Monday, April 27, 2015

Ulster-26 Leinster-10

Sometimes I wonder if people quite understand exactly how opinions work.  Because recently I have been told both directly and indirectly that should mine not meet certain criteria, they’re not worthy of merit.
When it comes to Leinster Rugby, to read the offerings of some in the so-called “mainstream media”, it seems both Matt O’Connor and Jimmy Gopperth are “untouchable”.  If you say anything against them, at best you are lumped in with the most extreme opinions of wind-up merchants, trolls and grumpy sods, while at worst you are branded as not really understanding how Irish rugby works.
Well anyone who knows me will tell you I'm never going to let THAT stop me!
This match was not lost merely because of MOC & Gopps, but I have been offering opinions on both Leinster & Ireland rugby here since 2008 and as far as I’m concerned, NOBODY is untouchable.  Brian O’Driscoll, Joe Schmidt, Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Michael Cheika, the list goes on...all have received heaps of credit when it has been due, but on the (albeit rare) occasions I felt they didn’t produce, I’m not afraid to say so.
You could definitely put together a YouTube clip featuring more than one occasion during this match where Jimmy Gopperth put in an excellent step and ran forward for a gain, and looking merely at that, you could say he had a good outing.  And the one he did in the opening minute put us in a situation to take the lead.
But when I look at his overall display, as someone who watches every minute of Leinster action, I can see a direct link to a pattern which has been evident all season, one which is the principal reason our season is now over.
Each time the Kiwi outhalf did something worthy of that YouTube clip, the scores were either level or we had fallen behind on the scoreboard.  But when we had a 10-0 lead, a kick for territory doesn’t find touch and moments later, a simple enough garryowen gets sliced off the side of his boot.
A while ago I crunched some numbers about how Leinster would have the lead in the second half of a contest only to lose it.  Maybe that didn’t quite happen here as our 10-0 lead was earned by minute 7 and lost by minute 16, but still we can draw comparisons to our inability to add to the scoreboard in the second half of matches because we were still within 7 points of our hosts right up to the 66th minute.
So if a lack of offensive production isn’t a brush you can tar your out-half with, then maybe I don’t understand the sport at all, let alone just on Irish shores.
Of course it’s not entirely Jimmy’s fault.  You have to factor in the supply from his number 9 and for all the experience Leinster have in our international duo, both have impressed only in one-match bursts this season so we have had little or no consistency at a key position.  
And in Belfast on Friday, Isaac Boss was putting in decent box-kicks throughout but when it came to that most fundamental of actions, ie passing to the first receiver, they were either slow coming or straight at the breadbasket forcing a standing start and thus allowing the determined Ulster defence to shut us down each time.
This leads me to my question regarding Matt O’Connor - why wasn’t this failure to get the necessary tempo identified and corrected when we were still in the contest?  As I said, Eoin Reddan hasn’t been consistent either BUT as an option from the bench he has been known to provide a spark and it wasn’t until the 64th minute when we were both 6 points and a man down that he was introduced.  In my very humble opinion, we were screaming for a new scrum half from the 50th minute at the latest.
Before I go too far with the negative, we must at least mention Ben Te’o’s try.  He definitely seems to be getting into the habit of dotting down, that’s for sure.  Excellent line leaving Darren Cave dead in the water on one side and a strong fend putting down Roger Wilson on the other made the gap and his pace did the rest.
Still...when you’re facing one of the league’s top sides they are probably not going to be bitten twice in the same way, and from the moment that 10-point lead was established we couldn’t find a way back on the scoreboard.  And it wasn’t all down to our halfbacks either.
In my previews in recent weeks I keep repeating the importance of winning our own set piece...a basic necessity at this level but one in which we keep failing in key positions.  On Friday you could say it was a case of Dan Touhy being bang wide to Devin Toner’s calls and timing, but again it has been a pattern for Leinster that when we have decent attacking positions like lineouts in the opposition 22, we lose them, and we saw it again more than once here.
So when you are failing continuously on the attacking front, you are filling your opposition with confidence and while our defence was doing all it could to keep us in it, there was always the chance it was going to crack.  I have no real complaints about the Sean O’Brien yellow card - he was fired up for the night and put in 17 tackles with none missed for the 70 minutes he was on the pitch but with that aggression there is bound to be a payoff.  
