Monday, March 09, 2015

Scarlets-23 Leinster-13

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MATT-IGATION 

"So the result was disappointing and the performance was disappointing but what that does to the top four is irrelevant with five games remaining.”


Post-match press conference quotes themselves can be considered irrelevant and are often are taken out of context, but this particular one by Matt O’Connor does not sit well at all, coming as it does after an uncharacteristically dismal mid-Six Nations sequence for Leinster, and on top of that it was the week season ticket holders were emailed their renewal reminders.


You don’t need me to tell you the Leinster head coach had copped a large amount of flak from supporters, and not just this season...even winning the Pro12 title wasn’t enough for some in the last campaign.


And that last point has led me to distance myself from the criticism, affording him the opportunity to build on that success and try to put a firm stamp in the way the province plays the game.  But the way we have played in this recent series of four matches against the Dragons, Zebre, Ospreys and now the Scarlets has led me to have serious doubts about the way forward for this coaching ticket.


There are those who dismiss all negative opinion out of hand, particularly that which appears online.  For me, I think criticism is fine once two things happen...that you at least acknowledge that there are some silver linings, and that you yourself can offer an alternative.  This is why I still don’t hold to the “MOC out” mindset which I feel is too simplistic.


Now I know this is meant to be a match writeup, but I not only try to comment on what went on in a particular Leinster clash but also to put a perspective on how the performance sits with our season in general, so forgive me if this one leans more towards the latter.  Though often where I plan to make general points I can relate them to Saturday’s match in Llanelli.


So here’s what I aim to do...rather than simply suggest that we change our coaching ticket mid-season, I’m going to first spell out what I call “Matt-igating” factors, which hopefully will “earn” me the right to point out where I reckon he has gone wrong, and finally offer suggestions as to how we can proceed in the business end of the campaign.


In other words, this is bound to be a lighthearted read and just the thing to cheer you up at the start of a week ;-)

 

OK - here goes....first up, the things we can’t fully pin on Matt.  None of them count as “excuses” on their own, but taken together they make for a decent defence in my opinion.


  • Injuries - Losing Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy for such a large chunk of the season was the headline story on the injury front, but certainly not the only one for Leinster.  How many last minute changes have we had to make to our matchday 23s?  Not to mention the amount of injuries we have shipped in the first quarter like Ben Te’o against Embra and Dave Kearney in Coventry.

  • Where the buck stops - of course it eventually falls at the head coach, but surely not before hitting others on the way.  The players themselves have been at pains to take responsibility for poor performances all season, and the question marks surrounding Leo Cullen’s “Martin Johnson-like” elevation to a top coaching position have been growing.

  • Other teams have played well - In this recent sequence of poor Leinster displays, we have dropped points to Welsh regions who have also had success in that spell against other Irish provinces.  Also, the Scarlets have proven particularly tough to beat at home this season.

  • It hasn’t been all bad - Ben Te’o’s try in Llanelli was a classic example of how things have clicked for us this season (and though he had some dodgy offloads he is definitely improving and I'd be happy to continue the experiment for now) and in our last two outings in particular we have done well to build early leads...it was just in the keeping of them where we’ve gone astray but I’ll get to that later.

  • Reffing - Everyone blames the ref when their team loses, that’s a given.  But that doesn’t make them immune.  Against the Scarlets, for example, their openside James Davies was awarded man of the match mostly for two key breakdown decisions in the second half where I felt he was given almost Richie McCaw levels of leeway by George Clancy.  And I don’t even have a problem with that once it’s given to both teams but our jacklers seemed to need to engage for a lot longer to attract a whistle.  Don’t get me wrong, the Scarlets deserved the win, but I could make a strong case that we could have at least gotten a losing bonus.

  • He’s not Joe - This for me is the biggest Matt-igating factor.  Not only was he competing with his predecessor from the previous 3 years of multiple trophies, O’Connor’s attempts to put his own stamp on Leinster come at a time when Joe has the cheek to be doing extremely well with the Irish squad.   No matter who had the job that was always going to be an uphill battle.


OK, I reckon that’s enough.    Hopefully by now you can see that I’m not willing to just diss anyone out of hand and that I'm trying to be both realistic and constructive. Now to the negative...
 
Against both Ospreys and Scarlets we built early leads and lost them. The easy areas to go looking for reasons for this are in defence and discipline, but for me, our problem has been our offence, which has been one-dimensional all season.
 
