Monday, April 20, 2015

Toulon-25 Leinster-20 (aet)

In sport, much like in life, when you are working out your approach to a certain task there’s a lot to be said to making up your own mind, backing yourself, and sticking to your guns whatever others might say.

Matt O’Connor came to Leinster with his own views on how to play the game and while the criticism, some justified and some not, has grown steadily during his reign, you certainly cannot fault him for abandoning his beliefs for the sake of it; and in Marseille he came within a whisker of enacting revenge on the two-time European Champions.  Some may argue that with a different approach we could have gone further, but these are theories which will never be proven.

Then there’s Wayne Barnes, also the recipient of a lot of stick from Irish fans, again only some of it justified (for example I would never for a minute suggest he is biased).  As Jimmy Gopperth took his drop kick in the final minutes of the match, Barnes took a decent position to view whether it was a score and backed himself to make the call without the TMO.  Given the height of the kick exceeded the uprights, some might say it was worth a few looks at different angles (certainly more than the TV producer offered), but he opted to trust his own judgement as is his right.

Finally, we have Ian Madigan.  A large part of my overall disagreement with the coach has to do with selection and at the heart of It I think Madigan should have been our presumptive starting 10 for the past two seasons, so if I bring up “that” interception I hope I can’t be accused of being against him in any way.  But while I will explain later why I believe he was wrong to throw a strong miss pass in that situation, I certainly cannot fault him for backing himself in an area in which, to be fair, he has proven himself capable to make good things happen many times before.

So given all of the above, even though the last thing I want to do on this Sunday evening is re-watch this match and then harp on it for publication Monday lunchtime, that is the ethos of this website so I guess I’d better stick to it.

This most definitely was not a match “for the purists”.  In fact, both European semifinals bore stark contrast to the free-flowing Super Rugby which was also on show this weekend, though of course they were mid-season clashes as opposed to high-stakes knockout ones.

And while the term “error-strewn” needs to be near the top of your list when looking for phrases to describe this encounter, it’s fair to say that many of those mistakes were far from unforced.  For me, the principal reason Matt O’Connor, Jamie Heaslip & co should hold their heads high for this display is that in just 7 days we managed to get our defensive organisation back where it needed to be for such a big encounter.  

Only problem...Toulon were also awesome on D, which meant scores were to be at a premium.  So for this writeup I’m going to do something a little different and first draw lines from the eight scores in the 12-12 draw over 80 minutes to the incidents which I feel led to them.

0m - Madigan puts the kickoff over dead ball line.  After a week of psyching ourselves up for this one, that was quite the deflating start, and the loss of territory led to further woes as with a penalty advantage a garryowen is fumbled by first McFadden and then Rob Kearney over the try line and Masoe touches down...good job the officials spotted he was offside on the kick.  Still, we go back for the pen and it’s T 3-0 L

7m - It wasn’t just the defence that was the hallmark of Leinster’s glory days which returned in Marseille.  Also back was our ability to get scores shortly after conceding.  Right from the restart a superb chase from Jordi Murphy has the Toulon backfield scrambling and eventually Bakkies Botha is penalised for dropping the shoulder on Cian Healy.  Still not saying Barnes is biased, but why that wasn’t yellow I’ll never know.  Madigan makes the pen and it’s T 3-3 L

14m Sean O’Brien wins a turnover penalty at midfield to make up for a knockon minutes earlier, and after we kick for territory and win our lineout, Chris Masoe is pinged for going off his feet.  Madigan makes no mistake with his kick, T 3-6 L

18m  That SOB knockon I mentioned happened with Juan Smith in his face but Leinster’s D are also exerting good pressure - a pass from Michalak to Masoe goes awry leading to Leinster scrum from which we win a pen, kick again for territory, and win another pen from the lineout, which again Madigan dispatches. T 3-9 L.

27m It wasn’t all plain sailing for Leinster’s scrum like it was in the quarterfinal, more on that later.  Pressure on our set piece here leads to a Toulon put-in, and from that they win a free kick which they quick tap and get well into our half before Healy is pinged in from the side.  Halfpenny does what he does, T 6-9 L.

