Monday, October 13, 2014

Zebre-3 Leinster-20


This time last year Leinster were preparing for a European campaign on the back of an indifferent start to the Pro12 which included defeats to both Munster and Glasgow as well as convincing enough victories over Scarlets and Cardiff Blues.

What a difference a year makes eh?

I only got to see the final quarter of this match as it happened and the only recording I have been able to see is the TG4 highlights package so my ability to give a verdict is limited.  For that reason this writeup is to be more of an examination of Leinster’s 6 matches so far this season as well as what I feel we need to do in preparation for the visit of Wasps next Sunday.

But to comment first on what I did see from the Zebre looked like once more we struggled to get our offence going though once we did, we had enough class to get the win, if not quite enough to get the try bonus.

One thing I did notice from the highlights package was that if Marco Bortolami’s offence in the second half taking down our lineout jumper was a penalty, then it should have been a yellow card, which in turn, having already happened to the Zebre skipper in the match, would make it a red card.

Also it seems, I mean Ian Madigan, made a strong claim for the starting 10 jumper.  Sure, it took him a while to unlock the Zebre defence, but the moment he spotted the glaring mismatch when faced by an out of breath Bortolami, he took full advantage and as match-winning tries go it was mightily impressive.

For me, on this occasion we might give the Leinster offence a pass for failing to score in the opening half because although Madigan/Reid/Darcy is close to our strongest 10/12/13 combination at the moment, this was their first time playing together in those positions this season.  Had they been able to start even two of our previous matches I think the necessary extra bit of cohesiveness would be there.

So now for the million euro question...does Matt O’Connor agree that those are the backs to lead us into Europe?

We all know stats can be made to look whatever way we want them to, but sometimes they follow a pattern that cannot be ignored.

Rugby may technically be a “game of two halves” but when it comes to the tactical battle it is more like a game of four quarters.  For the first twenty/thirty minutes, the midweek’s preparations of the two sides go head to head - for the remainder of the first half, the teams have a chance to adapt based on what they have seen.  The third quarter shows how they were able to use the half-time interval to make even more necessary changes, and finally we have the closing stages when the benches are emptied and if the scores are tight then it's all hands to the pumps as passion and experience hold sway over x’s and o’s on a whiteboard.

So how have Leinster fared in terms of points scoring over the four quarters so far this season and can we draw any conclusions?

Average scores per 20-minute period

First I have to clarify something.  My purpose here is not to use stats to say Leinster’s season so far has been satisfactory, because it hasn’t been by a long chalk and I doubt anyone associated with the province would say otherwise.

But what I would like to show is that there is something on which we can build.

As you can see by the numbers, our points-scoring goes up as you progress throughout the match.  And when you consider that of the four second half tries we have conceded all season, three have come in matches which were already won, things defensively aren’t so bad either.  Now I’ll admit the shoe was on the other foot against Munster though in that case I contend they should be disappointed that they weren’t able to get their try bonus after that scintillating first half.

So basically, but for one piece of brilliance by Kieran Marmion in Galway (or defensive lapse from Madigan if you’d rather put it that way), our second half net output so far this season has been pretty damn good.  Why then, does our record include just the three wins out of six?

I was actually surprised to see that we’re out-scoring our opposition in the first quarter, but even so, for our average for that period to be under 5 just isn’t good enough for where we need to be.   Then when the clock heads towards the 20-30 minute mark, this is where we’re getting munched, not least by Munster.

My conclusion from this data?  That worn-out cliché which says we’ve “No Plan B” is far from the case...instead, we have the wrong Plan A.

What about injuries?  There’s no doubting we have had more than our share in key positions [edit - since time of writing Martin Moore was added back to list for 12 weeks], but for me the fact that we score more points in the latter stages of matches means our squad depth is at least good enough against the teams we have faced so far.

Perhaps names like Fanning, Mike McGrath, the Byrne twins, Conan and van der Flier aren’t ones you’d have put near our European team sheet as the season began, but they have all shown they can fit in at Pro12 level at least.

I fear it is the creative side of things where we have been found wanting.  If this is true, then we have two options… (1) go with a game plan that is more likely to put points on the board early, or (2) keep the same strategy from the first six matches and just hope that individuals play better than they have done.

