Before Leinster first won the Heineken Cup in 2009, oddly enough it wasn’t the lack of European success that was most frustrating for me as a fan. It was actually the ever-increasing amount of times the province was described as a “sleeping giant”.
Thankfully the good times came and the phrase no longer applied to us...at least until one of the next teams to assume the mantle, Toulon, did an even better job of making it redundant.
So to keep the slumber metaphors going, it could be said that the Wasps game a couple of weeks ago was something of a “wake up call” for us, though maybe the question we need to ask ourselves isn’t so much about the “sleeping” part as it is about the “giant” - are we still one when it comes to European rugby?
This particular Leinster/Ulster matchup was a chance for both teams to bounce back after defeats by Premiership opposition. And as I said in my preview, there were also subplots going on in different categories...some are still picking themselves up after the World Cup, some are keen to show they should have gone and some are keen to show they’re strong candidates to be going to the next one.
All of the above means that you didn’t even need the whole “oldest interprovincial rivalry” spiel to sell this match. There was so much at stake for the two sides, this was an occasion that could sell itself.
Well, if that wasn’t enough to make you go to the RDS or at least watch it live, were you to find out that not only was the final score 8-3 but so was the half-time one, you might be forgiven for thinking that you didn’t miss much. Well, you’d have been wrong.
I was never too much of a believer in the adage “attack is the best form defence”. For me, in any team sport you won’t build anything close to a championship-winning side without a solid defensive base.
Last week, Leinster fell just short against a team coached by Mike Ford, the man who pretty much introduced Irish Rugby to the modern techniques of playing without the ball. And this week, we faced a team now coached by Les Kiss, who brought it all to the next level.
But while our scrum did certainly did have its issues over in the Rec, the home side needed every bit of that set-piece advantage to scrape a victory by just 3 points. And this week, though our opposition was even tougher to break down, we still finished the game on top.
Why? Because we’ve got Kurt McQuilkin back and after 8 rounds of this season’s Pro12 Leinster have the best defence in the league. (And if you’re wondering how 33 points shipped v Wasps supports my theory of good defence, a chunk of those were down to mistakes in other areas and besides, our general form both before that day and since makes the display look more and more like a blip)
OK, I get it...defence certainly isn’t the sexiest thing about watching rugby. Unless it’s people getting the stuffing knocked out of them, we don’t see a whole lot of “gifs” and YouTube compilations featuring defensive action. I very much doubt there’s too many gathering around the water cooler on Monday harping on Marty Moore’s turnover after 57 minutes.
But you know what? Maybe they should be. You could say Moore’s speed getting over the ball and locking his body position won us the four match points every bit as much as Sean Cronin’s try did.
Of course it’s a no-brainer that you need to put points on the scoreboard to win matches. Still though - if you can restrict your opposition to just three and be pretty safe in the knowledge that even after another eighty minutes they probably wouldn’t have crossed your line, that has to be a good thing you can build on.
And to fully appreciate the defence, you’ll only get so much from the tackling stats. Yes, they show Josh van der Flier led the way with a whopping 18, Heaslip and Madigan with 12 and James Tracy 11 off the bench. But you have to see what I call the “fifteen-headed blue monster” in action to fully appreciate what it can do.
It’s about the covering, the positioning, the line speed, everyone working for each other and making sure their channel doesn’t get breached. And it’s about making those tackles in the 80th minute as well as the 1st. It’s a commitment to putting your body on the line. Plus, of course, what made this game even more interesting for us defensive nerds was the fact that Ulster were almost just as good, with the “almost” being key.
I actually think a scoreline like 15-6 would have been a better reflection of what went on - doesn’t seem all that much different I know it it would have meant an extra try for us and denied the visitors a losing bonus.
First, let’s look at the try we did get. It came as much from a determination to banish demons from the weeks gone by as it did from anything else. The scoreline was 3-3 but we were well in the ascendancy, and we started passing up kickable penalties to get the ball over their line.
Anyone who has watched Leinster in recent weeks could be forgiven for pulling their hair out when an attacking lineout was stolen by Robbie Diack - this wasn’t the first time we’d failed to secure a set piece in this situation. I’m willing to give them a pass for this, however, as it was our only set-piece set-back on the night...after all that happened last week, 14/15 at lineouts and especially 9/9 on our scrums are stats not to be sneezed at.
