Monday, December 08, 2014

Harlequins-24 Leinster-18

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"It's only halftime." 

The quintessential (pun intended) cliché for rugby coaches after the first game in a "back-to-back" series, it provides a foundation on which to build your post-game interview whatever happens.

What we need to ask as Leinster fans is whether or not there was enough in the first "half" to make us feel we can get back to the top of this pool in the second.  I suppose that depends where you're coming from.

But before I harp on our side of things, let me first deal with the home side.  It hasn't been the ideal start to the Premiership season for Conor O'Shea's Quins, but on the evidence of the first three rounds it seems clear he has gotten the most out of his squad in Europe.

Quins won this match by virtue of their ability to squeeze the absolute maximum out of every possible opportunity.  And what's more, while they may have gotten a slice of luck or two along the way, given their attitude, you could say they earned it.

When Nick Easter got his first closeup in the early stages, the best BT Sport could come up with for their graphic was "Try in win v Gloucester last month".  Not exactly an earth-shattering stat to summarize his season so far!  But more on the TV coverage later.

That fact was that even without the five-pointer, with 12 carries and 13 tackles, Easter's man-of-the-match award was well deserved, because his contributions were always just when his side needed them.  Robshaw and Care chipped in as well doing what they do best (15 tackles & a cheeky drop goal respectively) and while outhalf Sweil did make an error or two it wasn't enough to make the early departure of Evans the disaster it seemed to be.

Basically, though as Leinster fans our analysis is always going to be based around the part we played in our own downfall, we must not do so without also acknowledging the victors.

For me, the match can be broken down into four segments

1) 0-50m Leinster struggle to get on top

So...apparently Matt O'Connor is unpopular because he persists with Jimmy Gopperth and his overall game plan involves predictable running into contact, generally avoiding the wider channels altogether.

Well given we put the ball through the hands from the off and Gopperth had his best outing of the season, maybe we should have a re-think.

But as the title for my sub-heading suggests, it was a long, hard  struggle to get a 12-9 lead in this match, and that was mostly because the passes we were trying just would not come off, particularly when it came to Rob Kearney shipping it to the winger on his shoulder in the widest channels.

Time after time after time after time it was a knockon that did for us in that period...now to be fair, the home side's line speed was putting pressure on us, but although I was happy to see us attempting the passes, we were doing it in a manner which reminded me of Munster's "Penney-ball" in that it only really works if the players appear fully committed to it.

O for the return of the Sexton wraparound!!!  But I digress.  We definitely seemed to approach this game with a view to grabbing a couple of early tries and it just didn't pan out for us.

Yet despite all the errors on our part plus the fact that Quins had definitely won the ref over at scrum time (the debate over what Marler was doing would amount to "you say tomato") the fact that it was 9-9 at halftime could only be positive for Leinster...our defence was solid enough for it to seem like just one decent breakthrough was needed.

Then we came out with purpose in the second half - Jordi Murphy thwarting early Quins pressure with a turnover and soon afterwards Ian Madigan made it 9-12 in the 47th minute and we had a lead to defend, albeit a slender one.

2) 51-60m The Quins purple patch

Another scrum at midfield, another penalty to Harlequins.  To their credit, since the ball still came out for them they preferred to have a run at us before the packs regrouped.  They get the ball about 20m before the referee Jerome Garces calls advantage over. [make a note of that last point please, we'll be returning to it]

They eventually knockon but another penalty is called for Rob Kearney taking down a Quins player by the neck.  Danny Care goes to take it quickly, very close to the mark I might add, but makes a hash of the tap yet just after he knocks on, the ref calls it back and allows the original penalty.

The three points was relatively easy from there but fair play to Robshaw & co they kick for touch as they probably felt they wouldn't get a better chance to have a go at our defence from 5m out.  And sure enough, a few phases later Easter wriggles out of a Jack McGrath tackle and, well, officially scores a try.

I'm not saying he didn't, just to be clear.  I've seen it several times and still can't be sure.  My take is that he was short when he first got it down and to make the second movement he had to release the ball even momentarily which at that angle would have made it a knockon.

But you could definitely make a case for perhaps the tip of the ball disturbing the tip of a painted blade of grass somewhere along the line and as I have said already, the home side did earn themselves a bit of luck.

We then had a bit of luck ourselves when Quins wisely decided to test our centre channel after Darcy went off and a weary Mike McCarthy got in Luke Fitzgerald's tackling lane but the Lowe-to-Hopper exchange was forward.

From the resulting scrum a tentative stab forward bounced into Darragh Fanning's stride for him to surge into the Quins 22.  We had them right where we wanted on the back foot and after a few phases the call was made for it to be shipped out wide where Rob Kearney was to have another go at his little outside pass.

The phrase "fool me once..." springs to mind.  We had tried the same thing twice down that channel and this wasn't a training exercise we were doing!  Tikoirotuma saw it coming a mile away and made the intercept and run in look way, way too easy.  Christmas come early and heartbreak for Leinster fans, especially those amazing ones who made themselves heard at the Stoop.

