Monday, December 21, 2015

Leinster-16 Toulon-20

Before I start, a warning...there may be a reference or two in this writeup to a certain movie I saw on Saturday.  Hey - Leinster’s starting centres were called Luke and Ben, so how could I avoid them?  But absolutely no spoilers, I promise.  And to those who cross the street to avoid Star Wars, well, tough, I suppose, but it’s only for this week.

I remember the last weekend of April 2003 very well.  Met some friends out in Maynooth on the Friday, had a few beers & laughs, stayed over and the next morning after a hearty breakfast we set off to Dublin for the Heineken Cup semifinal at Lansdowne Road.

You see, that was to be Leinster’s year to break through.  We had the talent, we had home advantage, the final was also to be at HQ, and up to the final quarter on the day we even had the lead against our French opposition.  

That’s when our fortunes began to go over to the Dark Side.  Generally French clubs aren’t supposed to care much for travelling but Perpignan hadn’t gotten that memo and we were all stunned as they came back to win making for an all-French final in Dublin.

Meanwhile, Racing Club Toulon were on their way to finishing 10th in the second tier of French rugby.

Needless to say, that was a long time ago.   And while last Saturday’s game was in the same physical location, the realities of the game are in a galaxy far, far away.  

These days it’s a different stadium, there are different expectations from Irish sides, and most of all Toulon are the ones setting the standards in European rugby, having won the first of their three European titles in another all-French final in Dublin.

But before I harp on the match in question, I have to point out what a great time I had on Saturday regardless of the result, just as I had back in ‘03.  The awesomeness of seeing a certain new instalment of a movie saga that I have been enjoying since I was a schoolboy did play a part in my enjoyment it’s true, but so did the rugby occasion.  

Walking from Odeon Cinemas at the Point to the Aviva means you turn one corner and there it is, an impressive sight that gets the Force of anticipation flowing through you.  

On to the pub for pre-match drinks, a bit of grub and chat as you see the familiar faces filtering in.  Thankfully the clientele bear no resemblance to those in a typical watering hole on Tatooine.

On into the ground where a large group of schoolboys were cheering “Leinster Leinster” long before they got into their seats.  That’s the spirit, I thought.  I found their presence of faith inspiring.

On to my own seat and I got a decent shot of Leo Cullen watching his troops warm up.  Then the Leinster names get called out and there are cheers from the crowd for every one...including a big shout for Johnny Sexton.

Then Kevin McLaughlin is introduced to the crowd to a warm reception...tragic that his career was cut so short and it was great for him to have gotten the recognition.

Finally, my favourite non-rugby-action-related moment of the day...the sight of so few empty seats at kick off.  It wasn’t capacity, there were a few gaps in the crowd, but nowhere near as many as I’d feared there would be.  

JJ Abrams did extremely well with his movie, of that there is no doubt, but he still knew the bums would be on the cinema seats in their droves whatever he did.  For 45,000 fans to show up in the Aviva despite the prevailing media narrative that we’re in crisis shows that I’m far from the only one who feels these are occasions not to be missed.

OK - now to the action.  16-5 to Leinster at half time - there isn’t a side in Europe that wouldn’t be happy with that scoreline into the break against this opposition.  But for me it’s misleading.  I think we should have been ahead by more.  Of course, as things turned out, we needed to be, but it wasn’t all our own doing.

We started with plenty of intent, taking every opportunity to get on the front foot.  Sometimes, this intent was too strong.  Eoin Reddan’s quick tap penalty was admirable for sure but only until he threw a pass over the touchline.  

But still we kept the pressure on and not for the first time this season our early efforts were both promising and productive.  And after all that happened last Sunday, Johnny Sexton badly needed to make his first place kick, which he did.

Then after a good hit by McCarthy and a Luke Fitzgerald boot downfield, our  pressure forces Duane Vermeulen to thwart our attack in their 22, and although I was screaming for a yellow I was surprised that Wayne Barnes actually gave it.  So this is the standard for no-nos in the 22?  In some ways I was worried for our boys later on in the match as we had 3 binned last week.

But for the rest of the first half there was only one side shipping the penalties.  And in that time, the yellow card’s appearance turned out to be a cameo.

With a penalty advantage already pending, Bryan Habana shot out and stopped Eoin Reddan from passing.  That could’ve been yellow.  The penalty try that we were actually awarded?  That could’ve been yellow.  More penalties at the breakdown throughout the half...we’re being given them alright, but still no warning.  And right before the break, what about Toulon fullback and pantomime villain wannabe Delon Armitage?  I just got the sense that we were meant to be somehow grateful for the one sin binning.  

Now, to be fair, I’m not assuming that if Toulon HAD lost another man, even with one already gone, that we would have definitely scored.   Whatever we did with the ball it has to be said that the Toulon D has itself been solid throughout these two games.  I feel my argument is strong for them deserving another yellow or at least a warning but I’ll concede there’s a pinch of desperation in there as well!

So there we were, eleven points ahead, but with 40 minutes still to play.  Obviously as we watched the halftime minis get their 15m of fame, we had no idea what was said in the dressing room.  

