Ian Madigan’s first placekick of the day was a thing of beauty.
Given Dave Kearney had to leave the game so early, it wouldn’t be right to say Leinster had the “perfect start”. Still...to get not only get an extra man at the earliest opportunity but also to capitalise on it with a try after just 3 minutes isn’t the worst way to settle the nerves in a “winner-take-all” encounter away from home.
At the time, my personal judgement on Ashley Johnson’s “challenge”
was that it was a yellow and nothing more. On further review I reckon that judgement was clouded by the fact that it happened before the ball hit the turf, not to mention the similarities with the Jared Payne incident
Thing is though, rulings shouldn’t really be clouded by any of the above. Sure, we all want to see our players pumped up for the big occasion, but Johnson had no idea where the ball was and clearly had no regard where the player was. A “stonewall” red but I fear Jerome Garces’ judgement was clouded by the same factors as mine was (it didn’t help that he himself had sent off Payne
But enough harping on that...we still had ten minutes to exploit the extra man and we went right at our opposition with an excellent mix of crash ball getting us on the front foot and slick passing through the hands exploiting space out wide, which is pretty much what we have been asking for from Leinster this season. And when Fergus McFadden dotted down in the corner there was actually a penalty advantage coming, which would have been the third in just 3 minutes, so there was little doubt another card was far away.
Then to add icing to the cake we had Madigan getting a perfect strike on the ball to see it sail over - he started it between the sticks and it held its line superbly. 7-0 to Leinster had to be a monumental blow to the “home” side. So far, it was all good.
In my match preview
I pointed out that while this was never going to be an easy fixture for Leinster, I strongly believed that if we could keep our mistakes to a minimum, victory could be ours. So after establishing such an early lead when Sean Cronin shipped a pen right from the restart (to be fair, it was one of those offsides where anyone would have instinctively grabbed at the ball
) I had a feeling it could be a long 80 minutes, one that got stronger as Goode slotted a tricky kick of his own to make it 7-3.
At the ten minute mark, we won yet another penalty, this time at the scrum. Before I go on about the match I have to point out the state of the Ricoh Arena pitch, which was an absolute disgrace.
There’s a reason Leinster don’t kickoff the Pro12 season with a home fixture...the RDS turf needs recovery time after the Dublin Horse Show. Yet after every scrum on Saturday the pitch looked like the Grand National had been run over it. Not exactly what I’d call the proper standard for such an important match in an elite tournament? This match was only 10 minutes old and I already had two big reasons to moan about our hosts!
Anyway...from that penalty, Madigan lined up what would have been an extremely handy three points to restore the 7-point advantage. It was a lot more central than the first attempt but it was probably near the end of his range. Again he started it between the sticks but this time it caught a big draw to the left and wide. Disappointing.
Yet we managed to get our way back and on the 14 minute mark Wasps weren’t rolling away at the breakdown so we have yet another penalty...including the advantage for the try it’s their fifth before the first quarter is up. Well past the stage of warning if you ask me, even given the Johnson decision.
So another chance for Madigan to get three but although it’s closer than before the ball takes more or less the same trajectory and draws wide. Tack on a kick straight into touch with his next possession moments later and you probably have his worst 7-minute spell in professional rugby.
He was to get yet another reprieve, however, when yet another penalty (this did come with a warning
) gave him yet another chance and while he took this one to make it 3-10, the ball was still taking that worrying draw to the left. Our seven-point lead wasn’t giving me any sort of comfort given the creeping error count I had been dreading - and it would have been extremely naive to assume Wasps weren’t going to come back at us.
Then, to add more injury to insult, we were forced to make a second first-half call to the bench as Eoin Reddan went off. Personally I wouldn’t have minded so much if it were Luke McGrath coming on but he was in Rotherham captaining the A side to the British & Irish Cup semis. While I reckon Isaac Boss could have done a job closing out in the final quarter, this seemed to be a shade early for his introduction.
But then we caught another break as Wasps got pinged again and sorry Mr Dallaglio in the BT commentary box, but it had to be a yellow card for their prop Cittadini what with the prior warning. Though it was kickable, Madigan was getting treatment and Gopperth took the kick...strangely the draw to the left was there for him as well but it somehow got over the bar and it was now 3-13.
Once more Sean Cronin found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time moments after our score and Goode was given the chance to bring his side back within seven, which he gladly accepted.
But credit to Leinster, we stuck to our plan to bring the game to our opposition and having gotten the ball to their line we could have had a try from either Boss or Gopperth in the same series...TMO gave it to the former. Madigan took the conversion, again with the drawing to the left, but again it went over. 6-20. A winning position in anyone’s mind. Just no more mistakes, right?