3) 61-70m Back to MOC ball

It REALLY pains me to say this, but once 9 points down, we reverted back to the style of rugby to which we have been reluctantly getting accustomed to this season, and it was working.

The penalty count was pretty even on the day so I can't really complain about warning or cards but when it was our crash ball carrying up against their solid D in the final quarter, we did seem to be getting the edge (with Ruddock looking the hungriest) yet all we could get out of it on the scoreboard was a couple of penalties...still, just three points behind and ten minutes on the clock wasn't an impossible situation, or so we thought...

4) 71-80m Kill that clock!

I suppose I can't really blame Kane Douglas for the penalty he gave away at a lineout tapping George Robson in mid-jump...we needed to take risks at that stage.

From the relieving penalty Quins were barely across our 22 before Danny Care did his drop-goal...a bit like the one Fotuali'i did at the Aviva last year, I'm not sure it was the smartest thing to do since we were still within 7 and we had been very good at winning the ball back off our own restarts, but it really was a cheeky effort nonetheless.

Sure enough we did get the ball back from the kickoff again but soon after we got "hoisted by our own petard" as Quins forced a choke tackle.

This scrum was awarded to Quins about 15m in their own half with the clock at 75:13.  By the time the ball was next officially in play, it was a Quins lineout at our 22 with the clock at an "easily-run-outable" 78:30.  Here's what happened in between...

On the first set of the scrum, their sub tighthead Sinckler popped up.  Mike Ross had been pinged for this all day, but this time, no call.  Then on the second set, Garces has his arm out for a Quins pen, and as before they chose to run with it.

Remember that earlier advantage I told you about?  Well again off this scrum Quins brought it several phases and into our half (again around 20m) before Danny Care chose to kick it forward.  Maybe it's my blue goggles but for me, that advantage is long gone, especially at that stage of the game.

But yes, I know advantage is at the discretion of the ref, though as the saying goes, "all we can ask for is consistency".  And besides...we had gone all day without crossing the tryline and there was no guarantee we would have done so then either.

***

Much has been said about the downside of "winning ugly" for the current Leinster coaching staff.  Thing is though...of all the European Cup wins we have had on English soil during our trophy-laden spell, the only one that could be called pretty was under Matt O'Connor.

On this occasion, I believe we tried something different but couldn't execute, and this failure could well have blown our chances of a home quarterfinal.

Now we must go after tries at the Aviva next week not only for a bonus point, but also to beef up our "tries scored" column which now reads a paltry 3 from 3 matches and has us at number 9 seed.

But going back to my original question...yes, I did see plenty in this display that suggests we can get the job done.  It will take more leadership, more belief, and of course, much fewer mistakes.  But it definitely can be done.

Now, on BT Sport's coverage...the general consensus from Irish fans has been that it was extremely biased.  Chief culprit was Matt Dawson who seemed to be talking as though he was watching from his armchair with a beer rather than from a commentary booth with a microphone.

An easy fix would be to let them carry on as they are, but rather than those two pointless interviews with coaches while play is going on (I think they do it because it's something Sky don't do...but now we see WHY they don't!) and instead throw it to BOD for some more Irish-weighted analysis to help balance things out.

Luckily next week there will be tens of thousands of Leinster fans able to watch the return "second half" match live rather than on BT Sport.  If it's to be yet another contest decided by tight margins, then we must do all we can to make sure this time they go our way.   It's probably going to be an extremely cold night at the Aviva...what say we also make sure it's an extremely loud one. #COYBIB JLP


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Also last weekend

POSRCC POOL 2GPTPDPTS
1HARLEQUINS352912
2LEINSTER3349
3WASPS3737
4CASTRES33-361

Next fixtures

Friday, December 12

Bath v Montpellier, Recreation Ground, 7:45pm

Saturday, December 13

Glasgow v Toulouse, Scotstoun, 1pm
Northampton Saints v Treviso, Franklin's Gardens, 3:15pm
Toulon v Leicester Tigers, Stade Félix-Mayol, 3:15pm
Racing Métro v Ospreys, Stade Le Mans, 5:15pm
Saracens v Sale Sharks, Copthall Stadium, 5:15pm
Leinster v Harlequins, Aviva Stadium, 7:45pm

Sunday, December 14

Wasps v Castres, Adams Park, 1pm
Clérmont Auvergne v Munster, Stade Marcel Michelin, 3:15pm
Scarlets v Ulster, Parc y Scarlets, 5:15pm

British & Irish Cup
Jersey 21-22 Leinster A
Plymouth Albion 16-18 Carmarthen Quins

POSB&I CUP POOL 5GPFAPTS
1LEINSTER 'A'51708919
2CARM QUINS510216012
3JERSEY510010410
4PLYMOUTH5951148

Congrats to Leinster A for clinching Pool 5 over the weekend.  However, earning a home quarterfinal is going to be VERY tricky.  

Assuming we'll make light work of Plymouth in Donnybrook this coming Saturday, we will still need one of the Championship sides leading the other four pools (Bristol, Worcester, Rotherham & Doncaster) to lose their final match, and Worcs & Rotherham must do so without a bonus point.  Best chance of this happening would appear to be Bristol who must travel to play Connacht Eagles.
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