind would be starting Ian Madigan at 10.

Now to be fair, he'd probably need a fit Noel Reid to do this because D'Arcy needs as much game time at 13 as we can get him, but the way I see it, if Munster can study our plays and be ready for them, then so can Wasps, so can Castres and so can Harlequins.

I'm not giving up on Matt O'Connor's Leinster just yet, but the pressure is most certainly on for the rest of October.  Whatever about the formbook, our next two games against Zebre & Wasps must be seen as winnable so it's up to the boys in blue to live up to those expectations.  I'm pretty sure the Anti-Matters don't actually want to be proven right.  JLP




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Also this weekend

POSTEAMGPGWPDTPFTDPTS
1GLASGOW5578211671323
2OSPREYS5588171571322
3ULSTER536015127918
4MUNSTER534213113715
5CONNACHT53-111085014
6SCARLETS522617133414
7LEINSTER523014131312
8NG DRAGONS51-22785-57
9CARDIFF51-3710109-57
10EDINBURGH51-79560-137
11ZEBRE51-55771-85
12TREVISO50-120661-180

Round 6 fixtures

Friday, October 10
Benetton Treviso v Connacht, Stadio di Monigo, 7pm
Munster v Scarlets, Thomond Park, 7:35pm

Saturday, October 11
Edinburgh v NG Dragons, Murrayfield, 2:40pm
Zebre v Leinster, Stadio XXV Aprile, 3pm
Ulster v Glasgow, Kingspan Stadium, 5:05pm

Sunday, October 12
Ospreys v Cardiff Blues, Liberty Stadium, 4pm

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