That's not to say we approach every match playing exactly the same way, but within each 80-minute contest I don't see us doing anything differently in the final quarter to what we were doing in the first. Take Jimmy Gopperth with his cross-field kicks in Llanelli, for example.
 
He did one in the early stages which Fergus McFadden took easily and was able to turn into a very good attacking position for Leinster. That was all well and good, but in the latter stages of the match Gopperth did it again and failed miserably. This in part had to do with the fact that the Scarlets were ready for it.
 
We just don't seem to be capable of tweaking our approach as the match progresses. If at first we don't succeed it's no try, no try and no try again. Knockons, passes into touch, crossfield kicks out on the full...as I said earlier there were times we were unlucky with refereeing decisions but they were outweighed by the times we have been masters of our own undoing and if there's one thing about Leinster these days that frustrates me the most, it's that when we have the ball I just cannot see where a try is coming from.
 
For the second week in a row, Noel Reid sat on the Leinster bench for the entire 80 minutes and while I wouldn't start him every week he certainly can be a useful option in the final quarter when we are struggling to find space.
 
But at the heart of this inability to score when required has to be Gopperth. He has definitely done good things for Leinster in his spell here but if nothing else Matt O'Connor needs to take ownership of his policy which has him as our starting outhalf ahead of Ian Madigan, and this has been a negative for both Leinster and Ireland.
 
I'm not saying Mads was perfect when he did wear ten for us this season, but the selection philosophy seems to be when he does badly it's vindication for Gopperth, and when the Kiwi does badly it's a blip and he retains his jersey the following week.
 
Nor am I saying that the rugby has to be anything even remotely near something we'd call "champagne". There have been 10 matches this season which Leinster have failed to win - if even half of them had instead been 1-point victories with the current attacking style, I'd be here defending O'Connor to the death. But they weren't, so I can't.
 
So...what can we do?
 
Hopefully the Leinster faithful will join me in wishing Jimmy all the best in his future with Wasps, but as we look towards the remainder of our campaign, I'm thinking we need to start looking beyond his departure.
 
We have two quality young out-halves in reserve in Ross Byrne and Cathal Marsh and while throwing either into the fray against Glasgow Warriors at the RDS in our next match (assuming Mads won't be available and with Gopperth on the bench - I certainly wouldn't rule him out altogether) would be a bold step , it would certainly demonstrate that we're willing to mix things up.
 
Maybe the "Wolfuppies" had a set-back against England and it is underage level but Byrne has still shown he can make a backline tick and with enough experience around him you have to think he could do a job, maybe not in Europe, but certainly in our remaining Pro12 fixtures...and Marsh is also ready but has been unlucky with injuries...and as well there is further talent like Ringrose, Dardis and Loughman in other positions.
 
Now the feedback from O'Connor doesn't sound hopeful on that front...again from his post-match presser at the weekend...
 
"Post-Six Nations with our blokes back in our environment we will be happy to go anywhere and win."
 
That seems to gloss over the fact that he had names like Fitzgerald, McFadden, Dave Kearney, Sean Cronin, Eoin Reddan, Kirchner at his disposal with minimal success in recent weeks. So we'll just get the guys back from Carton House and we'll be grand. Sorry, but while I would be overjoyed to be wrong about this, I'm just not feeling it.
 
OK, that's enough harping on for one week...I'm tapped out on the negative and there's a big match in Cardiff to look forward to - time to wrap up.
 
Clearly Matt O'Connor's CV as a coach reads infinitely better than mine so I'm not suggesting he has to implement my ideas otherwise we're doomed. But as a devoted Leinster fan, one who will renew my season ticket regardless of results, I'd like to see some kind of acknowledgement that he has some intention to make changes. Because with at least six matches of this season and year 3 of his current contract still to come, it could take more than even Johnny Sexton's return to make opposition teams fear us once more.
 
#COYBIB JLP
 
 
 

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Also this weekend

Glasgow 26 - 5 Zebre 

Cardiff Blues 18 - 17 Connacht

Benetton Treviso 8 - 29 Edinburgh

Ospreys 26 - 12 Munster

Dragons 26 - 22 Ulster

 Next matches

Friday, March 27

Leinster v Glasgow Warriors, RDS, 7:35pm

Ulster v Cardiff Blues, Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm

Saturday, March 28

Scarlets v Edinburgh, Parc y Scarlets, 2:40pm

Munster v Connacht, Thomond Park, 5:15pm

Ospreys v Zebre, Liberty Stadium, 7:15pm

Benetton Treviso v NG Dragons, Stadio di Monigo, 7:30pm

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