But shortly after, when Eoin Reddan, on for Luke McGrath who had big Nick Williams of all people land on his leg, made an opportunistic dart up the touchline which caught the Ulster D off guard momentarily, they were pinged for offside. Again we went for the corner and at this stage of the contest, it was pretty much imperative that we crossed.
The way this match turned out, the actual try is something of an aberration in that we made it look so simple. Lineout, catch, maul, drive over the line, Sean Cronin dots it down. Nothing we didn’t deserve, but still a massive relief for the Leinster faithful who had resisted the urge to go Black Friday shopping.
A few more points on the board may have made the crowd feel better about braving the cold, but it wasn’t to be - the second half followed a pattern of chances for the home side being thwarted by Ulster tackling here, Leinster mistakes there.
Though to be fair to Ben Te’o, while the line was at his mercy, to say “all he had to do was catch the pass from Sexton” doesn’t really get across just how fast the ball was coming to him. It needed to be fizzed it’s true, but all I’m saying is that it would have been tough for anyone to take cleanly.
Later it was down to Rory Best to thwart us as he brilliantly held up Josh van der Flier over the line. Shortly after that, Eoin Reddan just plain dropped it after a scrum and from there the game kind of fizzled out...unfortunately that was only the 60th minute!!!!
But as I have said, there was plenty for both sides to take from the occasion. Ulster never looked like troubling the scorers and their halfbacks have definitely had better outings together, but they did impress in several defensive scenarios particularly in scrums in their own 22, employing Williams off the base and clearing with relative ease each time.
And in Rory Best I think we may have our best choice as Ireland captain, at least for the time being. The Jamie Heaslip negativity train keeps rolling on in many quarters and I really don’t want to add to it, but personally I feel he is a player better suited to getting on with his own game rather than having to focus on captaincy duties as well.
Best is a better “ref handler” the way I see it - even the way he avoided a penalty when dropping his shoulder in a ruck in a similar fashion to Mike McCarthy earlier on shows he’s a good candidate for the role. The best skippers get away with more, just ask Messrs McCaw & Warburton ;-)
Going back to Leinster’s side of the equation, Mike McCarthy is as good a place to start as any. Seemed to play his part in our scrum stability but his general play around the pitch is what impressed most of all. He’s as close to a Nathan Hines replacement as we’ve had when he’s on his game which he certainly seems to be now.
Then there’s Josh van der Flier. It doesn’t look like it will be long before we can stop telling those around us “he’s the bloke in the red scrum cap”. Many impressed for the A side in recent B&I Cup campaigns but few have made the step up to senior level look so effortless. Say what you like about the abundance of back row talent at Leo Cullen’s disposal - Josh looks like he belongs and it would be tough to leave him out even with the tricky schedule coming up.
And Johnny Sexton? Well we definitely did see a lot more flashes of brilliance from him on Friday but I still think he hasn’t quite settled back into his second spell at Leinster just yet. The wraparound with Madigan looks more effective and despite the questionable abbreviations I’d like to see this 10/12 combo kept together. That said, they probably used it once too often and eventually it was easily read by the Ulster D, and from an overall attacking perspective I think we were probably trying too hard to make things happen if anything. The decision making needs to be better.
But on a weekend when Irish rugby got to retreat into its own bubble to see where it stands, while Connacht definitely took the top honours and thoroughly deserve their place atop the Pro12 table, both teams on Friday had plenty of positives to take away and you have to assume Munster can find a way to fix what was a disappointing outing particularly in the first half.
Returning to my original question...are Leinster still a giant in European rugby? Well...my answer is yes, but these days, that’s relative. With the shift in financial power across the three domestic league in recent years, the continent now has a lot more giants vying for the biggest prize.
One rugby drama that is unfolding these days, only not entirely before our eyes, is that of contract negotiations, and tis the season when our pulling power is tested to the full now more than ever. Leinster may be giants, but if we’re not careful we might find ourselves sleeping for an even longer period down the line if we let too much talent get away.
But as for Leo Cullen and his squad, they have to focus on the here and now, with trips to two reigning champions, Glasgow and Toulon, on the horizon. What we get from those travels could have a significant bearing on how the season will go, not to mention how many bums will go on seats at the Aviva for the return against the reigning champions.
If we keep our defensive standards where they are now, we’ll give ourselves every chance and not a whole lot of teams say that these days when visiting either Scotstoun or the Stade Mayol. JLP