Monday, December 15, 2014

Leinster-14 Harlequins-13


NOT SURE

"I'd just like to remind Leinster fans that they've lost only once in their last seven matches, which most teams would be reasonably pleased with."
Lawrence Dallaglio

As I left the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening, I knew that when I watched it back on the TV the BT Sport coverage would annoy me, and sure enough it did.  Thing is though, it didn't annoy me for the reason I thought it would.

Sure, maybe even with BOD in the booth this week for balance the overall tone of the commentary still had Quins as "the good guys", but what got my goat most of all was Dallaglio's remark.  I felt a bit like an angry teenager being told a life lesson by his dad.  Of course he has a point, but do I really have to hear about it now, from him???

I left this match feeling like it was a loss.  But it wasn't, and before I start harping on the negative aspects of Leinster's performance and our season in general, I guess I should point out now that I am actually happy that we won and that we currently sit in the quarterfinal positions with a decent chance of keeping it that way.

But more of that later.  First, I like to begin a writeup by describing the most interesting passage of the match, so here I go.  (If you want to go straight to the "actual rugby", then feel free to skip the next portion.)

"The Battle of the High & Tight Haircuts" (coined by BOD)

Ian Madigan and Danny Care were actually wrestling for the ball before the whistle blew to stop the play on 76 minutes.  There was a scrum advantage to Leinster but referee Romain Poite let the play develop before actually awarding the set-piece.

The two stood there with equal holds on the ball, but as it was a scrum which of course can't be taken quickly, there wasn't a whole lot of urgency to wrestle the ball away, so if anything was to kick off they'd need a third party, ideally the sort of player who always seems to be there or thereabouts whenever a "shamozzle" takes place.

Seriously - if Mike McCarthy ever went into pro wrestling he'd have his stage name all set to go : "The Instigator".  As stood up he had a hold of Care's leg and wasn't altogether pushed about letting it go.  Given his height advantage over the Quins & England scrumhalf, the more McCarthy rose, the harder it was for Care to stay standing so with Madigan having loosened his grip on the ball,  he proceeded to bop it off the lock's nose.

Ian saw the bop, probably without the context of the leg-holding, and decided to live up to his "Mad-dog" nickname with Care, and before long the two were trading blows on the deck with a forest of legs around them as numerous other players joined in.  

Then we had the side-show.  

From what I have seen of him this season Charlie Matthews seems to be a dependable lock around the park; nothing showy enough to trouble the Lawes and the Launchburys at test level, but certainly belonging at this one.  This exchange showed another side to his character.

Some say it was a ridiculous decision to yellow-card him because he "simply" puts his hand on Ryan's face.  Two things to consider here...first, the offence as defined by "Regulation 17" is not just for full-on gouging, rather for (and I quote) "Contact with the eye(s) or the eye area".  Second, he did the exact same thing to another Leinster player moments earlier.

Matthews seems like that type of nightclub bouncer who has just the one move to get rid of "undesirables" and goes to it whatever the situation.  Starting a fight in the queue?  Right, into a headlock you go.  Trying to get in wearing a hoody?  Right, into a headlock you go.

Back at the start of the incident his hand goes to Mike McCarthy's face until he lets Care's leg go.  Then when his fellow lock Robson has a scuffle with Ryan he goes over and does similar only his hand lingers on the Leinster flanker's face longer.

Did Ryan play-act a bit in a "soccer-like" manner?  Maybe.  Is that a good thing?  Probably not.  But should we focus on that rather than the actual citable offences?  Absolutely not.  But for a minute there I expected Dom to get up with blood on his face and lord only knows where we'd have gone from there!

And of course trying to find order in the chaos we have the French match officials, who would clearly much rather communicate to each other in their native tongue but Poite does his best to use English when he can throughout the numerous looks at the different angles.

People give Poite quite a lot of stick, mostly because he can be infuriating in going for the whistle rather than let play develop as Nigel Owens would.  But here I felt it wasn't so much his interpretation of the Laws of the Game that made for the confusion, rather it was his interpretation of his own thoughts into English.

"Number 4 Quins 'ave 'ands close to the eyes that's a yellow card because you are not sure about the fingers on the eyes"

Everyone else in the stadium wanted Poite to just "Let It Go" because we were "Frozen" (had to get a seasonal reference in somewhere) after a long, very uninspiring encounter to which this drama had added over six minutes with no rugby.  

But having seen it back, I think he eventually got his decision right and if the Citing Commissioner sees the entire incident he may consider asking Matthews to come back to discuss things further.

