Monday, April 06, 2015

Leinster-18 Bath-15


As a Leinster fan exiting the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, I was finding it very difficult to feel good about this victory.  We are extremely lucky to be in the Champions Cup semifinals, I thought.

It was an opinion based not merely on what had happened over the previous 80 minutes, but also on a season full of Leinster performances which were well below the standards we have come to expect since 2009.  

But while my pre-match positivity seemed all but dead as I headed to the Sandymount Hotel, when I watched BT Sport’s coverage back on Sunday morning (caution : tenuous Easter reference fast approaching...) it miraculously came back to life.

Now before I harp on the shamelessly pro-Premiership lens the network uses to present rugby, I should point out that in some ways, they could be forgiven for it.  Ever since they first made their intentions to muscle their way into this competition clear, they have hardly kept it secret that they were only really interested in covering the English clubs’ side of things.

Still...from their reaction to this match, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only talking points that mattered were two pieces of brilliance by George Ford and “that” penalty decision at the end.  Now, to be fair, the narrative from many Leinster fans (myself included before I watched it back) was that our biggest problem was missed tackles and now I'm not sure that tells the story either, but let’s look first at that match-ending ping.

Richardt Strauss was on his feet, with his hands legally contesting for the ball.  Matt Garvey cleared him out. COULD make a case that some refs would say he was “through the gate”, but given he starts to his left of the ruck and ends up to his right, it wouldn’t be a strong one.  And as for the assertion by the BT panellists that the pen should in fact go to Bath because Strauss flicks the ball out of the ruck, he only does so after he is taken out by Garvey, so once you deem the clear out illegal, you can’t ping Strauss.

So to summarize...while the call did have some scope for interpretation, the BT Sport crew reacted not like professional broadcasters, but more like dyed-in-the-wool Bath fans watching down the pub, and continued to do so long after the match was over.   

They were the only TV network covering this match live to the Irish market and seemed to think having Brian O’Driscoll as a lone voice (we can’t really count anchor Craig Doyle, besides...he was happy to pick up the “cry foul” ball and run with it) was enough to appease viewers here who had to fork out extra subs for the privilege.  And just 24 hours later, they didn’t seem too bothered to scrutinise the crucial last-ditch call by Nigel Owens in Paris (not that it wasn’t a pen - Racing were practically begging for it).

OK, got that off my chest, time to look at what happened up to that decision.  

We have all heard the phrase “lies, damn lies and statistics” and while it has merit, it can also be used to brush off numbers we don’t particularly like.  So at the risk of falling into that category, I want to take a look at the tackling figures from this match and suggest that they are not as conclusive as they might first look.

Leinster - Made 76, Missed 29.  Bath - Made 115, Missed 11.  When you see that raw data, it seems pretty obvious that Bath were the better tacklers, right?  Especially when you look at a highlight reel that only includes the tries from the match, both of which went to the visitors and saw Ford cut through first-up tacklers like a hot knife through butter? 

Well to properly crunch those numbers, you have to take into account the offensive approach of the two sides, so let’s have a look.  First, Leinster’s.  

In my preview I said I would have gone with an entirely different back line, with Madigan and 10 and Darcy and Fitzgerald in the centre.  I figured that would have given us more defensive cover, but I also felt it would be better suited to the type of rugby I wanted us to play with the ball, ie actually trying to get around tackles with a drop of the shoulder, a step and/or an offload.  

But agree with it or not, we have to come to terms with the way Matt O’Connor has us playing which actually had us getting our crash runners like Te'o, Healy and Cronin go looking for the tackle in order to recycle it.   So it’s really not that surprising that Bath’s count was so high.  And on the plus side, while we never really looked like scoring tries, particularly in the first half the approach was earning us kickable penalty chances which Ian Madigan was steadily converting.

By contrast we have Mike Ford’s side; they had been reminding all during the week just how different their approach is to the rest of the “Bosh-ership”.  And it has to be said it’s an impressive way of doing things when it works well.  But the fact that it is a strategy which uses decoys and screens, (or to put it another way, is designed to deceive would-be tacklers), means that the missed tackle count is bound to be higher for the opposition.

Does it sound like I’m making excuses for our poor numbers?  Maybe, but I’m not really.  I’m still not a fan of the tendency to aim high as a default style and usually when we “fall off” our tackles it is when we have gone that way.  But I still don’t think that our tackling was our biggest problem on Saturday and I certainly don’t think it was our problem on either of the Bath tries.

Now when I give out about the way BT praised Ford for his role in the 5-pointers, I didn’t mean to take anything away from the credit he deserved for them.  It takes a Terminator-esque ability to quickly analyse what’s ahead of you and spot a gap between two forwards in the defensive line and first it was Toner and Murphy and then it was Toner and Healy who were perfectly bisected by his turn of pace.  And for the second try it took a quality offload in the tackle to his skipper Hooper providing excellent support to finish the move.

And they certainly weren’t Ford’s only quality contributions, like a punt from his own 22 deep into ours late in the game which helped the contest on its way to a third “squeaky-bum” finish for Leinster & Ireland fans in as many weeks.  But what the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio seemed to forget in the post-game analysis was that there were also mistakes from the young outhalf.

Kicks out on the full, poor game management, and most importantly given how accurate Madigan was from the tee, five points left behind in the first half which would have rendered that last-ditch decision from Garces irrelevant.  I believe George Ford is a future star for Bath & England at 10, but despite all the hype from the English press, twice now this season at the Aviva Stadium he has shown his game has much room for improvement.

