Monday, January 05, 2015

Leinster-24 Ulster-11



“PING!”

Had anyone else taken that placekick from inside their own half and struck the crossbar almost dead centre you’d say hard luck, but when it’s someone of Ruan Pienaar’s quality you’d almost be disappointed he couldn't find that extra few millimetres.

But it was to be that kind of day for Ulster’s talismanic Springbok scrumhalf who was clearly not 100% for this contest after his injury layoff and a couple of misses in the second half from much easier positions, particularly one penalty right after Leinster had established an 8-point cushion, played a part in his province’s demise.

The RDS just doesn’t seem to be a happy hunting ground for the Ulstermen these days.  On the occasions they play well we still manage to eke out a victory, and even the one time in recent years they managed to finish on top in D4, it was soon forgotten as the rugby gods conspired to take away the home Grand Final advantage the victory helped to secure.

On this occasion, however, despite some impressive individual displays from the likes of young full-back Peter Nelson, they just could not find a way to make any headway against what was overall a solid Leinster defence, and on a cold enough afternoon when the errors did come it was the home side that was much more able to capitalise.

Virtually the entire first quarter was in the Leinster half yet the visitors’ only chances to score points came from that penalty which hit the bar and another the other side of the halfway line which many would have still found challenging but Pienaar made.  But as often is the case with Leinster at home, we are quick to react to scores going against us and 0-3 and 3-6 deficits were quickly wiped out by Madigan penalties.

I was listening to the RTE radio commentary from Michael Corcoran and Tony Ward and after a good line run by Dan Tuohy early in the first half they discussed the possibility of him getting himself back into Ireland recognition quickly after his recent injury.  I agreed as they were saying it, but I also thought there was something which could prevent him going too far up Joe Schmidt’s pecking order; only as the match was still going on I couldn’t quite remember what it was.  Then just before the half-time whistle went I got my reminder.  

There’s no doubt Leinster were making headway in the Ulster 22 and it was a dangerous situation, but an experienced player like him should know the clock is running down and with the right accuracy and discipline the score as it stood at 6-6 wouldn’t have been the worst for his side to take into the break.  There was also the matter of a warning for constant penalties dished out to skipper Rory Best by referee moments earlier, so for Tuohy to go off his feet at the breakdown to deny Isaac Boss quick ball was pretty much unforgivable, and the easy three points and yellow card that followed surely made coach Neil Doak rewrite his halftime talk.

But although the advantage was handed on a silver platter to Leinster, anyone who had seen our displays in recent weeks would know there was no guarantee we would be able to accept it with open arms and the RDS faithful could be forgiven for having some apprehension during the interval.

I mean it wasn’t as though our attacking in the first half was clinical.   On our first possession after an opportunistic steal by Boss, when it reached Gordon D’Arcy, rather than exploit the transition in Ulster’s backfield, he sought to run back into contact to get our latest offensive playbook into motion.  That may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it can be a long-winded one and with the Ulster D pretty much on song bar the odd penalty, a try was always going to be hard to come by.

What we seemed to need to unlock the visitor’s resistance, even with the extra man, was a piece of outside-the-box thinking, and luckily we had just the man in the ten jumper to provide it.

Ian Madigan’s career at Leinster has been like that of a solo jazz musician in a band which has gone from playing classical symphonies to heavy metal.   You never quite know where his unscripted riffs are going to fit in regardless of the musical director’s taste, but you can be sure the overall performances will definitely be poorer without them.

His try on 42 minutes was completely missed live by this author.  I was looking away, gearing up for the lineout maul and a series of phases on the Ulster line, and luckily for Leinster, so were the visiting defence.  And what was most impressive about his tap and go was his sheer determination to get the ball down despite being stopped by two defenders.

It also must be remembered that Leinster were in the Ulster 22 in the first place thanks to a sublime exchange on the far wing moments earlier between Madigan and Dave Kearney when a rare overlap was well exploited.

Now...that’s not to say Madigan was perfect on the day by a long stretch.  Sure, the 19 points, missile-like passing and a sweet touch kick into the Ulster corner would put most into man of the match territory but in the first half in particular there were some errors he could do without.  Still though, he played like a quality 10 who has been at 12 all season, which is exactly what he is, and he has certainly done enough in my eyes anyway to retain the jumper when we return to European action.

In the end the man of the match award went to Jack Conan, and it was actually announced moments BEFORE his icing-on-the-cake try to end the game.  Of all the travails both perceived and real at Leinster Rugby this season, one area where we can have no complaints is our stock of back row talent.  

