I don’t recall Leinster getting a whole lot of sympathy back in Sep 2011 when we lost to Glasgow at the RDS. It ended a long home winning streak and the previous season the Warriors had finished second from bottom of the league.
Nor do I recall any understanding at the start of last season’s campaign when, despite the Scots having gone all the way to the final a few months before, they overcame us by 2 points at Scotstoun, and by March just gone, even a sizable chunk of Leinster supporters weren’t too forgiving for a 34-34 draw at the RDS, despite the fact we were behind by 20pts at halftime.
The reason I bring this up isn’t that I think we deserved any sympathy, mind you - more the opposite. For each of those games we were reigning champions of either the league itself or of Europe and with this comes an expectation of the performance reaching a certain standard.
Well on Friday night at the RDS, the tables were very much turned.
Sure, our jersey still bears the three stars, but every Leinster fan will know the obstacles in our way to adding a fourth, or even securing what would be a record fifth Celtic League title. And one of these obstacles has to be the “rookie” nature of our new coaching regime... we have been supportive since their appointment and we have been in no doubt they aere both ready and willing, it’s just that only time will tell whether or not they are able.
And on Glasgow’s side of the equation, while they were deprived a similar amount of talent due to a rest week after a World Cup exit, they have no concerns nor qualms about the top of their coaching ticket. What’s more, Gregor Townsend is now the one bringing his proud band of well-drilled Warriors around the European rugby circuit as reigning champions, so it is they who are expected to reach certain levels of performance.
There can be no doubt that they showed us right from the off on Friday exactly why they hoisted that trophy back in May. First an extremely clever territory kick from Mike Blair pinned us back in our own 22. We were able to exit, but from the resulting Glasgow lineout they were able to execute a lung-busting 15 phases with several offloads thrown in for good measure before their young prop (with a name that can only be properly said in a Scottish accent btw) Zander Fagerson powered over the line.
And just in case that wasn’t enough of a clinic on ball retention, they went even better in the second half with 19 phases and even more offloads before their latest Fijian sensation Naiyaravoro got the ball down. That the culture instilled by Townsend allows them to play in this manner despite so many absentees makes it even more impressive.
Yet they still lost this game. How did that happen?
Well, you could say it was down to a pair of, not quite controversial, but let’s settle on “contentious”, yellow card decisions. I’ll look at those more closely later.
But if the Warriors are looking to fly a second championship banner at Scotstoun this season, I think they need to look more closely at the last fifteen minutes, when they trailed on the scoreboard yet despite being a man down for ten of them they had the lion’s share of both possession and territory and couldn’t turn them into the few points they needed to get ahead.
A missed penalty that was very kickable, an overthrown dart, a pass thrown into touch, others thrown at Leinster players. One of those wrongs becomes a right and they could have won.
Wait - does this mean that Glasgow lost this rather than Leinster won it? Eh, no. I have only harped on the opposition first because I wanted to highlight what we were faced with on Friday. And it does have to be said, very few of the visitors’ mistakes were “unforced”.
Impressive as those multi-phase tries by the Warriors were, they do beg the question as to why they needed all those phases in the first place. In both cases they needed to be accurate with every carry, every offload, every clear out as the tackles were being made and the turnovers were being contested where possible.
Leading this effort once again was Josh van der Flier. 19 tackles looks great on the stat sheet but that could mean he just grabbed the man with the ball and got up again 19 times. To watch him in action tells a different story - he shows a hunger at the breakdown you want to see in a 7 and he’s not shy of a hefty carry or two either.
And he wasn’t our only source of turnovers...from centre Noel Reid to prop Marty Moore our defence did a very good job of thwarting the visitors’ advances more often than not.
But since Glasgow did manage those 18 points, we had to respond with a few of our own, and this meant we had to find a way through their defence which was every bit as hungry as ours, maybe even more so if you account for their, well let’s diplomatically call it “heightened line speed” (cough! offside! end cough!).
For the first half we seemed a bit too willing to play rugby in our own half. The exit strategies off of restarts were excellent it has to be said, and this was mostly down to the cool hand shown by Luke McGrath. What impressed me more though was how our approach evolved throughout the match.
Although the Warriors were often in Cathal Marsh’s face when he received the ball, with a clever call and decent execution he was able to get a runner beyond the front line of defenders. Other times it was his inside centre/second five-eighth Noel Reid doing one of his looping passes to his winger (one problem I have with this is that he doesn’t do diagonal grubbers often enough to keep opposing wingers honest).
These combinations were complemented by strong running by McFadden, Te’o, Ringrose and Nacewa and while our approach was different to our visitors, we were still getting ourselves in good positions. And on two occasions we found ourselves in good positions, Warriors were sin-binned, so it’s time to deal with those incidents as they pretty much led to both of our tries.
You’re probably expecting me to agree with both cards and you’d be right. Yeah, it could be my blue goggles for sure. But at least I can make a case for both, and I’d be happy to hear anything to the contrary.
