Monday, December 22, 2014

Leinster-21 Connacht-11



"...barring injury, I reckon the later Gordon D'Arcy is introduced, the better we're doing."

Noel Reid was replaced by Darce in the 79th minute - that pretty much says it all, though perhaps I should try to harp on the match a little bit more than that to make your click worthwhile!

Despite the fact it's the "feel good" time of year, there was a definite fear among the Leinster faithful (not to mention a hope among pretty much every other rugby fan watching) that this could well be the night Connacht dispelled their Dublin demons.  They even brought the gale-force Galway gusts with them for good measure so they could feel right at home.

Few doubted that Pat Lam had plenty of talent at his disposal to get the job done, but in my match preview (source of opening quote) I pointed to three areas where I was worried we'd contribute to our own downfall (or least our failure to justify the bookies' 10-point spread - I'm never doubting them again!).  Thankfully it's from those areas we got our four crucial Pro12 points so let's go through them.

INDIVIDUAL ERRORS

Last week Sean Cronin knocked on after 15 seconds.  This time around it took Devin Toner just 13, so that did not bode well.

But although it wasn't to be our last mistake on the night, we managed to spread them out relatively evenly across the contest - and for the opening quarter of an hour in particular, we played with both determination and focus which was precisely what I wanted to see from the boys in blue.

Some might still yearn for the champagne rugby, but when you accept that this just simply is not going to happen with this Leinster set-up, you can come to appreciate how they are going about getting points on the board.

In the early stages of the contest, we ground out double-digit-phase sets which wore down the Connacht D forcing them into as many as seven penalties before the 16 minute mark, including a yellow card for Aly Muldowney after he dangerously took out a lineout jumper.

They say an extra man should be worth about 8 points on the scoreboard, and that's exactly what we got thanks to an unconverted Shane Jennings try and a Jimmy Gopperth penalty.   Sure, it took a lot of work to eke out those points but it gave us something to defend and we haven't been the best at scoring first quarter points this season.

Unfortunately it took another error off a restart, this time from skipper Jamie Heaslip on 17 minutes, to let the visitors back into it but as things turned out they were to find it even more difficult to trouble the scoreboard operators.

This point about errors kind of merges with the next one so I'll move on...

THE LEINSTER PACK

It shouldn't be too much to ask for a set of forwards to win the majority of their own lineouts and scrum put-ins but this hasn't been happening for Leinster of late.  And with as many as 5 changes from last week up front, I figured my concerns for this match were justified.

But what actually happened was that the three who DID start against Quins in the Aviva turned out to be our top tacklers on the night, plus with the exception of two scrums towards the end, our set-pieces were solid.

Clearly the Leinster brains trust had highlighted this area, given scrum coach Marco Caputo had the waterboy duties.  And fair play to Michael Bent, Aaron Dundon and Tadhg Furlong for keeping things steady in an area where it badly needed to be.  The consistent accuracy in Dundon's darts was a big help as well.

But standing out from the Leinster pack was definitely Kane Douglas.   Coming as he had from a successful Waratahs outfit down under he'd be forgiven for taking time to settle; but on this evidence it seems he has found his northern hemisphere feet and particularly on defence he was a constant thwart to whatever the visitors tried to do.  With Toner, Heaslip and the others providing the support, Connacht just could not get themselves going until it was too late.

Maybe there's no "D" in "champagne", but when you appreciate the levels of technique and organisation required to keep your opposition's options to a minimum, it can be just as entertaining to watch in my book.

On a side note, here's hoping Kevin McLaughlin's injury isn't too serious though it certainly did not look good and we may have lost a second test 6 in as many weeks.

THE 12'S DAY AT CHRISTMAS

This was one hell of a backline we put out on Friday night.  Luke at 13, Dave K & Zane on the wings, and Rob K at full-back.  All of them capable of busting gainlines at will.  

Maybe it wasn't the ideal half-back combination to give them plentiful supply, but it has to be said Messrs Boss and Gopperth's form has improved the past couple of weeks, and the Kiwi out-half nailed a couple of sweet place kicks in the blustery conditions it must be said.

Noel Reid isn't too shabby with the ball either, but my worries about him in this match were on defence; I thought the visitors may target his channel.  As it turned out his fellow centre Luke with 11 tackles plus the twin towers of Douglas and Toner helped him out and, to be fair, he chipped in with 6 of his own including a couple of key ones in the red zone.

But it was when he had the ball in hand that he came to life.  

The unsure number 10 for the Leinster A side we saw at the RDS years ago has long gone...now we have a confident, talented footballer of a 12 who knows when to run and when to kick for territory and did both with aplomb on Friday.

