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“I know you’re painting a picture and I’ve got it. I know where you’re coming from”
They didn’t happen at the same time, but what you see above represents the best quote and the best photo from what was a series of chats between the ref and the Scarlets’ skipper at the RDS on Friday night. In fact, there were times throughout this curious contest when you’d wonder if Leinster were just there as support actors in a play starring Leighton Hodges and John Barclay on the RDS stage.
Yet somehow the Scarlets were done scoring in the 33rd minute and Leinster in the 60th though the home side were able to hold out to earn the four match points on offer, and I think I’m just about right in using the word “earn”.
Let us first explore the Scarlets’ approach, which defined the match as far as I’m concerned. They haven’t had the best of luck on Irish shores in recent years, yet with six wins out of six so far in this campaign, including one over ourselves not long ago, their chances of stopping that slide looked good going into this one.
I suppose they felt they needed “that certain something extra” to get them ahead of the curve on Leinster’s home turf, and it seems they settled on an extremely aggressive approach to the breakdown area. You might think I’m highlighting that as a “moan”, but if so you’d be wrong. No matter who’s playing I love seeing a decent spot of counter-rucking and there’s no doubting Wayne Pivac’s men were well drilled in that area.
That said, committing to a policy of playing on the edge comes with risks attached, not least of which is drawing the attention of the officials, and here is where I couldn’t understand some of Hodges’ rulings.
Yes, I know - he’s Welsh as are the Scarlets so it looks like I’m about to harp on the Pro12’s policy of supposedly providing “balance” by making the visiting official from the same union as that of the visiting team. Well, it’s true I’m not a fan of this policy, and I have said it before when Irish refs have taken charge when we’re abroad, but I’m not altogether sure that’s what happened on Friday.
Basically I felt Hodges’ reluctance to consistently sanction the Scarlets was less about national interest and more about the fact that he was “played” by Barclay throughout the eighty minutes. And this isn’t meant as a criticism of the Scot nor his team. Dealing with the ref is part of the game and I wouldn’t mind Paul O’Connell’s successor as Ireland skipper being a back rower with a similar personality.
When it came to discipline on the night, it was actually Leinster who fell foul of the ref first, as Dominic Ryan swatted at Scarlet Peter Edwards. OK, maybe the prop had just administered the first bit of counter-rucking aggression on our flanker but there was nothing “too” illegal about it and Ryan’s reaction was OTT. Given all the hard work done by his hooker James Tracy (who had a fine first start for Leinster despite a dodgy dart or two) to force a turnover, the resulting penalty that eventually led to the visitors’ first try courtesy of Hadleigh Parkes made the brainfart a costly one.
But Dom was to make up for it moments later by stealing a Scarlets lineout and shortly after that, we had one of our own from which our pack, completely different from the one in Treviso five days before, made some serious yardage into the Scarlets 22 thanks to a tightly-controlled maul which was eventually hauled down by lock Jake Ball.
Some have hinted that there was a case for a penalty try but in this case I thought the ref got it right. Penalty and yellow. It’s from here that the Hodges/Barclay show takes centre stage as the number 8 makes clear his view that the binning was harsh.
From the penalty which we kicked to the corner, Isaac Boss thought he had darted over the line for a score yet was held up. So a scrum to Leinster, and a few phases afterwards the Scarlets’ out half Dan Jones grabs Boss before he gets his hands on the ball, and not exactly through the gate either. He knew what he was doing, and you’d have a hard time convincing me he wasn’t well into yellow territory.
If the yellow card system is to work, it has to be applied to challenges regardless of cards issued before or numbers already on the pitch. And as far as I’m concerned Hodges called this as “just a penalty” because he hadjust flashed a yellow. If this is true, then bizarrely a yellow somehow gives you licence to explore the “grey areas” even further? More on this later.
We took the easy points and the lead was cut to four. We weren’t doing too badly on defence ourselves it has to be said, employing our traditional tackle/jackle methods. The visitors’ aggression continued and after a couple of high tackles which the ref saw but got forgotten due to advantage, Aaron Shingler was pinged - he said Ian Madigan was “sealing off” yet Hodges ruled the Leinster 10 was actually the 9 in that instance, so we caught a break of sorts there.
Despite having his bell rung by that challenge, Madigan dusted himself off to take the points and it was 6-7. As he prepared to take the kick, another Hodges/Barclay dialogue ensues where the Scot is told (admonished? warned?) about the previous high tackles.
Now there can be no complaints about the Scarlets’ second try, just good rugby all round. A great counter-ruck to win the ball, neat offloading in the tackle, Gareth Owen over in the corner. Maybe a Leinster defender fell off a tackle or two, but for the most part our D has been solid enough to force the opposition to be nigh-on perfect to cross our line and I reckon this was an example.
