From all the much-deserved plaudits and admiration currently being offered in the All Blacks’ direction after the weekend, one common message stands out - if any other nation wants to get their hands on “Bill”, what we saw from Steve Hansen’s men on Saturday and indeed throughout the World Cup represented the level at which the bar now stands.
And this is how sport should work - whenever greatness emerges it’s up to everyone else to rise to meet it. Of course not everyone is going to make it to the top, but at the very least you would hope to see progress as time goes on.
This should apply to the Guinness Pro 12 every bit as much as it does the World Cup. Obviously I’m not saying the standard should be the same in both competitions - what I mean is that once a level is identified then if anyone isn’t showing any signs of heading towards it then conversations need to happen about whether they belong.
I’m opening with this subject because as happy as I am with five league points gained away from the RDS for Leinster, I can’t harp on the match without first pointing out just how poor the home side was on the day.
“Treviso will be relieved to be off that horrible zero mark in front of their home crowd” said Ieuan Evans in the Sky commentary box after Justin Hayward slotted a penalty after 7 minutes. That was to be their last score of the afternoon!
Of course it’s very possible that this is was a once-off from Treviso, and there is plenty of evidence to support that theory - despite the fact it was their 6th defeat on the bounce this season, four of those came with a losing bonus. Plus there’s the fact that in previous years they always seemed to be ready for the challenge when the boys in blue came to town.
But the way they played on Sunday gave me the impression that they thought of themselves as beaten the moment they saw the Leinster matchday squad. Even when you know you’re outgunned you don’t want to go down without a fight, particularly in front of your home crowd, yet I felt they did on this occasion.
Half-hearted tackles, poor decision making, clumsy ball control...not only are Treviso meant to be competing within the league but as a tournament the Pro 12 has to do what it can to at least try to keep up with the Top 14 and Premiership. Of course, on a broader note, the sport of rugby union itself is competing with others for public attention and I’m not sure that a full programme of European domestic fixtures on the same weekend as the World Cup final sends the best message, but that’s steering too far away from the topic at hand...
Am I being unfair to Leinster? Well I don’t mean to be. It’s not that I’m trying to take anything from the win, I’m just trying to describe what I felt actually happened. As the saying goes, you can “only play what’s before you”, and we did just that and got the maximum return; what’s more, despite Treviso’s defensive failings, all four tries were easy on the eye.
The first from Jack McGrath was the one that impressed me the most. OK - maybe I would say that having been a loose-head myself way back in the day but as well as the neat support lines & offloads (particularly the last one from Cronin) that helped set it up there was the way the chance was created - deep territory kick from Sexton, quick throw off the clearance by Dave Kearney and nine strong phases to create the space.
So the perfect start for the visitors, but then suddenly an interception, a poor kick forward by Ben Te’o and ultimately a yellow card offence by Sexton made the outcome look like it could well be a different one altogether.
That blatant pull back by our returning star was unlike him, yet you don’t need a degree in human behaviour to understand it. No Irishman was happy to see what transpired against Argentina but it had to hurt the likes of Johnny and Paulie the most and while there are certainly better ways to get frustration out of your system, I’m hoping that incident has taken care of his.
From there the home side had ten minutes to make the most out of having the extra man but they could find no way past our defence. Again I’m more likely to fault Treviso than credit ourselves for this - though we have been strong on D so far this season (only Ulster and Edinburgh, both below us on the Pro12 table, have conceded fewer tries so far) I don’t think we needed to extend ourselves too much yesterday to keep the Italians at bay.
And shortly after Sexton returned to the field, we had the most curious decision of the day. You’re underdogs, you’re 3-7 down and you win a very kickable penalty. Now I’m nowhere near the “always take the three” camp - generally I’m all in favour of backing yourself to get the try. But in that situation, even I felt the easy-three was a no brainer.
In fact I’m probably doing the home side a dis-service here (as if I haven’t done enough of that already) but I’m not 100% sure they knew Sexton was back on the pitch when they made that call! Anyway - go for the try they did, and to be fair, a Treviso player DID get the ball down over the Leinster line but only amid a mass of bodies and way too close to the touchline for comfort. A few plays later and Leinster were able to clear the danger and our line was not to be threatened again on the day.
One big downer in the first half was the sight of Luke Fitzgerald leaving the pitch prematurely. We’ve been down this road so often I’m afraid to say anything but “fingers crossed” ahead of the Tuesday squad update!
It still took us a while to get ourselves back on the scoreboard, however. A McFadden penalty on 33m stretched the lead back to seven and a particularly bonehead penalty conceded by the home side in the 40th minute gave us one more chance at an attacking lineout just outside the 22; and once again the gap in class was evident as a perfectly judged crossfield kick from Sexton was taken brilliantly by Dave Kearney who had his skipper Nacewa in support to take it the rest of the way.
