This week the “Dark Lord” is very grateful to Big Joe Shep and his son Alex for producing our feature Monday match writeup
As soon as we arrived, it seemed more than the normal Inter-Provincial pre-season friendly. Now whether it’s because we have a new Head Coach and “Coaching Collective” OR was it because following last seasons dismal, defensive and downright negative performances, anything else is going to be upwards, OR perhaps the usual (and thankfully) positive brief the Dark Lord at Harpin Manor had issued us prior to our travels Up’t North were having the desired effect, I don’t know. What I do know is that despite both sides having depleted squads owing to RWC extended duties, there was a buzz of anticipation from ALL in the ground for this match.
A superb friendly welcome to us from our Celtic Cousins at Kingspan / Ravenhill helped the occasion to get underway with a smattering of blue Leinster shirts around the ground which in itself was a good job after a reversal of teams colours (????)
Leinster opened strongly. There was lots of positive play, the ball being moved across the park, good support at the breakdown with 2 and 3 players in each time. After only 5 minutes and following a darting run through the home defence by Tight Head Jamie Hagan, Loose Head Peter Dooley went close to the line and the ensuing quick ball out went wide to young Adam Byrne who went over in the corner. Marsh failed to convert and so it was a Leinster lead 5 - 0.
We continued in the same vein for the rest of the first quarter with a great run by Ben T’eo who continues to impress through the centre channels making 30 - 40 metres but it didn’t lead to fruition. What is impressive though about Ben’s run like Hagans earlier, is the commitment, vision, belief, pace, open playing and all around positive attacking style we start with. Standout areas were the scrum which was strong and controlling, quick ball out by Scrum Half Luke McGrath, vision and kicking ability of Billy Dardis at Full Back but above all else for me was the pace of Adam Byrne on the wing. This boy looks the real deal and you just see why he’s an international 7s player.
Ulster came back in the second quarter and applied sustained pressure and our defence looked a little shaky at times and you could feel an Ulster score was on the cards. Sure enough they score 2 tries in the space of a few minutes with the second from MOTM Luke Marshall being akin to Anthony Watson’s for England recently against France. Marshall simply skipped around a few Leinster players and his pace couldn’t be caught. Of interest their first try by Paul Marshall was a Tap n Go. I commented recently on this issue of Tap n Go for Ireland after the Wales match and I’ll opine again that as with the National team, Leinster need to
A. Use the Tap n Go as an effective attacking method and…………..
B. Be on guard from a defensive stance.
Two successful conversions for Ulster saw them ahead by 9 points at half time but not a bad half from Leinster overall and a great game from both sides.
A few subs were used at the beginning of the second half………….. well 14 I think! Anyhow what was key was #ISAISAISA was back on the park and wasn’t it evident from where we were sitting! Not only was my 11 year old, Alex across from UK who, sporting his recently signed jersey by almost the entire squad from the excellent Skerries RFC open training day and acting as my assistant reporter, screaming in my ear right next to me for Isa to play in every position and score every future try, kick, conversion, penalty etc AND in between this, he was also responsible for taking photos at the game with my phone but moreso we knew the great man was back because simply the ship was steadied and thus it was a different spectacle in the third quarter. He not only played but was corralling and motivating the youngsters around him. A player / coach is what we have back ladies and gents!
Confident, poised and building up was the order of the day. It only took a couple of minutes into the half following a lineout and rolling maul to score the second Leinster try courtesy of Jack Conan. The same vein continued and two more push over tries from Dan Leavy and Bryan Byrne were sealed by Isa’s successful conversions….... much to the relief and joy of young Alex! A good strong and effective pack showed much potential throughout the second half.
A late rally in the fourth quarter by a spirited Ulster side who themselves made a significant number of changes saw them score a late try, helped by Leinster being down to 14 for the last few minutes. The inevitable overlap of numbers saw young hopeful Sam Arnold cut inside to score for Ulster and a conversion finished the game with a narrow but well earned victory for Leinster by 24 - 21.
Ok, so this was only the first game of many this season? Ok, so there were some 17 (I think) senior players missing? Ok, so we had two totally different teams in both halves of the game? OK, it was “only” a pre-season InterPro friendly? (though as Ulster’s Luke Marshall stated afterwards, “It’s supposed to be a friendly, but it never is a friendly” summed up the cracking game and spirit we were treated to)
That may all be true, but as Leinster fans we must still ask ourselves - is it a mistake to give Leo a 2 year contract already? How will he and his coaching staff inculcate the senior players back after RWC 15? Well in comparison to the corresponding fixture at Tallaght this time last season, this match was an all out cup game. It was hard to believe that this Academy / A team with a handful of senior players delivered the performance they did. I always state that for me the periods when the senior players are absent is business critical and it’s the success during these periods the remaining players have, that can make or break a season. This season we have both RWC 15 and 6 Nations to contend with.
Is it therefore “Da Capo”..............a New Beginning? Even with the most positive of belief, we know there’ll be some ups and downs in a season with so much flux / transition to it. There are those who already will be writing Leo off as he has no real credibility as a coach OR that he’s too defensive or something else (N.B. For those in this category, the next time I’m at a game, grab me and I’ll be happy to fill up your half empty glass to keep you going!)
In conclusion therefore, I believe that the biggest thing Leo (and the others) have done to date is take a group of individual players and develop some initial belief, coherence, a positive approach and begun the steps required to gel a team. I believe that anything we achieve after last season will be a bonus and that achieving Pro 12 play offs and at least getting out of our European pool will be a positive success for us in what is (sorry for a much an overused term) definitely a transitional year. This time though, I believe that if this performance is any sort of indicator, it will be a springboard for the next 2 - 4 years.
For me, I genuinely believe that creating the positive environment and gelling the entire Leinster Rugby “Family”, senior players, Academy / A team, staff, supporters, it can only be an upwards move. No-one knows after only a game but I tell you this much, it feels good so far……………. Now, I’ve a FULL glass of something to drink!
The Big Fella
@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management atDigital Knowledge Zone. An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)
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