Yeah, right. I’m sure as Ashley Johnson sat out the opening 10 minutes he had to assume there would be some kind of retribution on the pitch, particularly given Dave Kearney’s injury. Sadly for us, Kane Douglas saw an opportunity to give the Wasps back rower a clatter at the worst possible moment and right in front of the referee, who had no option but to bin him right before the break and give Wasps a lot more hope than their first half display deserved.
In the meantime, Goode had a chance to claw back a handy 3 points of his own but guess what….even though it was down the other end of the park, he too got a nasty draw to the left and it missed!
As it turned out, Wasps weren’t to score at all while we were a man down. If anything, from the restart we picked up where we left off and all we had to do was get a score, any score, to push the margin above the magical two-score figure and we would have been fine. And it’s not like we didn’t have chances.
Even with the man down we were able to get our crash ball/passing game into gear and got it all the way to the try line before a mix-up between Michael Bent and Dominic Ryan led to a crossing call from Garces, for which the BT Sport commentators had no complaints, I might add.
The reason I mention the punditry is because the ref’s decision there had to be an influence on his awarding of a similar call for Tom Varndell when he brushed against Nathan Hughes before dotting down at the other end moments later. Maybe Wasps had more of a case, but you can hardly fault a ref for at least trying to be fair to both sides.
On the 51st minute, with Douglas back on the park, Wasps skipper James Haskell was pinged for not rolling away...to be fair, Heaslip and Moore weren’t exactly making it easy for him to do so and he was pretty riled up as Madigan lined up his kick. This one would have sealed the match.
But while the presumptive Ireland outhalf starter against Italy clearly took into account the earlier draws by starting this kick right, on this occasion it actually held its line and we had missed yet another opportunity to put Wasps out of sight.
The most frustrating thing about the way we let Wasps back into this fixture was that for the most part, we were very good on both offence (where I felt McFadden in particular stood out
) and defence (Luke Fitzgerald was most impressive here
). To close the 14-point gap which we held for so long they needed a lot of help from us, and we gave it to them.
Both of their tries came from lineouts deep in our 22 which were the result of penalties...first for tackling a man without the ball and second for not rolling away. Each time, once on our line they pummelled us into submission and definitely deserved at least one of the scores but I still contend that they should have been dead and buried by then.
So first Matt Mullan and then Nathan Hughes got the tries (in between Heaslip went off - fingers, eyes and toes crossed the Wolverine blood still runs strong
)...to be fair, both were heavily involved in Wasps’s ground game which steadily improved as the match wore on, along with support from the likes of Davies, Gaskell and from the bench, Jake Cooper-Whalley (whenever I hear his name said out loud I hear “Groundskeeper Willie”!
But whatever about how we got there, with 10 minutes to go we had an entirely new ball game, one that seemed destined to be decided by an ability to boot the ball through the sticks. Unfortunately for both sides, at this stage nobody had the ability to kick the ball at all.
For Leinster's part, our tactical kicking was poor in that final quarter, Gopperth went for a drop goal that wasn't on, and for our last chance Madigan's radar was still wonky as for the second time in this half he started it right and the draw was nowhere to be seen.
Ultimately it was down to Andy Goode to slot the winning 3-points, but as you can see be the lead photo, he couldn't manage it, thanks in part to a decent distracting line run by Jack Conan.
The final whistle left everyone watching in limbo. This was the first pool to finish so with a lot of rugby left to be played, while Leinster were definitely through to the last eight with the draw, the home quarterfinal we badly desired was by no means certain. So we can definitely be forgiven for feeling frustrated post-match.
But then again, there have been several occasions this season where we have felt frustrated. If you only look at things from within the "Leinster bubble", we can find several reasons to be critical.
Still though...the game of rugby is not played within the Leinster bubble. When we look outside, there is a much different picture.
Bath won't by any means be an easy opposition come April, but you can be sure of one thing...we would have taken a home quarterfinal against them before the competition kicked off.
And as for Ian Madigan...no, definitely not his finest outing with the boot and had he made even one of those four missed placekicks the tone of this writeup would be much, different. However...let the record show that on offence he brought the ball into contact very strong, and on D he even led the Leinster team in tackles with 12.
On top of that, after the pool phases he is still the competition's leading scorer with 80 points.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is...as we gear up for Ireland's Six Nations title defence, as Leinster fans we can focus on the negative if we really want to, but if we do, it will have to be done while ignoring a heap of positive.
A home quarterfinal in Europe, 3 points off the top of the Pro12, Church and Seanie due back. Nothing's won yet, but so far, believe it or not, things are good from where I'm standing.
Congrats to Wasps for reaching the last 8 having had to qualify for the pool phase via a playoff last May.
But most of all, congrats to Matt O'Connor & everyone involved with Leinster Rugby...I'm very much looking forward to seeing how much further we can go.