Monday, December 28, 2015

Munster-7 Leinster-24

d to the fore

D TO THE FORE

logo post blueWe get an early lead, against a multiple European champion wearing red, only for it to be clawed back before halftime.   Though our defence is as strong as it has ever been, it’s approaching 40 minutes since our last score. 

I didn’t see anyone else mention it on social media at the time but I can’t have been the only Leinster supporter who was thinking that recent history was repeating itself. 

Scoreless second half periods have become the order of the day recently for us and with Munster just three points behind, while they were finding it just as hard to score themselves, much like last week at the Aviva they were enjoying a scary amount of possession and territory and it didn’t seem long before our early 10-point cushion was going to disappear.

What we needed, and both yesterday and in every similar situation before, was the composure to get ourselves into the opposition 22 and come away with points.  And in the 52nd minute after Isa Nacewa tackled Tomas O’Leary forcing a knock on, we had a few phases before the scrum advantage was called over and it was imperative that we made something of this possession.

Full disclosure...I thought a pass from Ian Madigan to Dominic Ryan on the 10th phase of the series may have been a tad forward.  That said there were a couple of Munster passes at other times that went a similar way without being called.  The fact remains, we kept going through the phases, not aimlessly as we have in the past, but with a view to opening up and exploiting space.

And right after that suspect pass Madigan looked up and saw Isa free on the opposite wing, finding him with an inch-perfect crossfield kick.  As he was tackled after the catch I couldn’t help thinking that three years ago he’d have been able to finish.  Then as the phases continued I thought surely one of our lads is going to knockon...Tom Denton took one of the carries and he was on a hat trick in this category. 

But on we rolled right to the Munster line and on phase number 15 of the sequence since that original tackle, Jack McGrath reaches out and gets the ball down.  My mind almost goes blank.  We’ve scored! A try! In the second half! We look like we’re actually going to win this now!

Terrible I know, but such has been my mindset in recent weeks, but in my defence it was only based on fact.  It was up to Leinster to prove me wrong and in that sequence they not only did that but they won this match.

The foundation for such a win was there, thanks to our defence, which somehow seemed to find another level of invincibility this week.  And to show just how deceiving tackle numbers can be, just over a year before on the very same ground, we made 195 tackles on the way to losing 13-28.  This time we made “just” the 175 and all but reversed the scoreline.

Where the difference lies is in the behaviour of the players around the tackler.  The decision of what your role in the next phase is one that needs to be made in a nano second and since the return of Kurt McQuilkin the fifteen-headed blue monster has become ominously close to the force it once was.

Central to any defensive strategy of course is your number 7, and ours deservedly won man of the match.  Of course it was great to see Sean O’Brien not only back on the pitch but performing at his best (though he was caught in possession a couple of times in the first half) but I think we need to take one very important element into consideration … nothing motivates you more than knowing there’s someone more than capable on the bench if you don’t perform and I reckon Sean has Josh van der Flier to thank for his gong as much as anything else.

Others with high tackle counts were Jamie Heaslip, Devin Toner, Ian Madigan and Luke Fitzgerald but as I say, the credit has to go to the collective group for keeping the home side down to just the 7 points.

And this brings me to a different question...was it just our D which kept Munster at bay or were they simply not good enough?  Tricky one.  They certainly have had things as tough this season as we have, but going on yesterday’s evidence their biggest problem seems to be at the number 10 position.

I have seen comments about the place (from their own fans as well as others) that they were “awful” and other such extremes, but I disagree.  Perhaps they should have gone for three points early in the second half to bring the scores level rather than kick for the corner but this wasn’t top of their list of concerns IMO.

Losing Murray just before kickoff compounded the holes left in the backrow by injuries to O’Mahony and O’Donnell (who returned last night I know but only off the bench).   And there were some excellent performances on the night from the likes of Stander, Zebo, Conway, Scannell, Earls, Saili and Kilcoyne.  They just need someone knitting it all together.

