Monday, November 23, 2015

Bath-19 Leinster-16

bath-european-champions-cup_3379659

REC AND RUIN

logo post blue(Tweet 1) “No scrum, no lineout, no possession, no win.”

(Tweet 2) “No points.”

I often get accused, if that’s the right word, of going about these Leinster & Ireland writeups wearing rose-coloured glasses.

Of course you only have so much control over what people think of you, and no doubt there is a fair amount of fire to go with the smoke, but I can assure you being optimistic for the sake of it is far from my goal when I write these pieces.

It’s naive I know, but I try to actually harp on the 80 minutes of a particular match, unashamedly as a fan of my team, but also with the aim of analyzing what actually happened as opposed to selecting an extreme narrative and somehow sculpting my description of the action to suit it. 

Take the two tweets quoted above.  They were posted shortly after full time on Saturday.  I won’t name the posters because it is merely a teeny tiny sample of a general sentiment being put out there by some Leinster fans.  Comments from others included phrases like “clueless”, “abysmal” and “very disappointing”, and of course the head coach’s credentials were called into question more than once.

Just to be clear - I’m not highlighting these views to ridicule, only to disagree.  And I certainly can’t blame people for their thoughts going in that direction...it was a short turnaround from the nightmare we witnessed at the RDS last Sunday so it would be quite a challenge to watch us play Bath without carrying the Wasps game along for reference.

But the reason I went for those particular ones is that they highlight what I’m saying about losing sight of what actually happened in the quest for a good soundbite sequence.  The “no points” refers to match points and Leinster actually got one.  All I want to do here is make a case that on events at the Rec we at least deserved that.  Maybe that’s blind optimism, maybe it’s not.

So with the above paragraphs in mind, here’s my take on a few headings I felt summarized what went on from kickoff to the final whistle...

SCRUM’S THE WORD

I remember my Leaving Cert History paper like it was only yesterday.  I had this essay on one particular topic (I won’t name it keep the politics away) all set to go in my head and scribbling it down from the off was a perfect way to get me settled to answer the other questions.  That was a bit of a gamble though, as I was banking on the topic actually appearing on the paper - thankfully it did.

Bath under Mike Ford have made a name for themselves as being a team that bucks the trend of the “bosh it up the middle” style of rugby for which the Premiership is well known.  And just last April at the Aviva we saw exactly what Mike’s son George and his backline can do when given even half a chance.

On this occasion, however, it seems they decided to go in a different direction altogether.  Maybe it was out of respect for the return of Messrs Sexton & Nacewa, maybe it was a nod to our general standards on defence, or maybe it was just to catch us off guard, but it is abundantly clear that the home side went “all-in” on the scrum as an area to gain an edge.  What’s more, it worked a treat.

And given how many internationals are in our tight eight, you would have thought that might be quite the gamble, but clearly Ford and his assistants including Toby Booth saw something in the DVD sessions (more of which, no doubt, involved Ireland matches rather than Leinster) which they felt they could target.

It’s also a risky strategy because you can’t always be sure the ref is with you.  In the 2014 Pro12 Grand Final, Ulster let some scrums on our line go hoping for a penalty try but John Lacey was having none of it.  On this occasion, we had Jerome Garces who seemed to fall between two stools, on the one hand insisting that Bath “use it” while still eventually awarding them the pen more than once.

But even that’s not the biggest way in which it was a gamble putting their eggs in the scrum basket.  Much like my history paper, you can do all the preparation you like, but if you’re not asked the right questions on the day of reckoning, your answers are useless.  And it has to be said Bath had a perfect storm on Saturday.

Fifteen scrums altogether on the day, of which TWELVE were Bath put-ins.  And even though most of those came from Leinster knock-ons, not all were full-blown “errors”, like one where Luke Fitzgerald did a super “strip tackle” only for the ball to be fly into Devin Toner’s chest.

And on the mere three occasions Leinster had the feed, one was perfectly controlled by Heaslip (not for the first time a victim of baseless criticism after the match) to win a pen, one ended up as decent front foot ball for us, and while the middle one did end up as a Bath pen, that was as much from a failure of Sean Cronin to hook the ball as it was from the home side’s shove.

So to re-cap...I am not suggesting for a moment that Bath’s superior scrum wasn’t a factor, and this is definitely an area we need to look at it because you can be sure other teams will take notice.  But while this was an ongoing scrum war which the well-drilled home side did win well, all I’m saying is that we did at least win a few battles along the way.

Yet even without this dominance, we still had decent chances to pinch this contest, and our failure to take them had nothing to do with scrums.

MAKING THE BIG DECISION

The best players and teams know when to back themselves to get the job done even when the accuracy levels need to be high.  So it could be said that Johnny Sexton going for a three pointer at the furthest extreme of his range, together with Devin Toner calling for a lineout to anyone but himself at a critical moment, were both prime examples of this.