Of these, which will Matt do?  Your guess is as good as mine.  But let’s just say I would personally plump for (1), and here is how I’d do it.

While some of the criticism levelled at certain Leinster players has been over the top from some sections of fans this season, if we are to try and look from problems on the offensive front we can really look no further than the halfback positions, and here I must single out Isaac Boss and Jimmy Gopperth.

Though internet comments really shouldn’t bother me, when I see ones that say those two are “useless” and “not up to scratch” as if they have no right to be on a rugby pitch it really does get my goat as both have had super displays for Leinster in the past...still though, it has to be said that neither has been on top of their game so far this season.

When it comes to Boss, he did come mightily close to opening the try-scoring shortly after Zebre were reduced to 14 men on Saturday but in a way the fact that he slipped before going for the ball sums up his season to date.  He’s hasn’t shown himself to be up to the pace of things yet, so starting in Europe should not be an option once Eoin Reddan is fit.

But the challenging question is this...should he even be on the bench?  Personally I think not.  Luke McGrath is definitely not the finished article, but having said that, I’m a firm believer in throwing quality young players into the highest level of action to help them get there.  It would be a brave decision for Matt O’Connor to drop Isaac Boss to the “A” side next weekend but in my opinion it’s one he should make.

Then at out-half we need to know if Madigan was chosen to start in Parma as an experiment or was is simply to give Gopperth a rest?  I am clinging on to every available hope that it’s the former.  Now in Jimmy’s case I wouldn’t advocate leaving him out of the 23 altogether, even if Cathal Marsh were available.  In fact, if anything the Kiwi’s brand would actually be of some use to us in the latter stages, assuming of course the increased early output I mentioned earlier was achieved.

As you can see I have given a lot of words to what needs to change in the backs...does this mean all is rosy in the pack’s garden?  Of course not, but I feel the tweaks required are less drastic.  Set-pieces will have to be perfect against Wasps and hopefully with Strauss back and Toner starting this can be happen.

One name I would single out in the forwards however is Jamie Heaslip.  The question marks over his leadership are beginning to rumble again, and probably rightly so.  With regard to his actual role in the side, with O’Brien, Murphy and Jennings out of the equation and Ryan perhaps being a bit over-aggressive I’m not sure if Jamie can focus on ball-carrying duties.  Where we need his experience is in and around the breakdown, and most importantly in establishing a line of communication with the ref as the play develops.

So, given all of the above, how do I see Leinster’s future?  First, to the Pro12...

As you can see by the table below, Ospreys sit atop the league with 6 wins out of 6.  That includes an impressive victory at Thomond Park it is true, but the other 5 clubs they defeated currently occupy the bottom 5 positions on the league table.

If you honestly believe that Leinster don’t have a hope of at least qualifying for the top four from this position then you may as well stop supporting the province altogether, no matter who the head coach may be.

When it comes to Europe, at the start of this post I found comparisons between the start of the season and that of 12 months ago.  But one big difference last time around was that we were heading into a pool that involved Northampton, Ospreys and “Good” Castres.

This time around we have Quins, Wasps and a Castres who seem to be a shadow of their Bouclier de Brennus-winning selves.  Of course they are all likely to raise their game to match the occasion but if they can, then so can we.  What I’m saying is that our pool is eminently winnable, and the bookies appear to be thinking along the same lines as they still have us second favourites behind Toulon.

Does that mean I think we’re on a definitive path to more silverware?  Hardly.

But with the upcoming week introducing Leinster fans to so many new things...a new competition (hey don’t laugh there’s an entirely different logo you know!), a new kickoff time, a new TV channel, even a new jersey….maybe this can be seen as an opportunity to reboot our season because if Matt O’Connor is willing to revisit the drawing board and make a few key changes here and there, we could be feeling a lot better about things come Halloween.  #COYBIB JLP

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Also this weekend
9NG DRAGONS6195895-67

Round 7

Friday, October 31
Glasgow v Benetton Treviso, Scotstoun, 7:35pm
Leinster v Edinburgh, RDS, 7:35pm
Ospreys v Connacht, Liberty Stadium, 7:35pm

Saturday, November 1
Ulster v NG Dragons, Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm
Cardiff Blues v Munster, Cardiff Arms Park, 5:15pm
Scarlets v Zebre, Parc y Scarlets, 6pm


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