Monday, February 23, 2015

Leinster-29 Zebre-8


6 OUT OF 10


It’s just a total mess with bodies everywhere”, said referee Nigel Owens at one point.

I’d love to leave the writeup at that, to be perfectly honest with you. But I guess that would be the easy way out so I’ll do my best to harp on this scrappy contest as best as I can.

So here goes...out of the chaos that was this Friday evening of rugby at the RDS I tried to put together five loose categories.

LEINSTER HAVE IT, LEINSTER LOSE IT

I counted at least 30 times when we managed to turn possession into non-possession. There were a variety of events which ultimately brought each one about...knock-ons, sloppy passing, sloppier breakdown work, and often it was pretty decent pressure from the Zebre back row in particular.

But you don’t struggle to turn a big hunk of possession and territory into points without there being some wider issues, and here we need to look at Leinster’s approach. All season long Matt O’Connor in particular has come in for a large amount of stick from supporters for the brand of rugby he has had us playing.

Personally, I wasn’t much a fan of the whole pass, pass, strike runner cutting back inside, repeat method myself, but I always stopped short of crying “MOC out” because I felt the argument was too simplistic and also pointless as mid-season changes are rarely made at that level in this sport.

What was interesting about our approach against Zebre (and we saw this against the Dragons as well) was that we seem to be moving away from it and now we’re willing to put air under the ball more often. Trouble is, the phrase “careful what you wish for” springs to mind and now we seem to be doing it too often and with too much air.

I couldn’t blame Matt for banging his head off the wall after reading this next bit, but I honestly think a brand of rugby closer to that we were moaning about earlier in the season would have had more effect against both the Dragons and Zebre.

What we tried to do on Friday required at least four or five high-risk plays to work perfectly to produce any kind of end product, and that’s a big enough ask when you’re at full strength, let alone when cobbling together a matchday 23 from Six Nations leftovers and injury comebacks.

I could put forward a theory that we’re road-testing this new style for the bigger matches to come, but if that’s the case it’s a very big risk and one that will continue to be difficult to get right as the internationals filter back into the side ahead of the big quarterfinal clash against Bath.

Overall while there were some bright spots and I’ll get to them later, it made for a very frustrating opening 46 minutes for an RDS crowd to tack on to the 80 they had seen before, and when you’ve seen so much of a laboured approach your anticipation of a positive outcome gets outweighed by your expectation that something is about to go wrong, and invariably it did.

But while the attacking mindset played a large part in the scoring drought, it didn’t cause it entirely...

LEINSTER’S DECISION-MAKING

For this match, two poor decisions cost us on the scoreboard. First, there was Fergus McFadden putting boot to ball.

Zebre had just pinched the ball off us at the breakdown (didn’t seem totally legal but we can look more at that in our next point) and cleared it towards our 22. We had been huffing and puffing away for over 20 minutes when Ferg decided to kick it back without noticing that all 14 of his team-mates were with him on the left side of the park at the time.

The visitors, however, did spot it and while it took some clever running and offloading to make the most of the situation, it was probably one that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Given Zebre got virtually nothing out of going forward for the rest of the night (even before their half-back stocks were badly depleted) I’d be more inclined to fault the decision to kick than the tackling for their try.

Now to be fair Ferg had a decent game overall including an improbable catch and run; I just thought this was a mistake worth noting.

One good thing to come from Zebre taking a 5-0 lead was that it meant we turned the screw bit more in our efforts to to get over their line, and before long we were forcing them into coughing up penalties in their own 22. Since we really needed the try bonus, I was all for the kicks to the corner and while a couple more frustrating knockons continued to deny us, when we won a penalty at the scrum under their posts, Nigel finally decided to issue a warning to Mauro Bergomasco.

If I have to penalise here again, someone has to go

I thought the wording was interesting but we'll get back to the referee later. I'm loathe to criticise such a stalwart of Leinster rugby as skipper-on-the-night Shane Jennings especially on the week when he announces his retirement, but I have to hold to my convictions that having already had a few goes at the try and finally gotten a warning for the D, to take the three in that situation was the wrong option. I would be very confident that had we opted for a scrum (where we were dominant at that point) we would have gotten either a try or a yellow, maybe even both.

NIGEL OWENS

I jokingly suggested in a thread on the Facebook page that it was possible that Nigel left his cards at home along with his passport but the more I think of it, the less funny it is.

That Zebre should have received at least one yellow card for their transgressions on the night isn't sour grapes, it isn't me looking for ways to defend Matt O'Connor, it's just pure fact. 14 penalties for them to our 4, SIX of them at the scrum. The specific warning that I mentioned above (if you infringe again now, you're off...but later is ok???).  Nigel is definitely one of the better referees on the circuit but the cards are there for a reason and he had plenty of reasons to use them but didn't.

