Monday, January 12, 2015

Cardiff Blues-13 Leinster-22


"overall I'm inclined to feel positive about this match, even more so than the turf accountants who say we'll win by 5...I'd go to between 7 and 9 but only with a late score to seal the deal."

I probably shouldn't draw attention to my match prediction as it's not too often I get them that accurate.

Having said that, it's not too often I get them that accurate so I probably should draw attention to it!

Isn't it amazing how the same thing can be presented in two completely different (not to mention opposite) ways depending on where you're coming from?  If you're inclined to think I'm big-headed, you'd probably go for the first interpretation - but if you see me as level-headed then you might lean towards the second.

And rarely has a broad spectrum of opinion been so evident than with Leinster's 2014/15 campaign in general and this performance in particular.

Even putting aside the fact it was a try-bonus point win on Welsh soil, there are many different ways you can see the result as a positive.  Cardiff started with four Lions to our one, they had Home Advantage 2.0 with their plastic surface now in its second season, the wind conditions took the aerial game out of the equation and our side had a whopping 11 changes from the previous week including a virtually untried 12/13 combo.

But taking it from another angle, you could make a very valid argument that we played 48 minutes with an extra man, 10 of them with two, yet only added seventeen points to the scoreboard.

The fact that I agonized over whether or not to stick inverted commas around the word "only" in that last sentence will probably give you an idea where on the spectrum my opinion lies.

Look...this match will be long, long forgotten when this season is over.  In fact, scratch will be long, long forgotten at kick off time against Castres at the RDS next Saturday.   I really don't think any Leinster fan is under the illusion that qualification from our pool will come easily.  And when you crunch the numbers, it's clear that the bucketload of tries we'll need won't come easily either.

We may be top try-scorers in the Pro12 after 13 rounds (I had to triple-check that stat!) but in Europe, 18 of the 20 competing clubs have crossed the line more often than we have in the four rounds so far.  So it's all to do for Matt O'Connor and his squad over the coming two weeks and should they fall short of the last eight, then serious questions will have to be asked.

But if we only look at this one match in isolation, which I suppose it what this writeup is meant to do, I can't see any other way but to see the victory as a "glass half-full", even if we did achieve it with close to the minimum of points on the scoreboard and with a lot of help from the home side's lack of discipline.

On that subject of discipline, while both the red and yellow cards were both deserved and ridiculous given Cardiff had an 8-point lead when both incidents occurred, I'd be inclined to fold them in to the most positive aspect of the region's much the game meant to them.

As Leinster fans we have seen the Blues put out even stronger sides against us in the Celtic League only to go on to play as though their minds were on much bigger (and much more international) contests down the line.  Well on this occasion, even though the Six Nations is just around the corner, that was far from the case and it was clear they wanted to put one over on the reigning champions.

With the steadiness of Gareth Anscombe at 10 and sterling work from their back row which didn't miss a beat after the removal of the Lions skipper, the Blues had a platform to finish on top and the final piece of the puzzle was a positive go-forward attitude which they had in spades.

If anything the "seige mentality" nature of being short-handed for more than half the contest helped them with this outlook but in the end there was just too much space to cover and eventually the visitors wore them down.  You certainly can't fault the awarding of man-of-the-match despite a losing cause to Josh Navidi (pic) for several strong carries plus a whopping 20 tackles.

But of course try as I may to put a positive spin on the 2 cards for Cardiff, in the end they were their undoing.  The red was after lock Jarrod Hoeata's tackle on a full-sprinting Rob Kearney was not only high but also reckless in the way he yanked him to the ground afterwards...our skipper for the day was very lucky to be able to play on.

Then in the second half we had a Cardiff attack broken down by an outstretched arm from Ben Te'o (who had earlier seen off Warburton after their introduction)...he could have been in penalty territory himself after that but while the ball was loose there was an advantage to the home side so he was right to dive on it....only for Manoa Vosawai (who had replaced Warburton and was playing out of his skin) to drop his knee into the rugby league convert's back.  The SRU ref Neil Paterson was happy to let the Welsh TMO make the call to reduce the Blues to 13, but it was the right one.