Shortly after the restart, James Davies is pinged for taking out the 9. Madigan kicks the pen to get us back into within reach, and in the meantime having already spoken to Barclay about high tackles, Hodges now has a chat about the 9-taking. A high tackle by Michael Tagicakibau a few minutes later gets a “final, final” warning from the referee. So….we’re compartmentalizing the warnings, are we?
But an overthrown dart by Tracy followed by a penalty at the breakdown by Healy meant it was the Scarlets who had the next chance to score and Dan Jones made no mistake to stretch the visitors’ lead back to six and to be honest they looked pretty comfortable going into the break, and they even had a chance for another three before the teams went in only fullback Aled Thomas couldn’t make the long placekick.
Leinster badly needed one of their trademark “hit the ground running” starts to the second half and when James Davies was pinged at the breakdown and we kicked to the corner, we made good on this occasion with a series of phases which one starting prop, Cian Heal,y brought close the line for the other, Mike Ross, to get a rare five-pointer for himself. Madigan adds the extras and somehow, we’re in the lead.
Again a skipper/ref dialogue takes place...Barclay enquires about potential Leinster obstruction leading to the Ross try. This is interesting as those phases were with an advantage to the home side which could have meant another yellow though probably would have just meant another warning. But it was on 53 minutes when the ref really came into his own.
Look...as with any breakdown exchange, you can interpret what goes on in many different ways and it usually relates to what goggles you are wearing. With my blue ones unashamedly on, I think what happened at this key moment was that as Jamie Heaslip was kneeling in a “Willem Defoe in Platoon” - type position (thus not really affecting the breakdown at that point) Jake Ball went needlessly to clear him out, leading with his head, connecting with his shoulder and with minimal involvement of his arm. Oh, and it was all done in a direction that was definitely NOT “through the gate”.
If it were anyone but Jamie “Wolverine” on the receiving end of that challenge, given his position he could have been seriously injured (Rhys Webb pre RWC2015 springs to mind) - Welsh viewers probably see it otherwise, but what interested me most were the ref’s comments as he watched the replay.
“He’s used an arm there, hasn’t he?” he asks his assistant. I dunno, Leighton, has he? And was that the only thing you were looking for?
Again, I’m not saying his agenda was to help the Welsh, but I DO think his agenda was to keep two teams of fifteen on the park (I’ll let him off by assuming it wasn’t that he was avoiding another earful from Barclay).
So much like Garces/Herrera a few weeks ago, and also Barnes/Warburton in Cardiff last March, it appears a call for a second yellow was “bottled”. No doubt next week the roles could be reversed and it may favour my team, but still I feel refs should officiate the incident rather than the card count.
That’s enough on that...back to the action, such as it was...a few minutes later the Scarlets were spoken to AGAIN by the ref, this time for repeated offside. Madigan’s kick is good and now we’re the ones leading by four.
Reckon we’re done with the ref finding ways not to go back to his pocket? Wrong! Next it’s a knock-on interception situation involving Dan Jones. Again, an area open to interpretation but right away Hodges calls it as a genuine attempt to catch the ball and doesn’t even “need” the TMO this time. Whatever!!!
It was in the final few minutes when I thought Hodges showed that he was less keen to favour the Welsh team and more keen to keep the contest 15 v 15. The Scarlets had a really good chance to pinch the spoils in the closing stages but with the Leinster tackling solid throughout they needed space to get over our line.
And the way the match had been reffed up to that point, I reckon a Leinster player would have needed to produce a weapon of some sort to warrant being put in the sin bin. But to be fair to the ref, he let the play go on for that final series and eventually the ball was turned over and we were able to put the ball dead for a very useful four points.
(You’re welcome, Connacht, by the way! Westerners top of the league after seven rounds! If it’s not us, I’m delighted it’s them, they’re playing great rugby by all accounts.)
Finally...to Leinster’s display. Well, there were some good performances, by Tracy and Toner among the starters in particular. Of course it was great to see Sexton back at the RDS wearing Leinster blue - he almost marked it with a try but while this may surprise you I think Hodges pretty much got that blocking call right. Madigan kicked his goals though didn’t cope too well at first receiver with the Scarlets in his face.
But despite my obvious satisfaction at picking up a win from such a bruising encounter, this was such a piecemeal Leinster XV (made more so by the departure of Kearney and his replacement by Te’o who later in turn was replaced by Sexton) that I have been left with no clue as to how we’re going to line up next week. Though if I have no clue, chances are the Wasps don’t, either and that won’t help their preparation.
Perhaps one lesson we can take from Friday night is how important talking to the ref can be? Because without Barclay’s persistence I’m not sure his team would have come away with a losing bonus. Maybe Johnny can use the French he picked up on Mathieu Raynal when he’s holding the whistle next week.
On a more serious note, five wins from seven matches is a more than decent start to our campaign and Leo et al should be proud. Of course Europe is another level altogether and it remains to be seen how we’ll get on in that stinker of a pool we’re in, but apart from a few niggly areas I don’t see much more that could be done with this squad of players through testing times and we’ve every reason to feel good about the road ahead. JLP