And the outhalf certainly wasn’t the only Bath player to under-perform...the downside of the attacking approach was that it demanded accuracy and with the exception of the two tries it was lacking throughout the contest.  When it comes to analysing stats, a category far more telling than tackles was that of “handling errors” where the visitors out-did us by 16 to 5 (plus...any chance our overall D played a part?).

But even that doesn’t necessarily support the notion that Bath were either “robbed of victory by the ref” or were “architects of their own downfall”.

Early in the second half we came closest to crossing the Bath line when we shipped it out wide only for Zane Kirchner to run out of room on the touchline.  At the time, we were running on an extremely long penalty advantage, which Garces declared over just before the Springbok was bundled into touch.

Mr Dallaglio in the BT commentary box was curious why the advantage was allowed go for as long as it did.  That was an interesting observation, given the first Bath try came from a similar situation.  And in that case, the ball was passed at least 10 metres behind where the infringement occurred and actually hit the ground, only for Bath to be allowed regroup before George Ford embarked on his sprint to the try line.

My point is that Garces has to be by far and away the most inconsistent referee in the top-tier of world rugby.  On the two occasions above he let the penalty advantage go, yet on others, like twice in the first half when Leinster were attacking the Bath line, he stopped the play moments after putting out his arm.

And the inconsistency wasn’t confined to just Matt O’Connor defiantly pointed out to the BT crew in his post-match interview, if Garvey was deemed to be in from the side then so could Francois Louw have been earlier.  

But my biggest problem with the ref was over the number of Bath penalties, yet another negative category in which they significantly out-did us, 12 to 4.  The sin-binning of Anthony Watson for taking Rob Kearney in the air was absolutely right, but that would have been a card in the first minute as much as the 25th.  Garces did absolutely nothing to address the high penalty count of the visitors and never so much as issue a warning to them; so if we’re going to whinge about that final decision let us also take this into account.

Right...I’ve had a pop at BT Sport, Bath & the ref so far.  I even tried to explain Leinster’s missed tackles.  Clearly I thought we were perfect on the day right?  Er, no.

Not for the first time this season we failed in key in the first half when we had a rare attacking set piece situation, and one almost comical fail in the second when Tom Denton, just on the pitch in body but seemingly still on the bench in mind, forgot his lifting duties which meant the ball was thrown straight to Carl Fearns.

Then we had a tweak to our offensive approach as Bath started to come back at us, for rather than try to press home and stretch our 6-point lead to make our guests require two scores, we chose instead to play territory from the 60th minute when we should possibly have waited until the 70th.

But the crux of our woes on the day was basic inaccuracy from both the 9 and 10 positions.  Whether Jimmy Gopperth is over-played or not can be debated, but what cannot is his inability to get our strike runners where they need to be, though this of course is also a responsibility of his scrum half.

While we have often gotten a decent outing from at least one of our experienced pair of 9s this season, neither was up to it on the day here.  Going by the cheer of the home crowd when Bath brought on their own reserve scrum half, there may be plenty of good will for changes to be made soon in the Leinster squad.

Finally we had that scrum deep in our own 22 in the 77th minute.  This set-piece is one area where we totally had the upper hand and it has been going well for us in 2015.  But for that last one, I have to fault skipper Jamie Heaslip for trying too hard to win a penalty - this is a bugbear of mine at scrums so I can’t really tag Garces for letting the play go on, and with Reddan under pressure his clearance was blocked and it was pure luck that it fell over the line in such a way as Gopperth (who reacted well it has to be said) to get there first.

But for all that negativity and areas where we need to improve, we cannot ignore the good stuff like the scrums, our restarts, the aim to win penalties which was working, plus the fact that man-of-the-match Ian Madigan was able to convert each time.  Also, when our defense had time to organise, it was generally solid, particularly at the very end of the first half when Fergus McFadden (who has shocking injury luck at the Aviva) made telling contributions.

Add all of that to the problems in the Bath camp and you’d have a hard time convincing me we deserved to lose.  Not that Bath did necessarily, but it was nowhere near the injustice as some made out.

One final point on injustice...anyone else notice Francois Louw take a kick at Ian Madigan’s head in the first half?  Even as the TV director showed a replay of it, the BT commentators (Drico included) proceeded to talk about something completely unrelated.  Not sure it’s a citing but was definitely worth a mention.

Look...we won.  All I’m saying is, let’s celebrate that fact.  Will we be up against it in Marseille on Sunday week?  Of course we will.  They’re the two-time reigning champions, they’re top of their league, and while it’s not the Stade Mayol it’s still home advantage.

As I have pointed out, we have a lot of areas to work on.  But going by Toulon’s win over Wasps yesterday, so do they.  As fans, we HAVE to believe if we hope for the boys in blue to do the same.

Well done to Matt, Jamie & co on Saturday.  Commiserations to Bath and best of luck for the rest of the season.  As for BT Sport, well I assume they’ll cover the Saracens semifinal so I’m probably done with harping on them for the season.  No doubt Mr Stuart Barnes will be much more impartial ;-)


[Update Thurs Apr 9 - The BT Sport folks reviewed the Garvey/Strauss incident and did a presentation on it see here for more]

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Also this weekend

Gloucester Rugby 14 - 7 Connacht

Clérmont Auvergne 37 - 5 Northampton Saints

Racing Metro 11 - 12 Saracens

Toulon 32 - 18 Wasps

Next matches (kickoff times Irish)

Saturday, April 18

Clérmont Auvergne v Saracens, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne, 3:15pm

Sunday, April 19

Toulon v Leinster, Stade Velodrome, Marseille, 3:15pm


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