Come Friday evening we’ll be consumed by the World Cup, mark my words.
It won’t just be the action on the pitch to catch our attention of course...there’s bound to be all the pomp and ceremony you’d expect before a major sporting festival and say what you like about the English they tend to do a pretty good job in this area, though the word is QE2 won’t be jumping out of a plane this time to make the opening ceremony!
There will also be the TV networks with their shiny new studios, with both sides of the Irish sea trusting coverage to “non-traditional” rugby sources yet again in TV3 and ITV respectively. We’ll see a new mix of pundits, new graphics, new attempts to capture our attention - some will entertain us, some won’t.
But in the calm before that storm, we had the September return of Celtic League rugby to the RDS, from which of course nothing can distract us here at HoR Manor. And thankfully the weather played ball as well, with the rain which was threatened all day not arriving until literally moments after I got to a pub downtown long after the final whistle. Just the way I like it.
So save for a few grumblings among season ticket holders for the gift packs possibly being a bit lighter than previous seasons, it was a perfect day for the Leinster faithful.
Oh, and we won as well...that sort of helped too!
Leo Cullen most certainly has a lion’s share of goodwill points saved up with the Leinster faithful, but it goes without saying that given his earlier than expected rise to the top job at the province, the team’s early displays will be under a decent amount of scrutiny.
In our first match of the new campaign in Edinburgh, the result didn’t go our way but we did come away with the losing bonus and I for one could find even more positives than that to take from it. Still...I did have concerns that we seemed a bit aimless with the ball, so clearly that was something I was going to be looking for this week.
And in looking for a source of the lack of offence I focused on our young halfback pairing of Luke McGrath and Cathal Marsh. I wasn’t calling for either to be dropped, not by a long chalk...all I wanted was more evidence that for all the tempo the pairing are clearly eager to bring to our game, we could actually see some end product from it, and a positive-minded Leinster crowd at the RDS was the perfect stage for them to do just that.
Of course we were never going to sparkle right from the off, but there were still early signs that the necessary tweaks were made during the week to our approach and come the 16th minute, we got our first glimpse of just what the new coaching ticket can get out of our squad.
If you didn’t see this match and only went by other reports you’ll have heard that Cardiff outhalf Rhys Patchell got all of his side’s points with a perfect 5 for 5 from the kicking tee...all of them impressive and a vast improvement on his 1 for 8 showing the week before. But what I don’t see in those reports is how relatively poor he was with restarts and kicks from open play.
After nailing two early kicks for a 6-0 lead for his side, we had just clawed 3 back courtesy of skipper-for-the-day Isa Nacewa when Patchell put the restart out on the full, obviously the last thing his team needed in a city that is seldom a fruitful destination for them.
From the resulting scrum, which not for the last time on the day provided the perfect platform for us, we executed a move that set up Ben Te’o perfectly to showcase what he does best - seeking and destroying would-be tacklers. This of course put us well on the front foot so the question was now - could we make the most of it?
Well, a total of 12 phases later, we had our answer, with Jack Conan crashing over shortly after debutante Garry Ringrose had a decent stab at the line himself. It was certainly heartening to see all the elements of the team clicking into place from the scrum to the halfbacks to the centres to the wings and back to the pack again to provide the finish...as good a testimony to a decent pre-season as you’ll get. Needless to say, one was most pleased…
Much better from Leinster centres running from deeper and forwards breaking gain line. More please! #COYBIB— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) September 12, 2015
But there was still a good hour of rugby to be played before that lead could be turned into a win, and somehow despite our dominance in possession, fuelled much by the visitor’s inability to keep a hold of the ball, our lead was just the one point. Capitalising on that Conan try was proving quite the challenge, with a missed Isa penalty here, a botched lineout there thwarting us.
Meanwhile down the other end Patchell was cranking up Cardiff’s side of the scoreboard, edging them ahead 15-13 as the clock nearer the final quarter. At that stage for all the positivity of the Leinster faithful, there were definitely no guarantees we could claw our way back ahead, and if we did, it would have to be with an inexperienced bench.
