Monday, March 02, 2015

Ospreys-9 Leinster-9


STALE, MATE!

I didn't really think my plan for this Sunday evening through...right now my task is to write about a match I'd rather forget while forgetting (at least for now) Ireland's amazing win at the Aviva!  But plough on I must...

Oh, dear Lord, this was an awful 80 minutes of rugby.  And for Leinster fans it was awful for the third week in a row.  That we somehow managed to glean 8 of the 15 points on offer could be seen as something of a miracle, but unfortunately still it's getting harder to stay upbeat as we look ahead to the rest of the season.

But there's no way you can just apply the word "awful" to Leinster for this particular matchup, which has been one of the leading lights of Celtic League rugby since its formation.  In a multi-national club competition it was important for some cross-border rivalries to develop and this is arguably top of the pile.  It shouldn't matter that the fixture falls during an international window...there's enough history between these two for at least a compelling contest yet this season the two have served up 160 minutes of extremely disappointing rugby.

And on this occasion for all the frustrations we as Leinster fans were seeing on the attacking front, the Ospreys weren't exactly as pesky as they have been to us in the past either.  I counted 13 times the ball hit the deck while they had possession...and even though on several occasions it went backwards and they retrieved it, they still couldn't cross our line.

But before I get to the negatives on the Leinster side, I certainly can't say it was all bad on our part.  First and foremost, well played Josh van der Flier.  17 tackles, many of them key and a turnover or two on top to boot.  Only bad thing you could say is that his undoubted talent adds to our embarrassment of riches in the back row.

Then we had our overall defence, which was solid for the most part and when our line was breached we showed on multiple occasions we were able to scramble...for example the Ospreys' best chance came at the start of the second half when winger Tom Grabham surged deep into our 22 only for Jimmy Gopperth to track back and, er, grab him.  And a lot of those times the O's put the ball to ground it was the result of our pressure on them.

Finally there was the scrum.   Michael Bent was pinged a couple of times but for the vast majority of the set-pieces we had a monumental shove on their pack and this if nothing else has been a consistent feature of our play over the last three matches.

So...we had solid defence and a dominant scrum.  Definitely on the right track to what would have been a crucial away victory, right?  Especially given we eked out a 6-0 lead after 22 minutes?  Here's where my heart sinks.

Regular readers will know I have done my best not to get sucked in to the "O'Connor out" mindset which was prevalent even after we won the Pro12 last season.  And I'm still not there, but that doesn't mean I think that he is immune from blame over what ails Leinster these days.

I mean some of our stats in this season's Pro12 are impressive.  We have the best defence (well, joint best in points conceded with Ulster) and we easily have the most try-bonus point wins in the league with 6.  But somehow, we are still dropping points left, right and centre.  So in many ways, this match at the Liberty Stadium is like a microcosm of our season.  Trying to find the source of our ills is tricky, but a good place to start would be how we played between going 6-0 up and then 9-6 down.  

We were pretty much in control for the first quarter - there was way too much kick tennis much like at the RDS back in November but we seemed to be getting the better of the exchanges and not being hurt too badly by the late, late withdrawal of Jack Conan from the 23 after he rolled over an ankle in the warmup.

But then the out and out sloppiness began.  Kirchner stepping on the 22 line while clearing a kick to touch.  McFadden arrives a fraction early to tackle an Ospreys catches in mid-jump.  Dave Kearney knocks a ball on into touch after a mix-up with his full back.  When I wrote what surely has to be my most glass-half-empty Leinster preview ever on Friday, I never thought we'd have problems with our back three but it now seems the unsteadiness from our partnerships at both halfback and centre have reached there as well.

Of course the backs weren't alone on the mistake front...Furlong shipped a needless pen, Douglas' timing was off a couple of times and Richardt Strauss lost the ball in contact more than once.  

Yet here's the point.  I know our Aussie coach isn't making those errors himself, but when it happens so often to so many different players, you have to wonder about the glue that's meant to be holding them all together, and even at Six Nations time when having a consistent squad is a pipe dream for coaches, that is still well within his remit.

At the start of his first season at Leinster, Matt set his stall by saying he was going to focus on sorting our defence.  That was all well and good, but having pretty much achieved that goal it seemed logical that for this campaign, we would be seeing a new style of offence emerge, and that just hasn't happened.