And when those decisions don’t work out, naturally it makes easy meat for those looking to criticise.  Still, I’m happy enough tucking into that easy meat.

We had just scored an awesome try with some awesome front foot ball.  Bath in turn were on the back foot and I’m not so sure they had that much left in the tank had we kept up the pressure.  So there is plenty to support that particular penalty (ironically won by a good Leinster shove on a Bath put in I might add) being kicked to the corner. 

Instead Sexton went for the posts and after his kick fell short, Bath ran it back to half-way.  Our try-scorer Van der Flier was one of our unlucky knockon victims after we turned it over and from the resulting scrum the Premiership outfit rediscovered their mojo one last time to give Ford the chance to snatch the lead for good.

But we STILL had one more chance.  I had almost forgotten that Niko Matawalu had gone to Bath and he’s often one for giving you a way back into a match.  A needless behind the back pass as the clock ticked down gave us a turnover and shortly afterwards a high tackle on Dave Kearney earned Faosiliva a yellow card and more importantly an attacking lineout for Leinster on Bath’s 22.  Again, some decent front foot ball would have given us every opportunity to win.

The second Sexton’s kick found touch I starting saying out loud over and over and over : “Just. Win The. Lineout.”  Maybe, just maybe, there was a colourful adjective or two before the word “lineout”.  We have often been in this situation before with both Leinster and Ireland, yet earlier in this contest I was heartened by our willingness to try something different with this set piece and it very nearly got Sean Cronin the length of the pitch for a score.

But all this particular lineout needed was one of our easiest high-percentage plays.  And to be honest, with what actually transpired I have no idea what was called, but the result was that it got gobbled up by Stuart Hooper and that was that.

TENACIOUS D

So scrums & decision making were bad areas for Leinster that ultimately cost us.  But it certainly wasn’t all bad on our side of things, even when you avoid comparisons from the previous outing.

I thought are general defence was extremely solid and the difference made by the Fitzgerald/Te’o axis at centre was key.  Ben was like a man possessed from the kickoff but while few 13s at this level would take that many risks anticipating hits he was impressively accurate when he did.

Let me put it this way about our D....Bath totally needed every bit of that front row dominance to get just one 5-pointer against us, because touching the ball down over our line didn’t seem like an option.

THE WAY FORWARD

And I also saw a lot of opinion that we were poor with the ball,  I’m not exactly sure where that came from?  Sure, we were behind overall on both possession and territory but particularly in the second half we looked very good at times with the ball, and not just after the young trio of Tracy, Luke McGrath and van der Flier took the field either, though all were heavily involved in the try.

The rest of the time we seemed to be employing a territory game that relied on little kicks finding both space and kick-chasers and for the most part it was getting results, if only until a knock on or equally good defence from the home side halted our advance.

SO….WHAT NOW?

Wasps’ tonking of Toulon certainly has mixed things up in this pool, but I doubt it’s in a good way for Leinster. 

Does this mean our season is over and have the results somehow proven that Leo isn’t up to the job?  Or to put it another way - is my “Rec and Ruin” headline meant to be ironic or not?  To be honest, I’m not sure if those questions even warrant an answer, although they are most certainly being asked in some quarters.

I’m not saying there’s nothing for us to work on.  Although Leo has brought many young players through to the senior team, I think he could do more.  Certainly Garry Ringrose’s matchday role could be more than waterboy, though I wouldn’t want to tinker with our centre pairing any more once everyone is fit.

We could certainly do with a poaching openside and if Seanie isn’t available I think van der Flier is well worth a punt, if you could even call it that as he has done plenty to prove his readiness.  What’s more, Dan Leavy looked well out of place in a good way for the A side on Friday night.

As for Leinster’s “elite” players, they have gone from a World Cup environment where their coach had the mentality “right lads, I’ve been doing this for a while and I know what I want...do this, this and this and we can put ourselves in a position to win” to one where the coach is going “right lads, I’ve only been doing this for a year, I also know what I want but I’m counting on you guys to help me out” in a very short space of time.

Is this meant as an excuse?  Absolutely not.  They are professionals and should be able to make the transition.  And they have clearly struggled with this in the past couple of weeks.

All I’m saying is that there was enough evidence in this particular Leinster display to suggest that the Wasps scoreline could one day be downgraded from “unfixable debacle” to “blip”. 

It will take a few more outings to fully convince of that mind you, and our fixture list certainly won’t be getting easier any time soon, but for the time being, unlike some who were heading for the exits at the RDS last Sunday before the 60 minute mark, it’s well worth sticking around and backing the boys in blue, as did those who helped create a “Rec”-ord rugby attendance in Bath on Saturday.  JLP

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