There is no doubt that recent events have left Anthony Foley with a lot of thinking to do.  Does he give the Bleyendaal more time to get up to speed with European rugby?  Not the worst idea given he has had such little game time.  Does he try Rory Scannell?  Missed a shocker of a place kick on the night but played a good enough role as second five-eighth to suggest he could handle the move to 10.  Or does he give Keatley a chance to redeem himself?  Leinster fans will remember he played a role in our downfall just a year ago.

One thing I do know even though I don’t harp on Munster often...there is no point bemoaning the loss of JJ Hanrahan.  It’s a reality of the European game that deals are negotiated in November/December and once those decisions are made, there’s not much that can be done and dwelling on them makes no sense to me.

(Update – the above paragraph was written partly with Ian Madigan’s future in mind…as it turned out the news of his move to Bordeaux broke less than half an hour after this article posted!  We’ll do a post about the move during the week.)

And this brings me nicely back to Leinster’s side of things.  Another decision that has been made mid-season is Ben Te’o’s departure to Worcester at the end of the season.  I was pretty sure he was going somewhere, if not precisely there.  So the question for us was...do we have someone ready to take his place?  Er, yeah!  Mr Garry Ringrose.

This was his first 80-minute stint as Leinster’s outside centre, and what a place to have it.  And the game was just a few minutes old before he showed us all exactly what he can do.

We had just thwarted a 12-phase bout of Munster possession as a bear hug tackle from Jamie Heaslip and a Dominic Ryan steal gave us the ball.  It was great to see our priority was to get it into the wider channels, especially as the home side had much of their front five out there at that moment for the offensive series.

A perfectly timed pass from Sean O’Brien to Ringrose gave him a lot of space it’s true, but he still had to use it.  The young lad has been in a couple of similar situations this season only for technical issues like holding the ball in the wrong arm to stop him making the most of it.

This time, regardless of the importance of the match, regardless of who else has worn the blue 13 jumper before him, regardless of his youth...he knew exactly what to do, taking every inch out of the green grass and mismatches ahead of him before shipping it to his skipper for the opening score of the game.

Ringrose didn’t exactly stand out for the rest of the contest but he was there making his tackles, he was involved in the clearing out, he was fist-pumping with the rest of them for turnovers and other positive outcomes...to put it another way, he looks very much like he belongs, and commentators much more qualified than I reckon he could belong at test level as well.

From Isa’s try we had that barren spell I mentioned at the start, and while we managed to find a way out of it, we can’t afford to ignore this area.  The standards surrounding our offence must be brought to match our D otherwise we won’t get the results on a regular basis.

Tom Denton’s place in the Leinster pecking order going into this Christmas period was correct in my view.  Didn’t get off to the best of starts with us when he arrived from Leeds but he was very impressive with the A side last season so deserved a shot when the likes of Triggs and Mick Kearney were ruled out.

That said, when you get a shot it’s up to you to take it and he was guilty of a couple of no-nos against Toulon and then we had a couple of simple dropped passes in the first half in Thomond, the second of which came right before the break giving everyone time to dwell on it.  Eventually he was replaced by young Ross Molony who went on to be a demon at the lineout without getting so much as a positive nod from the Sky commentary team.  Methinks it’s time for Ross to have his own shot.

Luckily the Marty Moore/Eoin Reddan tackle incident didn’t cost too much because I certainly didn’t see anything in it.  Wasn’t even a penalty the way I saw it – two players going for the tackle saw Conway do a flip but it definitely wasn’t an incident that could slot into any of the protocols for things like tip- no-arms-tackles.

Right at the death we had an interception try from Zane Kirchner which put a gloss on the score that probably didn't reflect how the previous eighty minutes had gone.  But hey...this has been done to us often enough for us to know we were due a slice of luck ourselves.  Can’t blame Munster for going for at least a losing bonus point but unfortunately for them our D was as strong at the end as it had been at the start and they had to force their passes.

So all in all a great way to end what has definitely been an up and down year for Leinster & Ireland rugby.  We many be out of Europe but we are most certainly well poised in the Pro12, and despite all the talk of crisis at the province there is plenty of evidence to suggest we can improve our European seeding and dare I say even challenge for the title itself.

Happy New Year to all HarpinOnRugby readers, here’s to plenty of success for me to harp on in 2016.  JLP

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