53m After a long cagey spell with errors back and forth including a rare penalty miss from Halfpenny, O’Brien snaffles one at the breakdown but unfortunately Jordi Murphy doesn’t realise this and actually jackles his own player, forcing a scrum to Toulon, where Mike Ross is penalised right before he is replaced.  The Wales and Lions full-back regains his mojo, all square at 9.

64m Time for Madigan to miss from the tee and shortly afterwards as he tries to kick for territory he has it charged down and eventually while we're under the kosh Jimmy Gopperth is penalised for not rolling away from a tackle (though I’m not sure where he could go as Steffon Armitage pinned him in the ruck coming through a very dodgy gate).  Halfpenny makes the kick and Toulon are back in front 12-9.

66m Again Leinster fall behind, again Leinster come right back.  An excellent kick chase off the restart this time from Luke Fitzgerald puts Toulon deep in their own territory and eventually Lobbe interferes with the ball in a ruck with his boot (another possible card I thought) which allows Madigan to regain his composure and level the scores yet again.

Of course those 8 scores didn’t account for the only action in the 80 minutes...some examples, Masoe and Steffon Armitage (on early as sub for Juan Smith) were causing havoc at the breakdown, Madigan kicked a 2nd restart dead at one point (though I’m not so sure Michalak got his footing right),Leinster were going after Toulon’s achilles heel, ie their lineout, with much success, and right at the end an illegal entry by Jamie Heaslip to a maul gave Delon Armitage a chance to pinch it with one of his trademark long-range efforts which he couldn't manage.

But for all the pride and all the positivity we as Leinster fans tried to generate going into this match, it’s important to remember that it was justified not only by the fact we held our elite opposition tryless over the 80 minutes, we also did so while remaining competitive throughout.  Yes, mistakes were made, but by both sides.  It was as close to a perfect glass-half full/empty argument as you could get, and I for one was seeing it as full.

And when we won it back straight away from the extra time kickoff, things looked good until we conceded a penalty on our own scrum in a position very easy for Halfpenny to take full advantage of, 15-12.

Yet again, we put the pressure on from the area which for me has replaced the scrum as top of our “in good nick” list.  Toulon number 23 Jocelino Suta gets Richardt Strauss in what can only be described as a sleeper hold (yet again, well in card territory) and cool as you like Madigan strokes over the penalty to put us level again.

I have had no qualms pointing out the times I felt Toulon players could have seen yellow up to now, mostly because I thought the one Barnes did eventually show was harsh.  And this was no choir boy we were talking about either, it was Ali Williams.  But while I felt it was a penalty, his eyes were on the ball and if his was a card then perhaps a couple of Leinster players could have also gone for similar challenges at other stages.

Still, the card was produced, and we found ourselves in what seemed like a dream position of having half the extra time period with an extra man.  Only question was, could we take advantage of it?

Well, from the lineout that came from the penalty after the card we didn’t get off to a great start.  In pretty much every European preview I have written this season I have said that simply winning our own ball on set pieces could be the difference between winning and losing and I reckon it played a big part in Marseille.  With a good attacking position and one of their locks off the pitch, we somehow managed to lose the lineout.

Then when Toulon clear, Rob Kearney tries to run the ball out of his 22 to set up an exit strategy but he gets isolated and in the end Halfpenny gets a penalty kick to put his side ahead.  Still not the end of the world for us at this stage.  But now we get to the tricky part.

I certainly can’t blame Matt O’Connor nor Jamie Heaslip for taking collective responsibility in their post match press conference.  Even if they did believe the interception was the only reason for the defeat, both are professionals and would never say it in public.

And while as I have said before I’m a massive fan of the Mad Dog, it may still be the emotion from a few hours ago but I cannot get away from my original (albeit very easy from where I'm sitting) view that the pass should not have been thrown, at least not in that manner.