72 metres gained from just 10 carries is some achievement from the 12 position, especially when you're opposite centres of the calibre of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw.  Man of the match award, deserved.  Initial worries of this blogger, taken back with humble apologies.

***

Like I said earlier, it wasn't a flawless display by Leinster.  That error by Heaslip led to the visitors spending the remainder of the first half in our territory and we needed every tackle to stick in order to keep them to just the two penalties in that time.  

Plus, there was a bit of luck in that referee Ian Davies didn't go to his pocket until the stroke of half time - I'm sure they would have much rather had those previous ten minutes with the extra man given they had the wind at their backs.  

Instead, although our lead had been cut to just two, we had the restart for the second period and they barely got out of their own half while Furlong was off the pitch, during which time we added six points of our own.

Time after time Connacht's attempts to get through our defence were stopped - when scrum half Carty kicked through and we were pinned on our own try line they did force a 5m scrum (with the help good work from a determined Quinn Roux), but even though we made the curious substitution of Cronin for Dundon for that key set-piece, we managed to find a way out.

In was another front-row replacement that gave them a glimmer of hope.  I'm hardly going to suggest "Maks" Van Dyk gets back on the plane to South Africa after a dodgy couple of scrums on his debut...had we done the same to another southern hemisphere prop a couple of years ago we wouldn't have had the benefit of Michael Bent's decent shift on Friday.

But the truth was that from a position where we were pressing the Connacht line, Van Dyk couldn't manage to get his body position right in Davies's eyes and a couple of penalties in quick succession put the visitors in a position to score. (btw - I know the 2nd one was attributed to Conan but thanks to "Maks" the ref's attention was drawn to that side of the scrum)

Luckily for us the ref saw Toner's transgression on Connacht's first maul in our 22 as "just" a yellow card...as their pack was on the march towards our line there was case to be made for a penalty try and in the end although Naoupu did go over at the second attempt the conversion was much harder and it was missed leaving the gap at three.

Then we had more good fortune as a Gopperth kick to touch was "kept in" by winger Matt Healy and the bounce fell right into Kirchner's path for him to score and break western hearts in Dublin yet again.

On my use of inverted commas above...a Connacht fan went to great lengths to point out that the Laws of the Game should have deemed the ball to be out of play before Zane's try, and as you can see by his still photo and video, he makes a compelling argument.


However, blame my blue goggles all you want but while his assertion of the Laws may be correct, I'm not sure if he has provided conclusive proof the ball crossed the plane of the touchline.  Not only does his arrow point to the pitch in play but also the line travelling upwards from it doesn't seem straight.

Given that ambiguity, I see two reasons to award the try - 1. benefit of any doubt should go to the attacking team (and I said the same last week even when it would have gone against Leinster) and 2. it was Healy's intention to keep the ball in play, so if there's uncertainty, let him have his wish, I say.  I'm not so sure the above still would have been produced had the ball been cleared ;-)

But whatever about the back-and-forth pedantry it was a fortunate score which gave the final margin a gloss it probably didn't deserve.
I was tempted to go for "Oíche Nollaig" as my headline pun what with it being Irish and all but the reason I went with the French version was because it had the word "joy" in it.

Leinster's 2014/15 campaign is definitely not going as well going into Christmas as we hoped it would before the beginning of September.

But it most definitely is much better now than we feared it would at the end of September.

We have a massive trip to Thomond Park on Stephen's Day, but in the meantime there's presents to be opened, crackers to be pulled, turkey to be devoured, craic to be had.

For now I'm all for focusing on what's good and with Leinster in the playoff picture on both fronts (not to mention STILL the Pro12's top try-scorers) and more key players to return from the treatment room, you'll have a hard time making me feel badly about this triumph over a Connacht side well capable of a top six finish.

Happy Christmas to you all.

#COYBIB JLP


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Also last weekend

POSTEAMGPGWPDTPFTDPTS
1OSPREYS108110262681436
2GLASGOW10863252421235
3MUNSTER10781242351333
4LEINSTER10688272471032
5ULSTER106224242241531
6CONNACHT1061318173327
7SCARLETS1042220203223
8EDINBURGH104-3518178-920
9CARDIFF103-4422218-217
10NG DRAGONS102-6911153-1312
11ZEBRE102-13311119-169
12TREVISO100-19013125-274

Next round

Friday, December 26

Cardiff Blues v NG Dragons, Cardiff Arms Park, 2:05pm
Munster v Leinster, Thomond Park, 5pm
Ulster v Connacht, Kingspan Stadium, 6:45pm

Saturday, December 27

Glasgow Warriors v Edinburgh, Scotstoun, 2:40pm
Ospreys v Scarlets, Liberty Stadium, 5:15pm

Sunday, December 28

Zebre v Benetton Treviso, Stadio XXV Aprile, 2pm
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