So there we were with a comfortable halftime lead and every reason to believe that a bonus point was on the cards. At one point early in the second half we were the ones to spurn an easy three, yet while it would have taken us over the “magic” 14-point cushion, on this occasion it probably made sense to go for the corner as it was clear the home side were “there for the taking”.
Again we went a decent spell without troubling the scorers but on 56m Noel Reid charged at the Treviso line of defenders and managed an offload to Jordi Murphy around a seemingly disinterested Luke McLean (bizarrely his side’s top tackler on the day) and from there it went to Jack Conan who was able to canter over the line for try number 3.
It wasn’t long before we were on their line again and this time it looked as though Conan was going to put Strauss over only from Treviso winger Nitoglia to deliberately knock on - a yellow all day long.
You could say it was the extra man that accounted for Ben Te’o dotting down for the bonus point try. You could also say that it was the rugby league convert having one of his best displays for Leinster both with and without the ball. Both are plausible theories but again I’m leaning more towards the home side’s apathy - let’s just say we won’t come up against tackles like that in the Champions Cup.
And it’s that very same European competition that has me playing down this Leinster victory. We did what we had to do on the day, and it was a good productive outing for our returning internationals, but when it comes to reading anything else into the result, I can’t see that much.
One last negative point about our Italian hosts on the day - just who thought Eoin Reddan was our man of the match needs to have his credentials checked. Our scrum half was far from awful, but there were certainly better displays and I honestly think he was given the gong from one quick tap and go which (to be fair) earned us a good chunk of territory in the first half. I think a more trained eye would have gone for Te’o or anyone from our back row, probably Conan.
Also Hayden Triggs seemed to slot into our operations relatively seamlessly and Cathal Marsh looked determined to make the most of his brief appearance towards the end. Top tacklers on the day were Tadhg Furlong and Mike McCarthy with 11 apiece.
But I feel I have harped on that match way more than was necessary - when it comes to “what’s ahead of us”, here’s our schedule between this coming Friday and New Year’s Day - Scarlets h, Wasps h, Ulster a, Glasgow a, Toulon a, Toulon h, Munster a, Connacht h. The only teams currently in the bottom half of their domestic league are the ones we are to face in Europe and we know full well all three will be different propositions.
So - what kind of lineup should we have when Wasps come to town? Funny you should ask…
HarpinOnRugby Leinster matchday 23 to play Wasps -
15 R Kearney 14 D Kearney 13 L Fitzgerald 12 I Madigan 11 I Nacewa (c) 10 J Sexton 9 L McGrath
1 J McGrath 2 S Cronin 3 M Ross 4 D Toner 5 M McCarthy 6 R Ruddock 7 S O’Brien 8 J Heaslip
16 R Strauss 17 C Healy 18 M Moore 19 H Triggs 20 J Murphy 21 E Reddan 22 B Te’o 23 F McFadden
Z Kirchner C Kelleher C O’Shea N Reid M McGrath C Marsh I Boss
M Bent A Dundon T Furlong T Denton R Molony D Ryan J van der Flier J Conan
Honourable mention - D Leavy, P Dooley, J Tracy.
There might be a couple of eyebrow-raisers there...not least of which is Te’o on the bench. Here’s my reasoning - though normally I’m not an advocate of always going for the Irishman for the sake of it, I think in Ben we have an exception.
While I have no doubt he is a quality player and can do great things for us, I firmly believe he’ll be leaving Leinster at the end of this season. This is because I doubt we’ll be able to match the offers that will be coming in from elsewhere. So if (and only if) that is the case then we have to prioritize alternatives for that position now, rather than later. There has been too much uncertainty over that particular jumper as it is.
Down the line, Garry Ringrose is the heir apparent, but for now, provided of course he is fit, and assuming Sexton and Madigan are earmarked for “five-eighths” roles, then I’d want Luke playing in Europe at 13 which would give us Te’o as an awesome attacking option off the bench. Plus, I doubt Joe Schmidt would mind seeing Fitz getting some more big match game time at centre either.
Another Luke I’d have in the starting team is McGrath. I’m always in favour of putting at least one younger player into the “deep end” once there’s experience around him and there’s plenty of that at Leinster. And it’s not like I’m saying Reddan hasn’t a role to play but I think a 60/20 split of time from the pair of 9s in this order would be the more effective for us.
I have added a “Hard done by XV” - now that doesn’t necessarily mean I feel all of them will feel aggrieved but certainly at least ten of those names wouldn’t look out of place in European competition, so it’s not as though we are greatly lacking in options this weather.
This coming Friday we will have our biggest test of the season so far as the league-leading Scarlets come to town. Normally it’s Munster who give us our last challenge before Europe but the men from Llanelli won’t be far off it as we have already seen ourselves this season.
Perhaps the World Cup is over but the quality rugby most certainly is not, and as a Leinster fan I’m very much looking forward to what lies before us. JLP