Already missing O’Brien, Ruddock and McLaughlin, to also lose Jennings moments before kickoff (a late pull out even for us!) and then the extremely rare sight of Jamie Heaslip leaving the fray before halftime, would leave most sides with nothing left to offer.  Yet in Conan and Van der Flier we certainly seem to have talent ready to step up and having seen the A side a few times this season, there's more where that came from.

Plus, if there’s any team who would tell Leinster to cry them a river over missing back rowers it would surely by Ulster, who are dealing with Ferris’ tragic retirement as well as long term absentees like Henry, Henderson and Williams.  On top of their half-backs playing below par it was their lack of depth which seemed to be the difference on this occasion.

Now...a few refereeing decisions (and non-decisions) to ponder…

First, the Ulster try.  Like I said, the only way they were to get decent attacking ball in our 22 was from a mistake on our part and Isaac Boss literally handed it to them when he spilled a straightforward take from a lineout.  From there the visitors were impressive attacking our line and in the grand scheme of things deserved it to be given.

To be fair to ref Mitrea, he believed he saw it touch the line and let that be known.  So given that, he was right to ask the “Is there any reason I can’t award the try?” question.  On the replays, I think there’s a case to be made that Zane Kirchner may have ripped the ball before it hit the ground, but with the question as it was asked the try had to be awarded.

Later we had Jimmy Gopperth reaching down for a quasi-grubber from Madigan before pushing it forward with his leg and dotting down over the line.  I’d say he probably grazed the ball with a fingernail at one point but you have to say he sold the contrary view very well and for both ref and TMO to say they only “thought” they saw him touch it after several looks was curious to say the least.  I thought maybe the attacker deserved as much benefit of the doubt as Herbst had gotten.

Finally, the stamping.   I know why it’s done in general but what I’d be worried about is schoolboys trying it when it’s not “acceptable”, assuming it ever is.

There was definitely a perception among the Leinster pack ahead of the McGrath/Best incident that the Ulster forwards weren’t killing themselves to roll away from the ball after the tackle.  Now before anyone jumps down my throat I have to say I thought McGrath’s reaction to the Ulster skipper was certainly excessive...definitely the wrong side of the line between “stamping” and “shoeing”.  

But having said that, if what McGrath did deserved the citing then surely the retribution inflicted on him later by Roger Wilson must also be worthy, given that two wrongs don’t make a right.  We'll just have to wait and see what the ruling is at the hearing.

Going back to the actual rugby, I thought Luke Fitz had another fine display at 13 and most certainly should stay there for the foreseeable future and if he does well in Europe, who knows - Joe Schmidt might have more headaches at outside centre than he would have bargained for at Six Nations time.

Also scrums and lineouts were 100% - I wouldn't harp on that too much because at this level that's pretty much as things should be but on recent form it's worth noting.  The switch to more "tap-downs" in the lineout demands even more accuracy and the lack of it cost us here but overall Toner seems to be making the right calls.

On the minus side, with all the doom and gloom this season I’d hate to point out too much but unfortunately it was another poor day at the office for Isaac Boss.  That error was costly but it wasn’t his only one and despite his undoubted experience I think it’s time we established our scrum-half pecking order according to form.  Eoin Reddan and Luke McGrath have had their own demons this season but both have certainly shown enough (in recent times especially) to suggest they deserve the 9 jumper ahead of Boss for now.

But that’s enough negative for this writeup.  I’d much rather focus on what was a perfect storm of results in this particular round of Guinness Pro 12 matches, with all of our fellow top-five inhabitants finishing on the losing side in derby clashes.  Our remaining schedule may be far from straight-forward but we have come back from more than four points behind the leaders before.

Given that the main focus of Irish Rugby in 2015 will be around our Six Nation’s title defence and of course the World Cup, hopefully the provincial fans will appreciate the sacrifices necessary in lowering the bar of expectations now for the sake of much richer rewards down the line.  

One thing's for sure - we can certainly feel better about things now than last week.  Onwards to Cardiff next.

#COYBIB #JLP


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Also this weekend



Round 13

Friday, January 9

Connacht v Edinburgh, Sportsground, 7:35pm

Glasgow Warriors v Scarlets, Scotstoun, 7:35pm

Saturday, January 10

Cardiff Blues v Leinster, Cardiff Arms Park, 2:40pm

Zebre v Munster, Stadio XXV Aprile, 3pm

Sunday, January 11

Benetton Treviso v Ulster, Stadio di Monigo, 2pm

Ospreys v NG Dragons, Liberty Stadium, 4pm
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