For the past couple of weeks it does look like our backline have been trying to move the ball around a bit and in Swansea we did try some crossfield kicks, but as my headline this week suggests, in general the best (and most polite) word I can use for us when we have possession is "stale".

D'Arcy and Te'o just do not seem to be on the same page.  I know the former is used to a much more experienced partner while the latter is finding his feet, but while they're taking a while to get to know each other, we're haemorrhaging Pro12 points.  We only used 3 from the bench on Friday and as much as I'm a fan of Darce I'm wondering if Noel Reid could have been tried for the final quarter to see if his step could get past the Osprey tacklers.

Speaking of Te'o, it's time to have a look at referee John Lacey's role in this match.  I didn't catch the BBC Wales commentary but I understand they're working on a theory which suggests whenever the rugby league convert tackles someone named Sam, the cast on his forearm turns to solid metal, or something like that.  Well all I can say is that if what Ben did as Davies challenged him is illegal, then we need to go back and look at pretty much every tackle that has been attempted on Mathieu Bastareaud, especially by Jonathan Sexton.

I'm not a fan of the raised forearm as you're being tackled, particularly as concussion is being taken more and more seriously but if it is to be reffed consistently then officials need to be backed up by a definitive policy from World Rugby.  Personally I think Davies got both his timing and positioning completely wrong on this occasion and while he clearly does cop Te'o's arm there doesn't seem to be much intent, as opposed to Bastareaud who often raises his forearm in an upward motion as he is tackled without being called.

Where I like Lacey's refereeing style the most is at scrum time.  He's not a fan of number 8's holding the ball in hoping for a penalty, and to be honest, neither am I.  If you have a shove going forward, why not use your backline to take advantage of their's skipping backwards rather than begging for a placekick.  And he is consistent with these calls, ignoring Ulster for it in the 2013 Pro12 final and both sides in this match.

Finally we have his decision at the end which allowed Gopperth to kick the points to level the match.  Maybe, considering Strauss had spilled a few earlier in the tackle, it was a bit fortunate that Morgan Allen was pinged.  But he clearly does make a stripping motion as he is bringing the player to ground, and he's off his own feet so there are arguments in Lacey's favour, not least of which being that  nobody deserved to win this match!!!

On the subject of our decision to go for the 3 points instead of kicking to the corner, well I have been fascinated by the online debate.  For me, you can't have it both ways...if you're going to moan about our offence, then surely you shouldn't put faith in that same offence succeeding where they had failed for over 70 minutes.  
While our scrummaging has been good of late, there hasn't been much in our mauling to suggest we wouldn't end up wandering back down a phase maze on the Ospreys' tryline waiting for someone to knock on.  So for me, going for the posts was the right call, albeit for unfortunate reasons, and I must say Jimmy took the pressure kick well.

So where does our season stand right now?  I mean...for all the doom and gloom, we're STILL in the top 4, we're STILL only 3 points off the top 2, and we STILL have a home European quarterfinal.  And on top of all that, the general feeling in Irish rugby has to be considered good what with the other provinces also in the top six plus of course the national team's successes at all levels.

For now, we have to find a way to go to Llanelli next Saturday and come away with a win.  And I mean a win that we've earned, not one that is handed to us.  Let's just say I can see my preview this Friday being as pessimistic as the last one, but once again I will be overjoyed to be proven wrong. 

#COYBIB #JLP

IRELAND v ENGLAND writeup will post Tuesday lunchtime


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Also this weekend
Ulster 25 - 20 Scarlets
Munster 22 - 10 Glasgow
Cardiff Blues 21 - 15 Edinburgh
Zebre 23 - 17 Dragons
Connacht 53 - 5 Benetton Treviso



Next matches...

Friday, March 6
Cardiff Blues v Connacht, Cardiff Arms Park, 7:35pm
Glasgow Warriors v Zebre, Scotstoun, 7:35pm

Saturday, March 7
Ospreys v Munster, Liberty Stadium, 2:40pm
Scarlets v Leinster, Parc y Scarlets, 5:15pm
Benetton Treviso v Edinburgh, Stadio di Monigo, 6pm

Sunday, March 8
NG Dragons v Ulster, Rodney Parade, 4pm
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