***

Sorry to devote so many words to that incident, but it really was the only passage worth describing in detail on the night.  Now, to the action.

Had all the placekicks gone over, the final score would have been 19-19, and that probably would have been about right.  

We could have a glass half full/empty argument all day long...were the two offences poor or were the two defences dominant?  Either way it made for a very flat evening and certainly not a good way to introduce pro rugby to a beginner!

In my preview I tried to get a bit of a buzz going saying we should have the Aviva rocking to get behind the boys in blue.  That never happened on the night but you could say there was little to inspire the crowd and our first botched possession came with a Sean Cronin knockon after just 15 seconds and one by one from there the chances went a-begging.

However, I will say this about the Leinster offence...we are definitely trying different things.  Last week the problem was that our backline was too flat.  We certainly couldn't say the same this time around...the runners were much deeper and although with the fast line speed of the Quins D this meant the passes had to be long, crisp and accurate, for the most part they were.

Still, where I felt we were struggling was when it came to adaptation.  When you get to the 20-30 minute mark and you haven't made any significant progress in a match there comes a point when you need to stop looking down at your playbook and instead look up at what your opponents are doing to stop you.  In almost every aspect of the game we seem to persevere with the style we start with hoping it works.

It did work once, to be fair, though it took some enterprise and a couple of Quins errors.  Kirchner's cheeky chip into their 22 was caught by Lowe and should have been marked, but the way he fell meant he couldn't put up his arm and in the end he went into touch so we had the attacking throw.

We can't call Sean Cronin's wayward darts "yips" anymore.  It's now a full-on loss of mojo  and for all his undoubted talents in the loose if he is to wear the number 2 jumper these are areas we need him to fix.  He seems to have a knack for overthrowing lineouts with Devin Toner in them; that pretty much says it all.

Luckily for us, in this case it fell to Luke Wallace who couldn't hold it and we had the scrum.  Though for the majority of the contest we struggled in this set-piece (sometimes because Cronin also has hooking issues) as BOD pointed out in his commentary, the desire of the Quins flankers to be ready to leave their bind took away their shove so once we had the wheel, the ball came back to Jamie who clearly heard me screaming "take it yourself" from section 306 before shipping it for Boss to go over in the corner (see main pic).

So - it was 11-0 to us at halftime.  To all intents and purposes a winning position.  What seemed to be inevitable, however, was that the visitors would have a "purple patch", and it was all about how we dealt with it.

Well it did indeed come, and we did not deal with it well.

Although a score never (officially) came from it, I reckon the gap in our D which allowed Joe Marler to waltz un-touched into our 22 will get the most analysis in Leinster's DVD session this week.  From where I was sitting I could see Jack McGrath stepping out of the line leaving a massive dog-leg.  Maybe he heard a shout,  but if he did then the rest of the line went deaf at that moment.

More often than not you'd trust our scramble defence even in that situation but I think we got a bit lucky in the TMO's interpretation of Marler's spill.  Gun to my head it was a 50/50 call between him dropping it and Kearney illegally ripping it and from a neutral perspective a 50/50 should go to the attacking side.

So Brown's try was called back but it wasn't long before he was crossing the line anyway and again McGrath was involved in the build up.  

My assumption that our front row's relationship with the ref would improve on last week was totally off the mark, and Jack was more often than not the culprit.  Perhaps he has played a hell of a lot more rugby this season than he would have had Healy been fit, but still he has to learn to adjust.

Once afforded a lineout in our 22 the normally-conservative Quins showed they had a box of tricks of their own and rather than going to the maul they got a good crashing line from Hopper and shipped it out wide quickly for Brown to exploit the overlap.

Meanwhile their comeback was being fuelled by our offensive demons returning.  Knock on here, forward pass there, and not once but twice Jimmy Gopperth kicks from deep for territory only for it to roll over the end line.  

Eventually Toner tackles a man without the ball and out-half Sweil, who himself couldn't kick snow off a rope in the first half, nails the three to give the visitors a lead I just could not see us catching.

Earlier I said that we were missing an ability to adapt to what we saw before us.  Well one thing that helps do that is a key player showing leadership on the park by doing things differently.  Enter Eoin Reddan.

Ironically it was after one of Gopperth's mammoth over-kicks when we found the spark to get things going.  It was a Quins scrum back in our half but to be fair they had a few knock-on gremlins of their own on the night and after a few phases we had a scrum advantage.  Reddan send a full on dummy that stopped everyone in the greater D4 area in their tracks for a moment; meanwhile he's charging up the pitch.