Man of the Match deservedly went to Iain Henderson, not merely for providing Ulster’s first try, but mostly for a tenacious attitude around the breakdown.  As he was causing mischief at one stage he was lifted by both O’Brien and Kirchner and while the South African brought him safely to the ground, Seanie couldn’t simply let him go he had to make a “throwing away” action and thus was binned for style rather than substance, but a fair shout nonetheless.
Then we have the Henderson try itself, where O’Brien felt referee John Lacey was in his tackling channel.  I’m not altogether sure he could have made a difference from where he was; then again Seanie is no ordinary player.  But when it comes to the gap that created the space, perhaps Devin Toner could have a look at his presence at the pillar where I felt he was way too late tackling someone that probably wasn’t his man.  
As it turned out that ten minute spell without the Tullow Tank wasn’t to cost us.  The traditional Ravenhill Rain seemed to start at roughly the same stage of the match where it had finished in Marseille 5 days before, and this together with a decent 14-man defence saw us keep them out.
But as we also continued to fail with the ball, when Ulster finally managed to find some space in the second half, Rob Kearney was “forced” to ship a pen on his own line giving away a clear penalty and this was always a yellow card (though Robbie Diack did similar late in the second half and nothing was done, albeit long after the match was over as a contest).
And while our own halfback pairing were stuttering, Messrs Pienaar and Jackson opposite may not have put in flawless displays but they were more definitely capable of getting their side into the right areas of the pitch when required and the Craig Gilroy try which sealed the deal came on the back of this superiority.
It was definitely a tidy performance from the Ulstermen and this was a result that was coming for a long time.  I’m not so sure the margin quite matched the 80 minutes but there is no doubt the right team won.  And with us out of the playoff hunt, the fact that my hopes now go towards Neil Doak and his squad has nothing to do with any animosity towards Munster - I genuinely feel Ulster & their fans are long overdue some success and with the final on home soil they are definitely well poised.  The next round of matches should certainly be interesting as the top four play each other, in fact Ulster v Munster and Ospreys v Glasgow could well be the playoff pairings.
As for us, well, those at the extremes of the doom and gloom will point out that our European qualification is yet to be mathematically confirmed, but I’m certainly not going to let that cloud hang over my head for the next two weeks before we host Treviso.
And I don’t even want to dwell too much on the reasons for Leinster’s demise this season right now.  By producing writeups each week the list has been pretty much exhausted ad nauseum so I won’t go through them again, though at this stage I am willing to add to the list a word I have tried to avoid for a long time - transition.  Yes, it’s a massive cliché but it didn’t fall out of the sky - many great clubs in all sports have had dips in form and it can take time to get back to the top.
Instead I want to remember why I follow Leinster Rugby in the first place.  Of course the trophies have been amazing - when you win something every year but one since 2007/08 you most certainly get used to the celebrations, but that can’t be the only reason to follow.  There is still the buzz around match days at the RDS.  There is still the banter with fellow supporters whom you know respect your opinion even when they disagree.  There is still the affinity with the players, many of whom we have seen progress right from schoolboy level to the World Cup squad, with many more promising youngsters ready to step up from the assembly line.
Oh, and yes, there’s the World Cup.  Two extra weeks without rugby for a large portion of the Irish team may not be the most ideal silver lining but it definitely is one.  There’s a lot of exciting rugby left in 2015 for Leinster & Ireland fans and I am very much looking forward to harping on it.  JLP

HarpinOnRugby match writeups are brought to you by the Irish Rugby Store
Click here to browse the latest Irish Rugby stash
Also this weekend

Edinburgh 37 - 0 Zebre
Connacht 13 - 31 Glasgow
Cardiff Blues 23 - 31 Ospreys
Munster 30 - 19 Benetton Treviso
Dragons 10 - 29 Scarlets

Next matches

Friday, May 8

NG Dragons v Edinburgh, Rodney Parade, 7:30pm
Leinster v Benetton Treviso, RDS, 7:35pm
Ospreys v Glasgow, Liberty Stadium, 7:35pm

Saturday, May 9

Ulster v Munster, Kingspan Stadium, 2:40pm
Zebre v Connacht, Stadio XXV Aprile, 5:30pm

Sunday, May 10

Scarlets v Cardiff Blues, Parc y Scarlets, 4pm


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