Monday, December 29, 2014

Munster-28 Leinster-13


SKIN IN THE GAME

"You can't be inaccurate against Munster...you look after the ball and you don't give them soft scores."

There's a stark irony the above quote from under-fire Leinster coach Matt O'Connor, given that it came BEFORE this match kicked off.  

I do these writeups late Sunday evenings for a reason.  When you watch a sporting contest primarily as a fan, your ability to accurately describe what's happening in front of you is severely compromised.

Had I started this one shortly after full-time, my frustration on several different levels would have probably dictated the tone of the piece.  And since I want to reflect not only the match in question but also how it affects my team's season in general, it's probably better that I have at least one sleep and see the match again at least one more time before I start harping on.

But for this particular match, I felt it was important to take a snapshot of that frustration, because it's an emotion that has been spreading among the Leinster faithful from the moment this season kicked off, and it was even there last season despite the fact we were crowned league champions.

So if you want a sense of how fans were feeling after Nigel Owens blew the full-time whistle to put us out of our misery, click here for a sample or the link at the end for the full offering.

I can't say I agree with all of those opinions expressed, but one thing I certainly do understand is the frustration, and there was plenty to go round after this match.

Getting beaten by Munster by 1 point is frustrating, let alone 15.

Getting beaten thanks to stand out performances from players Leinster let go like Keatley, Conway and Jones is frustrating.

Getting beaten by any side that just has to do the basics well to beat you off the park is frustrating.

But getting beaten after doing the opposite of everything the coach said before kickoff you needed to do is probably the most frustrating of all.

So after having a couple of sleeps and watched the match back...is that frustration still there?

Well, yeah.  But at least now I can see the funny side of Dax The Destroyer BJ Botha's shirtless effort in keeping us out as the clock clicked down towards 80 minutes!

It was that effort which I felt represented the difference between the two sides, and we didn't just see it from Munster in the last minute - it was also there in the first, when an understandably-determined Andrew Conway soared into the air to take a clean catch of his own team's box-kick ahead of Zane Kirchner.

That set the tone for the entire contest and virtually every score Munster put on the board can be traced back to a Leinster error of some description.

And it's not like the home side were doing anything that much differently than they had back at the Aviva in October.  The support was there with the carriers, the phases were being ground out, the ball was being protected.  When we committed numbers to the breakdown, they sent it wide.  When we didn't, they picked up the ball and barrelled forward for a gain every time.  Simple rugby, well executed.

The stats say we made a whopping 224 tackles.  Taken on it's own, that looks like a good thing.  For this match, we needed to make more than 250 and we didn't.  And my question arising from that is...could we have played a different way to try and keep Munster's possession to a minimum?

Well the simple answer is yes, and more often than not we were masters of our own downfall.  The possession that led to the first Munster try came from them stealing the ball back immediately after Richardt Strauss had forced a turnover.  We were too slow to protect him and it was pinched back, and the home side were quick to exploit the transitional confusion in our backfield.

Nigel Owens was absolutely right to downgrade the sanction from penalty to scrum when he realised why Dominic Ryan hadn't rolled away at a ruck - when concussion is suspected, the play must be stopped.

But in a way it helped Munster in that rather than taking the three points as they surely would have, the scrum turned out to be an attacking platform for them and when Ryan's replacement Jordi Murphy went to tackle Stephen Archer off a ruck rather than the (also shirtless) CJ Stander who actually got the ball, the South African-born flanker had an easy finish.

What made try number two even more frustrating was that it came early in the second half and shortly after we had some decent possession.  All it took was one inaccurate kick from Ian Madigan and Felix Jones was able to pin us back eventually leading to an  attacking lineout for Munster.

The one area where I was sure we'd have an edge was at centre, but only if they got decent possession and that never happened.  Howard and Hurley weren't exactly world class at 12 & 13 for Munster, but they were certainly made to look it on the day and on this occasion a simple combination got them into our 22 where once again the error-less phases got them as far as the try line.

Again it was Jordi Murphy involved off the ruck - he and D'Arcy went for Keatley but the outhalf still got his pass away perfectly into the path of Conway who found a killer line which couldn't be stopped by as many as 4 Leinster tacklers (Jennings, Kearney, Fanning & Boss) before he got over the line.

Now before I go on I must say the match was over as a contest at that point.  There was no way in the world we were playing in such a way as to claw back 12 points without a bit of help, but it has to be said the yellow card for Darragh Fanning was certainly an un-necessary hindrance.