And so after no doubt spending the half-time interval finding a way to make the most out of a one-man advantage, Leinster now had an extra ten minutes with two extra bodies.  We sure didn't make it look easy, but in the 9th minute of the sin-binning, shortly after a great strip by Sean Cronin, Jimmy Gopperth found a gap and crossed the whitewash...a score which had to seriously knock the stuffing out of the home side even though they still held a slender lead.

Then just 5 minutes later we had Luke McGrath under pressure after a scrum before slithering away from multiple tacklers and bursting into the Cardiff 22...a few phases later, after December's Leinster Player of the Month Joack Conan came up short, the scrum-half was deservedly the one to get it over the line.  But Gopperth found the wind tough going on the day and his missed conversion, meaning despite being 3 tries to 1 up, our lead was just four.

We needed Tadhg Furlong's determination and stretch for the final try not only for the bonus point but also to make sure we got the win, and it came after some determined work down the left flank particularly from Fergus McFadden.

But of our four tries on the day, by far and away our best was the first, with barely a minute on the clock.  I gave Leinster some stick last week when right after an early turnover we chose to hop on the phase train at midfield rather than make hay out of our opponent's transition.

This time around, Jimmy Gopperth was having none of it and the line he ran into the heart of the Cardiff backfield was a thing of beauty only bettered by the instinctive support of Noel Reid who has a knack for not only being in the right place for these opportunities but also for finishing them.  And that, I might add, happened with the sides playing 15 v 15.

But the home side weren't deterred by our 5-point head start and they were in the midst of getting a firm grip on the match when Hoeata threw his arm at Rob Kearney's windpipe.   And if I have but one concern emanating from this match for Leinster, it would be over how Cardiff took the scoreline from 0-5 to 13-5.

Sure, we will need tries in the coming weeks but that's only assuming our defence is strong.  And the way our first-up tacklers were getting munched at the Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday bore a strong resemblance to what Toulon did to us back in April.

Our tendency to hit ball carriers around the chest area to effect a strip is a high-risk strategy, and one which I suppose you often need at this level, and it's also one that Sean Cronin proved in this match can be lucrative.  But it IS a risk and if the carrier is of the quality of Navidi or Vosawai (not to mention the dozens who are in the teams which will make the last eight in Europe), we're likely to find ourselves on the back foot way more often than we'd like.

But like I said, while that is a worry which I will carry forward to the coming weeks, I'd much rather harp on the positive for this match.

If we are finding fault we must also look at the areas we have been found wanting this season...tendency to favour contact over exploiting space, poor outings from halfbacks, vulnerability on our own set-pieces.  In all of these, we did very well on Saturday.

Trust me...I'm not expecting a Matt O'Connor love-in after this display.  I don't even want one...though I have been often accused of "defending" or "remaining loyal to" him, my position has remained pretty much unchanged all season.

I'd rather we played more positively, I would have picked different players, I can't see him working well with Sexton next season....but I certainly don't see the sense in disrupting our coaching staff while the season is still in progress, especially while we are still in contention in Europe and just a few points off the top of the Pro12.

We'll see where we are when the pool phase is over and we can evaluate from there.

In the meantime, if there's one area I'd be confident that Leinster fans would agree, it's the need to get fully behind the lads between now and next Saturday.   We may have worn white in Cardiff but from now on there's only one colour on the spectrum that matters and that's blue - let's get covered head to toe in it and give it all we've got.


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Other Pro12 Round 13 results

Round 14

Friday, February 14

Edinburgh v Ospreys, Murrayfield, 7:35pm
Ulster v Benetton Treviso, Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm

Saturday, February 15

Munster v Cardiff Blues, Musgrave Park, 7:35pm

Sunday, February 16

Scarlets v Connacht, Parc y Scarlets, 12:45pm
Zebre v Glasgow Warriors, Stadio XXV Aprile, 1pm
Leinster v NG Dragons, RDS, 3pm


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019