Monday, April 13, 2015

NG Dragons-25 Leinster-22

In my preview for this match I pointed out how difficult it was to resist mentioning Game of Thrones given we were playing a team called the Dragons on the same day as the Season 5 première, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I dip into that well a bit more with both the heading and first few lines of my writeup.

For while our quest as Leinster fans between now and Sunday may be to build a wall 700 feet tall and 300 miles wide between the Seven Kingdoms Twelve Provinces and all the negativity from this campaign so far, on this particular day I don’t see as we have any choice but to send a few Men of the Watch beyond the wall on a scouting mission to see just what makes those wildlings tick.
Now just to let you know, I have a bucket load of these something about hoping “Leinster always repay their debt” to fans when we have another crack at Toulon, something that plays on the fact that “Targaryen” sounds a bit like “Barbarian”, and of course something that gets the most punnage out of the “Raven” in “Ravenhill” (with “King-Span-nis” held in reserve for the pedants out there).
But all this nodding to popular culture is starting to give me a headache so I’ll leave it there for now and get on with the writeup.
When it comes to Matt O’Connor’s reign as Leinster head coach, here’s my take on the two ends of the spectrum of opinion among fans.  Remember, these are the furthest reaches of the extremes.
First, we have what I called earlier in the season the “Anti-Matter” side.  The general viewpoint is that O'Connor is destroying Leinster rugby with a style too close to that seen in the Premiership and the most vocal among these wanted him gone from his position long before this 2014/15 campaign even started.
At the other end, (I don’t have a name for them yet perhaps you can provide one?) the mindset is one of taking into account the wealth of talent that left Leinster along with Joe Schmidt, realising that the coach doesn’t drop the passes or miss the tackles, and backing your team next week whatever the result last because that’s what following a sports team is all about.
Many will probably think I’m “copping out” by not hoisting the flag of one or other of those sides on the site this season, and maybe I am.  But what I'd much rather harp on is what is actually happening instead of looking to make what’s happening fit into the box I’d like it to.
If you were to just take this one match in Newport as your frame of reference, you certainly couldn't pin all the blame on Matt O’Connor or indeed anyone in the coaching staff for the defeat.  While we did play some good rugby to get our own 22 points, we were severely punished by the home side to the tune of 25 in reply for a litany of individual mistakes like kicking too often in a pesky wind, shipping silly penalties, taking a box kick close to our line without blockers and totally unforced knock ons.
Plus, while I know to anyone who didn’t see the Ben Te’o tackle this looks like good old-fashioned bias, that was not a yellow card.  It just wasn’t.  Penalty, well, maybe. But never a yellow.  And given that ten points came from that spell with the extra man you could hardly do anything but call it a significant turning point.
And since by having a go at Matt we are, by implication, comparing him to coaches gone before, it’s not like their records were squeaky clean on trips to Wales.  Michael Cheika was known to make at least a dozen changes to the side when we played in Newport before a big European tie, while the writeup on this site that has received the most ever hits was when I had a go at Joe’s Leinster for playing crazy rugby against the Ospreys after building a double-digit lead, much like we did on Sunday.
But the difference between those displays I mention above and this one is that they were very much in isolation.   As Leinster’s 2014/15 campaign reaches its final few weeks, it is possible to see a pattern that has been with us literally from day one.  I highlighted it with a post on Sunday before this match kicked off and I derive no pleasure from pointing out that it is one which held true at Rodney Parade.
Basically, while we have been good at building leads this season, when it comes to keeping them, not so much.  In the 10 Pro12 matches which Leinster have failed to win all season, we have had the lead at some stage in 9, and in 8 of those, we were ahead well into the second half, on average the 64th minute to be precise.  There’s simply no hiding from the fact that if we were even to hold on in just 3 of those matches, we would be in the top four on the table now.
So where I feel the debate lies for Leinster is in the area of what we are doing to lose those leads.  Of course you can always argue your opposition could be having a good day, and it has to be said the Dragons yesterday had a decent offloading game and showed a good conversion rate with attacking chances in our 22.  Also, the home side put in some insane tackle numbers (Cudd 28, Harris 21, starting centres 31 between them). But can you really deflect the blame from yourself when it happens as often as 8 times in a campaign?
Just one example...I’m loathe to mention anyone’s name because this kicking obsession is certainly not down to one Leinster player.  But on this Newport evening in particular, the wind was very much a factor so kicking made absolutely no sense yet we had occasions like Zane Kirchner geting the ball in broken play and opting to kick, only for it to fall straight to a Dragon.