We have since found out what was said by Bernard Laporte to his stormtroopers, for he was understandably happy to tell the media afterwards.  "I told them that they were not dangerous but we gifted them points. In the second half, they scored no points."

It wasn’t quite as straightforward as that, yet while he was probably being something of a Sith by saying it (movie reference or typo? you decide) he did have a point.

Many are saying we are going into matches without a game plan.  This, of course, is ludicrous, and the people who go for this are generally the ones still trying to get the oval peg into a round hole by comparing Leo Cullen to Steve Staunton.

We had a very definite game plan last week, and it was a good one.  We also had a very definite game plan this week, and it was in many ways an even better one.  Clearly for the most part the work done on the training pitches is bearing some fruit, though the accuracy could be a little better.  

That said, your strategy at kickoff only gets you so far, and our difficulty in scoring in the second half is becoming a real concern.  There’s a whole team of coaches working against you, and once they see what you’re doing, especially if it has your team ahead, they are going to counter.

In the first half one of our most productive sequences saw Rob Kearney kick the ball high about 15-odd metres and catch it himself.  Brilliant front foot ball for us, no doubt there.  But in the second, it looked to all intents and purposes that our strategy was “see what Rob did?  let’s keep doing that”.

As the box kicks kept coming, I genuinely said to myself “I have a bad feeling about this”.

Be it restarts or open play, we kept going to the kick when we had the ball even when we were in our own half - the gain was always minimal, the risk was always high, and the reward was usually non-existent.  Maybe, just maybe, if Dave Kearney was able to take one perfectly-weighted crossfield kick cleanly we’d have a different result, but we’ll never know.

What I’m saying is that if you’re 11 points behind, maybe these are the gambles you need to take.  But when you’re ahead by more than a score against the European champions,  even at home, if you must kick you’d better be sure they go long to get as many of your opposition turned as you possibly can.

To put it another way, and indeed to keep with the theme of this week’s writeup, during that second half I wanted to wave my hand towards the coaches’ box and say “these aren’t the tactics you’re looking for”.

But before the “Leo must go” merchants see my analysis as vindication, let me be clear.  For two weeks in a row Leo Cullen’s Leinster have given Bernard Laporte’s Toulon a puzzle to solve.  Did they solve it both times?  Absolutely.  Does that mean we can’t work on our game management in future matches?  Absolutely not.

I think I have done pretty well to get this far down the writeup without mentioning the Leinster defence.  But I’m still gonna, because once more it was superb.  Toulon ground out three tries against us, it’s true, but to do that they had to squeeze the living daylights out of us in the second half, and if many more teams on the continent can manage that I’d be very surprised.

And all of those tries came from set pieces in our own 22 (one of the main reasons it was madness for us to keep the ball around the middle of the park).  When it came to standard possession, even with perennial line breakers Nonu and Bastareaud on board, there was no space to be had.

Our starting centres had another impressive spell together, but unfortunately Ben was struck down towards the end of the first half, though this didn’t take too much from our D, with our crowning glory being an whopping 18-phase denial in the 50th minute that ended in a choke tackle.

Yet again, top of the tackling charts was Josh van der Flier.  He was unlucky not to be awarded his second European try as Wayne ran under the posts instead but the young Paduan more than made up for it with 19.  

Sexton chipped in with double figures, Jamie got another dozen that no doubt will be ignored since a lot of people seem to think he’s only good for carbon freezing, and supersub of the week was definitely Marty Moore with 12 plus a turnover to go with no problems on his side of the scrum.

The biggest compliment to our defensive efforts was Toulon’s decision to kick for the posts on 73m.  Remember - they need every bonus point they can get after getting thumped by Wasps in their first match much like we did, so the kick for the corner going for try number four had to be on their radar.  Yet the clearly knew they were more confident of preventing us getting a try than they were of getting one against our defence.

I’d say the sequence that best describes our fortunes involved Sean Cronin.  One minute he does a superb last-ditch try-saving tackle on Drew Mitchell...the next he somehow manages to overthrow Devin Toner, and not for the first time.  It was like he was instructed to "Execute Order 66"!

(Yeah, I know, I’m kinda overdoing the references...don’t worry, I’m almost finished)

Of course that wasn’t our only mistake to lead to a try.  Isa took a gamble ahead of the first try shooting out of the line.  And there were mistakes which possibly could have led to points for us, like when Zane Kirchner threw a no-look pass when he probably should have looked.  

What I wanted from this back to back series was some kind of a sign that while our European ambitions may have been already gone, we at least had something to build on for the rest of the Pro12 campaign.  And I believe anyone who says they haven’t seen positives either isn’t looking or just doesn’t want to find them.

Yet with Munster also falling short twice against fellow former champions, the blame game is bound to continue around the ruggersphere over the Christmas period.  Ulster’s superb double over Toulouse doesn’t fit this category so no doubt it will be ignored, as will Connacht’s Pro12 success.  If only there was one who could somehow bring balance to the journalistic universe...

Never mind -  they can say what they like.  I had a great day being a fan on Saturday and I firmly believe there is still much good in Leinster & Ireland rugby - the big-spending Empire has not driven it from us fully.  Don’t count on it being too long before we're the ones who strike back.  JLP


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019