Let me be clear...if this was a training ground move off a set piece, then absolutely it was worth a shot.  Because then, the attackers outside him would have been ready for it.  But this was not the case here.  

(1) We had just turned the ball over at the centre of the pitch.  Toulon were in transition it’s true, but so were we.  I am open to correction but I can’t see how a set play could have been called in time for the four men outside him to be ready.  (2) Putting air under the pass was always a risk and with two Toulon defenders in the backfield, I disagree with the view that if it was caught by a Leinster player it was definitely a score the other way.

In some ways I don’t want to harp on that moment too much but in others, it proved the difference in a contest of tight margins.  The time was up in the 1st ET period and we had another 5 to come with an extra man in the second so while I know I’m making full use of hindsight, even if it didn’t result as it did, I’d still be questioning the decision.  

OK - enough about that.  Habana got the try and suddenly we’re 10 points down and just a short time to prepare for the second period where we needed a point a minute.  Well, there is some consolation in that we were able to spring to life and get ourselves our only try as Eoin Reddan brought our offence to life much as he had against Harlequins in the pool stages.  And for once, when we had an attacking lineout in the opposition 22, we both secured it AND got the logistics of our maul correct for O’Brien to put the ball down.

Cynics would say Toulon took their foot off the pedal defensively, but to those I’d say if that was the case it was only because they spent the interval between extra time periods in jubilation for the gift they had been given and the near certainty that victory was theirs. And such joy only comes when you know you've been given a run for your (huge pots of) money.

But after our try, it was their turn to screw up a restart and we had a scrum at halfway.  Not long to go, but a second try would win us the match, even if uncoverted leaving the scores level again.

There is plenty of time to nit pick at Leinster’s strategy this season.  I won’t go into all the whys and wherefores here.  Suffice to say it got us to within a whisker of a European final.

But while since Christmas our scrum has been a strong point for us, I’m not a fan of how we have used that front row security.

When your mindset approaching the scrum is to win the ball back so you can run at your opposition, with a steady base and the correct technique you can do so and even if you’d prefer using your forwards you can set this up, but the key is, you have control.

But when you mindset for scrums is to win penalties, your front row can certainly put you in that territory, but you are also leaving too much up to chance.  For one thing, the bounce of the ball.  At one stage, Jamie moved it with his hand before picking it up which was missed by the ref.  At another, Strauss somehow headed it backwards!  But my point is that, with this approach, you are giving up control.

And at a time when we still had a chance to produce what would have been a comeback of Cardiff 2011 proportions, I feel our desire to keep the ball in the scrum helped lead to a turnover at that crucial moment, and what’s more, it also did at other points of the match.

OK, I’m done analysing for now.  It has been a rollercoaster of a week with a very disappointing ending.  Let’s take a day or two maybe before looking into the general implications too much more.  But unfortunately, it cannot be too much more than a day or two as we have a punishing 5-day turnaround before we go up to Belfast to play the well-rested Ulstermen in an attempt to salvage something from our season.

Let me just wrap this longer-than-usual piece by paying tribute to all the fans who did us proud travelling to Marseille for such an awkward kickoff time.  I was well jealous of them all as they waved their flags and pumped their fists and made “TMO” signals with their hands throughout...but since we’re expecting a new little Leinster fan here at HoR Manor in the coming weeks, I felt I best not travel!

I will finish by saying that from the moment the semifinal draw was made, we were written off for not having a prayer against big money Toulon.  The bookies said we’d lose by 11, many said it would be much more.  They were all wrong.

We may have fallen short, but we certainly played like we deserved to be there.  JLP


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Also this weekend

Clermont Auvergne 13 - 9 Saracens

Gloucester Rugby 30 - 19 Exeter Chiefs

Edinburgh 45 - 16 Dragons

Next fixtures

Friday, May 1

Challenge Cup Final

Gloucester v Edinburgh. The Stoop

Saturday, May 2

Champions Cup Final

Clérmont v Toulon, Twickenham


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