He did, however, do us one small yet significant favour towards the end, stopping the clock on 79:35 as Zebre prepared to take a lineout in their own 22.  It meant they had to do more than take a clean catch and clear to end the match...we were able to turn it over which enabled Sean Cronin (yet another amazing shift in the loose though he did let a scrum go against the head) to get the bonus-point clinching score.

ZEBRE’S SIDE OF THINGS

They took their try well. They were unlucky with injury, losing both recognised outhalves relatively early and in the latter stages they needed to replace their number 4 with their number 23 which led to an extremely makeshift scrum. They shipped a lot of penalties, and on a couple of occasions didn't seem to be fully up on the game's Laws like a kick touched in flight and a ball not being knocked on if it comes off the knee.

It was a mixed bag from the visitors but to all intents and purposes they were there for the taking and whatever the reasons/excuses the winning margin should have been greater.

THE GOOD STUFF FROM LEINSTER

There was some, you know, and not just the tries!

Luke Fitzgerald quite rightly was awarded man of the match. It was his scything run which laid the groundwork for the opening try and he had several strong carries throughout. Personally, I'd have him at 13 until the end of the season for us, but it seems Joe Schmidt may have other ideas for the national team and I suspect a green 23 jumper for next Sunday might be on the cards for him.

The above paragraph is not to suggest that The Ben Te'o Experiment is a failure, however. He definitely had some yips against the Dragons last weekend but while not perfect this was definitely his best performance in blue so far. He is starting to find his timing with his runs and making the most of space - where I'd fault him is in the targeting of his runs. It's one thing believing in yourself barrelling foward but he's used to it being against a 13-man defence. Now he needs to play smarter and find the soft shoulders.

Still - his combination with Luke for the opening try was particularly impressive and I hope he gets more game time before the season is out.  I wonder could he go to 12 with Luke at 13?  Tough on Darce I know but much like Leinster in general he hasn't been firing on all cylinders this season.

Also good for Leinster was our starting front row of Bent, Dundon & Moore. Owned the scrums and vigorous in defence. Yes, I know we didn't start racking up the tries until the call "Release The Hounds!"" was made early in the second term and Messrs Cronin & Healy entered the fray but I thought the starters deserved a mention.

Plus while I know Zebre's attacking abilities were limited to say the least, apart from the poor scramble in the build up to their try they just were not going to break down our overall D for which our organisation was mostly sound.

CONCLUSION

We made very, very heavy weather of it, but with a patchwork team we got the maximum points. With this and the Dragons contest just 5 days apart at the same venue, it is very difficult to avoid taking them as a set. And with all due respect to the two opponents, if we are serious about getting silverware this season we really should be getting a maximum 10 points from those two matches.

Instead, we got 6. If I were to score us out of ten for the two matches, I'd probably go a bit lower, and I know a lot of Leinster fans would go much, much lower.

But when we look up from the Leinster bubble we'll see that none of the teams challenging for the top 4 scored a perfect 10 in that time and while the schedule ahead is far from easy for us, we are just one point off the top 2 and I believe we as fans have two choices.

Much like those who started heading for the exits around the 65 minute mark on Friday, we can write off Leinster's chances before the season reaches it's business end, based on everything that has gone before.  Not what I'd call an ideal way of looking at things but you given the standards we have been used to at the RDS you can appreciate the frustration.

Or, like the majority who stayed to the end on Friday, we can stay on and stick by the boys in blue, and who knows...there may be a surprise or two along the way.  I know which one I'm picking.

#COYBIB JLP

HarpinOnRugby match writeups are brought to you by the Irish Rugby Store
Click here to browse the latest Irish Rugby stash
Also this weekend
Benetton Treviso 40 - 24 Cardiff Blues
Edinburgh 17 - 20 Ulster
Scarlets 25 - 25 Munster
Glasgow 19 - 16 Ospreys
Dragons 25 - 30 Connacht



Next fixtures - Round 16

Friday, February 27
Ospreys v Leinster, Liberty Stadium, 7:35pm
Ulster v Scarlets, Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm

Saturday, February 28
Munster v Glasgow Warriors, Irish Independent Park, 7:15pm

Sunday, March 1
Cardiff Blues v Edinburgh, Cardiff Arms Park, 12:45pm
Zebre v NG Dragons, Stadio XXV Aprile, 5pm
Connacht v Benetton Treviso, Sportsground, 5:15pm

Blog Archive