Luckily Heaslip reacted quickly enough to go with him and help clear out when he was tackled and at the breakdown around halfway we win a penalty.  Settle things down and kick for the corner?  Nah - Reddan's on a roll here, tap n go.  No Quin can touch him for ten metres; now we're deep in their half.

A few phases later there is Reddan screaming at the ref for a "hands in the ruck" call and sure enough he gets it.  Madigan nailed the pressure kick and won the man of the match award on the night (though I thought Luke deserved a shout as well - centre channel was solid defensively), but our sub scrumhalf, who hasn't always been on top form this season it must be said, almost singlehandedly got us the four match points.

The "Care-fuffle" took place shortly afterwards and though another dodgy Cronin dart gave Quins a sniff in the final seconds, they knocked it on and we got the win.  Pheeeee-ew.

Now.  To more general observations.  Deep breath time.

One thing you could certainly not say about the topic of conversation best characterised by the phrase "MOC out" is that it is an "elephant in the room" because more and more Leinster fans are talking about it after every performance this season.

If you click the link at the end of this piece you will see the general feeling among followers of the HoR Facebook page when the full-time whistle was blown.  Let's just say I'd wager the bulk of them would be far more annoyed by Dallalgio's quote than I was!

Now I absolutely understand this frustration and I could easily fall in with that opinion for the sake of "populism" but I'm afraid that's just not how I see it.

Basically my position is unchanged.  Am I delighted with how Leinster are playing? No. And I have said why in this very piece.  

Would I make different team selections, particularly at 10?  Absolutely, and I have said many's a time who that should be.  

But do I think that "MOC out" is either doable or what Leinster need right now?  Sorry, but no. 

We're still in contention in both Pro12 and Europe. Were that not the case, especially in the latter competition, then the conversation would be very different.  But there just isn't any way I can justify such a drastic change as that after a victory no matter how ugly.

And I'm not just being this way with Matt O'Connor.  I was the same with Declan Kidney for Ireland.  Some fans were calling for his job when an Irish player knocked on, let alone when we lost!  Defeat to Italy in Rome was absolutely the right time for him to move on in my book, and should Leinster's season go a similar route to that Six Nations campaign, then (and only then IMO) we should absolutely be having that conversation.

Take Conor O'Shea...I love what he has done with Quins since he took over and he had his limited resources primed and ready for this back-to-back series.  I certainly wouldn't mind seeing him coaching Leinster one day, BUT it also has to be said that his side are currently 9th in the Premiership, they didn't win the league last season and didn't reach a Heineken quarterfinal either.  

O'Connor may not be flavour of the month but his CV is better in all three areas and if we are to have a discussion about his tenure then that is one of several points that deserves to be made on his behalf.

One thing I will say though...Leinster are under a heap of pressure now, and our season is on the line over the coming weeks.  

In Europe, I never realised until this morning that it's points difference not tries which are the first tie-breaker now after match-points.  So when Castres come to the RDS in January, we will not only need to win with 4 tries but also close the 20-plus gap in PD between ourselves and the Premiership sides in our pool as they play each other.

But before that, we have all three Irish provinces to face around the Christmas period.  How do I think Leinster will do in that time?  I wish I was sure.  But I'm not.  Won't stop me cheering though.  

#COYBIB JLP


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Also last weekend

Bath Rugby 32 - 12 Montpellier
Glasgow 9 - 12 Toulouse
Northampton Saints 67 - 0 Benetton Treviso
Toulon 23 - 8 Leicester Tigers
Racing Metro 18 - 14 Ospreys
Saracens 28 - 15 Sale Sharks
Wasps 44 - 17 Castres
Clermont Auvergne 26 - 19 Munster
Scarlets 22 - 13 Ulster

POSRCC POOL 2GPPDTPTS
1HARLEQUINS428613
2LEINSTER45413
3WASPS4301412
4CASTRES4-6331

If the quarterfinals were now...
Toulouse v Leinster
Northampton v Saracens
Clermont v Racing Métro
Toulon v Harlequins

Next matches
To be played Jan 16/17/18
Racing Metro v Treviso
Toulon v Ulster
Toulouse v Bath
Glasgow v Montpellier
Harlequins v Wasps
Leicester Tigers v Scarlets
Leinster v Castres
Ospreys v Northampton Saints
Sale Sharks v Clérmont
Saracens v Munster

BRITISH & IRISH CUP


POSB&I CUP POOL 5GPFAPTS
1LEINSTER 'A'622911524
2CARM QUINS612616917
3JERSEY610912810
4PLYMOUTH61211739

Leinster A qualify for quarterfinals as 5th seed draw to be made this week (apparently)

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