I still don't think Fanning is anywhere near as bad as many fans make him out to be...the argument seems to be that any mistakes he makes proves the point while anything solid or even good he does are exceptions.  But on this occasion he was definitely hard done by.

The ball was clearly out from the ruck when he went for the ball, and Nigel says he fell on it when in actual fact he scooped it up before protecting it on the ground.

Once more...to be perfectly clear...Munster won this match fair and square.  I have no arguments there.  But to say the yellow was harsh is an understatement, and even if there was a sliver of hope of us coming back, Keatley's penalty stretching the lead to 15 snuffed it out altogether.

The third Munster try came with the extra man, but it stemmed from yet another Leinster error in possession.  Mike McCarthy wasn't the intended receiver from Isaac Boss' pass but he went for it, dropped it, and a penalty from the scrum led to a Keatley attempt from halfway that fell short.

From our 22 drop out Munster hopped back on the phase train and by this stage we were pretty much tackled out.  For the record, this time off the ruck it was Jennings & Douglas getting in each other's way allowing Dave O'Callaghan to fall over the line way too easily.

Of course after that it was way, way too late, but I reckon Leinster's performance in the final 15 minutes needs to be noted, because often we have put teams away in the first three quarters only for fans to be critical if the oppostion claws back any late points.

Luke McGrath's introduction was key to our finding even a bit of mojo in the closing stages, and given that it was Reddan doing likewise against Harlequins a few weeks ago it makes you'd wonder if it's more about the replacee.

But right from the kickoff after the third try we played as we should from the start and again I have to question Nigel Owens because if the Fanning no-no was yellow, then why wasn't that of Eusebio Guinazu when he blatantly stopped our progress with a penalty having gotten under their posts?

Again...not saying it would have affected the result, just that it needs to be said to give a proper account of what happened.

Still, we did go on to cross the whitewash - thanks to a cheeky offload from Jack Conan to Shane Jennings.  It wasn't cheeky in that it fooled anyone, more because we don't seem to be set up to do them these days!

And although we didn't let up despite the fact another converted try wouldn't provide a bonus point, the Munster defence were able to find their own mojo again and we were kept at bay with the final margin pretty much where it should have been.

The errors I pointed out above were just the tip of the iceberg for us...lost lineouts, needless knockons, botched ball-booting, all there with bells on.  Munster made errors too and a try bonus would have flattered them, but it was their overall focus that kept them to a minimum.  They played as though defeat was no option...we played like it was our only one.

So overall it was a terrible end to the calendar year of 2014 for Leinster.  When the wins are ugly, at least we have the win as consolation.  There was nothing to salvage here.  

Has my position on Matt O'Connor's tenure changed?  No.  I still wish he would do things differently.  And I'm afraid he'll use Madigan's less-than-ideal (but not the worst by a long stretch) performance to restore Jimmy Gopperth to the 10 position next Saturday.

But as I keep saying every week, what is the point in screaming MOC out for any other reason than putting your (albeit understandable) frustration into as few words as possible?  It's not going to happen, at least not now.

Sure, the wins we're getting are ugly.  But none have come close to the Ugliest Leinster Win Ever, against Clermont at the RDS in 2010, under Michael Cheika.  

Sure, the performances are unacceptable.  And in this case, I could actually say that this was the most unacceptable I have seen since I started Harpin On Rugby in 2008...but the one it beats to that title was against Ospreys in 2012, and that was under Joe Schmidt.

Also we cannot forget that everything about Irish Rugby right now revolves around the World Cup.  If Leinster Rugby's form is a problem, fixing it is not going to be at the top of the list for the people that matter.

We have the coaching staff that we have.  For now anyway, they are working with the players to turn our season around.  All we can do as fans is get behind them.  We have at least 13 matches left this season, hopefully a few more.

And despite the doom and gloom within the Leinster bubble, outside it we still have bookies actually installing us as favourites to win the Guinness Pro 12 outright.  I know, I had to triple-check it myself!  If they believe, why can't we.

Let's take the turn of the year to wipe the slate clean and hopefully the boys in blue can do the same in time for the visit of the Ulstermen at the weekend.  If nothing else, let's make sure we're there to greet them in full voice. 

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL HoR READERS 

#COYBIB JLP



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Next round

Thursday, January 1

NG Dragons v Cardiff Blues, Rodney Parade, 2:05pm
Connacht v Munster, Sportsground, 5pm

Friday, January 2

Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors, Murrayfield, 7:35pm

Saturday, January 3

Benetton Treviso v Zebre, Stadio di Monigo, 2pm
Leinster v Ulster, RDS, 2:40pm
Scarlets v Ospreys, 5:05pm
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