First, Pat McArthur. Look - he didn’t make a tackle. He swung his arm. If it hits Aaron Dundon in the chest where he held the ball, it could well have jarred it loose and nothing would be said by anybody. But what McArthur didn’t allow for (nor could he to be fair) was that as he swung, Dundon was being lifted into the air by Sean Lamont (not illegally, mind, just part of the tackle). So rather than hit his chest he gets the Leinster hooker full in the face which slams into the turf afterwards for good measure.
No matter how tough you are, you’re going to struggle to get up after that happens to you. It wasn’t a case of “stay down!” like a soccer coach will tell you. So referee Ian Davies was absolutely right to ask the TMO to review what had happened. And upon seeing it, he described it perfectly - “reckless”. You commit to swinging your arm, you take responsibility for where it lands. And Pat did.
Leinster still had to make hay from this yellow card, however. McFadden missed the kick from the penalty and that was right on the stroke of half time so if we were to claw back the 7-point deficit we needed to come out swinging in a more legal way for the second period.
And sure enough, we did. Having won a penalty at half-way, we got an attacking lineout and a strong carry from Te’o, a looping pass from Reid, a direct run from Ringrose all led to the telescopic arm of Luke McGrath getting the ball down.
But the Warriors weren’t done, and their second try meant we had only won the sin binning by 7-5 and needed to dig a little deeper to find a way ahead of the champions. And the penalty try was just that, but we can’t discuss that without mentioning what went before.
I didn’t actually jot down the names of all the Leinster players who carried the ball in the sequence before the score but I’d be very surprised if all 15 men in blue weren’t involved at least once at some stage. It was an absolute joy to watch and if this is the level to which our game has evolved already than it bodes very well for our future. An honourable mention here must go to Isaac Boss who was heavily involved in the sequence and had a decent sift off the bench to silence the haters among some of the Leinster faithful for now.
Eventually our skipper Nacewa had the presence of mind to dink the ball forward for McFadden to chase and it was a beauty, though Ferg had Sean Lamont to contend with on one side with Naiyaravoro on the other. Just as they all get to the line, Ferg darts in under Lamont and thus could have gotten to the ball but in what was understandably an instinctive reaction, the Fijian swatted it out of his reach. Again, maybe it’s my goggles but again I think the ref was spot on after watching it back - pen try and yellow.
Ferg added the easy two to make it 20-18 and for the second time in a row at the RDS, we turned a deficit against Glasgow into a lead. But could we bring it home?
Well, we certainly weren’t perfect in doing so. Right after the penalty try Tadhg Furlong made a pathetic attempt at rolling away to hand the Warriors a gilt-edged chance...
@HarpinOnRugby Furlong doing a sea lion impression— Curates Egg (@curates_egg) October 23, 2015
...yet rather than punish the mistake, the visitors seemed to reward it by first Duncan Weir misjudging the Ballsbridge breeze on the penalty and then two of his team-mates throwing passes directly at the young prop.
Then we had James Tracy, on as a replacement for Dundon in the second half, having problems with his darts, one in a particularly good points-scoring position. To be fair, he was one of the more prolific carriers in the move which led to the pen try.
But as I said earlier not only could the Warriors not punish our mistakes, they also made too many of their own in the final few minutes, culminating in their over-eager skipper Rob Harley being pinged for side entry and McFadden widening the gap to five with the last kick of the game.
We may have had some good fortune with this win, but that cannot be said without also acknowledging we did plenty on our own side to make it a contest. There are several positions on the park where you could seriously ask yourselves if the returning test players are guaranteed their place.
Garry Ringrose was awarded Man of the Match by Shane Horgan. A nod to a fellow winger? No. Shaggy knows full well that the youngster’s future lies at 13 but he’s doing a lot of good things in the wide channel at his province for now.
Perhaps the gong could or should have gone to Luke McGrath for the try and the steadiness he showed in the early stages. Only thing that could take it from him was a feeble effort at stopping Naiyaravoro for his try (though mine would be even more feeble to be fair - he’s a big chap that Fijian!).
But what I take out of this more than anything else is that as we Irish rugby fans search for something to make us feel good about the game going forward, there seemed to be plenty there for us in all four provinces at the weekend. Munster fell just short, but only to an in form Scarlets. Ulster had another home win, and result of the weekend has to go to Pat Lam’s Connacht for pinching the spoils in Swansea, something not many teams do.
As for Cullen’s Cubs, well in this writeup you’ll have seen me talk about steady exit strategies, clever movement in the backline and hungry defence. The scrums weren’t too shabby either. That all points to one thing - decent coaching. So on our first five outings of the new campaign, it has to be a thumbs up for the new ticket.
Of course there are plenty of challenges ahead - the Treviso trip has never been easy, we’ll have another crack at the Scarlets at the RDS and then we’ve that stinker of a Euro pool. But on this performance, we can go onwards with plenty of confidence of also going upwards. JLP