And when you look back over our performances this season, we have tended to kick in those situations; while with a decent chase to back it up it can be effective, we seem to be doing it aimlessly and it happens so often the trail of blame must lead to the coach’s box. I said, there were positives for us in this match and they cannot go unmentioned.  Two tries from Ben Te’o, the first a very “league-esque” finish from close range while the second had an explosive burst of pace that broke through not two weary props but actually the Men of Gwent’s 10 and 13.  Our third try came from Jimmy Gopperth who, much like Leinster in general this season, mixed the very good with the mind-numbingly bad throughout.
And it also seems that for all the speculation regarding his future during the week, Gordon D’Arcy isn’t exactly ready to go chucking in any towels just yet.  Heavily involved and clearly working hard to establish an understanding with his paduan learner outside (wait - that’s from a different nerdy universe isn’t it?), he could definitely be useful in Marseille next week, though of course we all know he probably won’t start.
But despite the few silver linings, once more we could not bring victory home and in some ways the our defeats to the Dragons provide bookends to a portion of the season which has seen whatever good will there was towards the coaching staff sink to its lowest level.  And as I have said several times before in recent weeks, while I’d never call for someone’s job, I can certainly appreciate the frustration of fans, particularly as the season ticket payments are showing up on our bank statements.
And what certainly doesn’t help is the narrative from many in the “mainstream media” which tars every Leinster fan who uses Twitter & such with the most extreme “Anti-Matter” brush going.  Hopefully that won’t stop them making their feelings known where possible, for as someone who deals with social media every day I can think of no better source of opinion, as this cross-section of reactions to the Dragons result shows.
Look...Matt O’Connor is on a three-year contract at Leinster Rugby - that is a fact.  It was quite a generous offer for someone who was yet to take the reins at a top tier club - normally in Irish rugby such a deal is done similar to that struck by Rob Penney at Munster who got 2 years plus the option of a third.
So unless he decides he has had enough of the negativity and leaves of his own accord, we have to accept that he will still be in charge next season.  As fans, we can either assume that it will mean yet more “disaster” or we can hope that the province's brains trust will appreciate just how far the standards have slipped and make the most of the return of familiar faces like Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa.
Personally, I reckon when it comes to fixing what ails Leinster from an attacking standpoint, it could well be a serious challenge for O’Connor and Sexton to work together.  Both seem to very opinionated on how to use possession, and those opinions seem to be miles apart.  (Sure, this is all speculation, but speculating is kind of what we know-it-all online-writing types tend to do, right?)
I've made no secret I'm not exactly a fan of the way we are playing at the moment. I mean...for writeups of Ireland matches this season I have used the hashtag #TrustJoe and you won't find a similar one for Matt O'Connor anywhere on this site.
But speaking of the national side, we have to keep the wider interests on the game in Ireland in mind whenever we discuss at length what's happening here in our own province.
It’s World Cup year, and Ireland are going into the competition as the two-time reigning Six Nations champions.  The men’s and women’s national teams are doing well, we still have all four provinces in the top half of the Pro12 table, we’re putting a serious bid for the 2023 World Cup and there’s even finally sevens rugby to look forward to.
So however deflated we might feel as Leinster fans as the fire threatens to burn out on our season, believe it or not there's plenty to help us get our mindset where it needs to be leading into a very important week. 
I don’t know about you but when it comes to Leinster & Ireland rugby, I’d rather not look towards the rest of 2015 waiting for something horrible like the Red Wedding to happen (you didn’t really think I was done with the references did you?), and instead look forward to happier scenes like that one in Game of Thrones where….well, any one that has Emilia Clarke in it really.  JLP

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Also this weekend

Glasgow 36 - 17 Cardiff Blues
Benetton Treviso 13 - 33 Ospreys
Edinburgh 3 - 34 Munster
Zebre 26 - 28 Scarlets
Connacht 20 - 27 Ulster

Next matches

Friday, April 24

Edinburgh v Zebre, Murrayfield, 7:35pm

Ulster v Leinster, Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm

Saturday, April 25

Connacht v Glasgow Warriors, Sportsground, 1:05pm

Cardiff Blues v Ospreys, Millennium Stadium, 2:30pm
Munster v Benetton Treviso, Irish Independent Park, 3:05pm
NG Dragons v Scarlets, Millennium Stadium, 4:45pm


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