Again it was a Patchell error which gave us a sniff of getting back in front, with this time a kick from the hand going out over the dead ball line and giving us another chance to set up an attack from the scrum, this time deeper in the Cardiff half. No opportunity for Ben to wreak havoc this time, however, as we won a pen off the scrum which Isa dispatched over the posts “dead duck” style for a 16-15 lead.
Naturally with the Cardiff 10 doing so much better from the kicking tee than the hand, a one-point lead was never going to be enough...we’d need more from the closing stages. Enter Josh van der Flier.
I raised an eyebrow at his selection not because of his own ability, rather than how it seemed a bit unfair on Dan Leavy who was one of our leading lights against Edinburgh the week before. Turns out I needn’t have worried, for it seems that despite all the World Cup absentees from the Leinster squad, Leo Cullen has his first big selection headache in his back row.
JVDF was deservedly named Sky’s man of the match and it was his forced turnover which provided the platform for our decisive try (he also led our tackle stats as had Leavy the week before though with Cardiff having so little possession it only took 9 to top that list). A sweet kick from Marsh into the corner had us at the 5m line...now we needed to know if the forwards could bring us home.
It was a legitimate question...our lineouts weren’t going great for us in the second half but at this stage we managed to secure the ball and Cardiff had no answer to the pressure but to foul and while it may have been without an actual warning and thus harsh, their skipper Josh Navidi was put to the bin.
So we persevered with the lineouts and scrums to pile it on and eventually secured a penalty try to seal the four point with what I think might just be the most inexperience tight 8 ever seen in Leinster colours at senior level (starts prior to the weekend in brackets):
Dooley (0) BByrne (1) Burke-Flynn (0) Molony (0) Beirne (0) Ryan (56) Leavy (1) Conan (15).
OK, maybe they were against a 7-man Cardiff pack for that try but there’s still a gagillion things that can go wrong in the scrum - and while I wouldn’t accuse ref Ben Whitehouse for bias being Welsh, having just carded Navidi he could have been inclined to find something wrong on our end so I say full kudos to everyone involved with our forwards for that particular score.
The easy conversion off the penalty try extended the margin to 8 points and while Patchell had a drop goal attempt at the death, like I say he seemed to need the tee for accuracy so we got ourselves the four points - not a perfect start to the season by a long chalk but definitely plenty to take forward.
And without a doubt the most pleasing aspect of the display has to be apparent readiness for the top flight shown by our younglings - Ross Molony was given his share of lineouts to take and did so well, and Garry Ringrose certainly didn’t let the grass grow under his boots out on the wing, making his tackles and getting in on the action when required.
Maybe it could be argued that Leo had no choice but to put much faith in the “next generation” what with the World Cup, injuries and concussion protocols...but having done that there was little evidence of “molly-coddling” in our approach out on the pitch. If you’re good enough for the jersey, you’re expected to get the job done with 0 caps every bit as much as the Nacewas and McCarthys on the pitch with you.
So 5 match points on the board for Leo after 2 matches, and 8th out of 12 on the ladder only sounds bad if you ignore the fact that we’re just 3 points off the leaders. All the evidence of the early matches seems to suggest that with the possible exception of the Scarlets, every team is going to have off days during the World Cup as they come to grips with the squads the tournament has left them.
As the league takes a break to let the festivities begin across the water, this particular Leinster fan is well pleased with what he has seen from Cullen’s Cubs so far. Much bigger challenges down the line of course, but plenty of evidence there we can meet them.
So now it’s time to put the rest of the rugby universe behind us and focus on the big World Cup kickoff…we plan to cover all 48 matches and to do that we have our own squad of contributors ready for the action. Each is covering their own pool and you’ll get to see their previews starting Monday afternoon and continuing throughout the week.
Exciting times ahead, to say the very least. JLP