Monday, December 14, 2015

Toulon-24 Leinster-9



It was only as the TV director did a close-up of Dan Carter’s face before he took his conversion of Racing’s 1st of 5 tries v Northampton that I realised its significance.

(No, I haven’t gotten my writeups mixed up, this is still Toulon v Leinster, please bear with me, I’ll get to it)

This was a lot more than his first placekick for a new club.  This was the man who recently starred in a World Cup final and has now come to Paris on the biggest contract rugby has ever known.  His time at Racing would hardly be considered a flop if he missed, but by the same token it would hardly be the ideal start.

Whether he’s able to deal with those pressures or simply block them altogether only he can really say, but the net result was that he stroked the ball between the sticks with relative ease.

Now let’s look at his predecessor at Racing, Johnny Sexton.

(See?)

On April 5, 2015, he leaves the field at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir on the 76 minute mark with his side 11-9 up against Saracens and the job all but done getting his Parisian team into the Champions Cup semifinals, only for some bonehead breakdown work handing a last-gasp chance to Marcelo Bosch, which he accepts gladly.  Final four denied.

But at least there was the World Cup, right?

Skip ahead to October 18.  Again, Sexton puts in a lot of work to put his team in a position to reach the semis, but once again he must watch from the sidelines as his team goes crashing out (and while this is neither here nor there, again with Bosch involved). Final four denied.

Johnny is very much a senior player now, we all know that.  3 Heineken Cups, 2 Six Nations, Lions Tour, big money move to France - his CV brings a level of pressure to everything he does very close to that of Carter.

But before we look at how he handles that pressure on the pitch, let us first look at what else his seniority means.  

He’s not just playing for Leinster to implement an attacking strategy this time around - he is there to help formulate it along with Girvan Dempsey and others.   And for me, to properly analyse his performance in this match, you must first separate what he was trying to do from what he actually did.

Unfortunately for Leinster, we were forced to make this separation with just 35 seconds on the clock, when he got his angles all wrong on a kick for touch into the Toulon corner and the ball went dead, meaning a scrum back at halfway.

Knowing now as we do that the intention was to go after the Toulon lineout (something the Sky commentary team gave us no credit for by the way) then the strategy to kick for the corner was sound.   But without the proper accuracy, even the best laid plans are worthless.

To be fair, for the rest of those opening stages, we were very impressive with the ball and good for our 6-0 lead, and Sexton's first place-kick in particular was well struck (another Sky fail...they accused the out half of pinching a few yards for the kick when in fact the mark was clearly given to him by the ref).

Yet for the rest of the match, we saw the "right idea, poor execution" pattern return again and again.   It wasn’t even in the one facet of the game that he was making errors either - it was as though he was ticking off a checklist...kick to the corner, crossfield kick, restart, pass in open play - our progress was being repeatedly halted and it meant for the second outing in a row we failed to score in the second half. 

Credit of course must also go to the home side's defence though that is what you'd expect from three-time defending champions. We had a good plan to get by them we just kept failing at the crucial moment. 

Of course Sexton wasn’t the only Leinster player to make errors on the day.  I could also write at length about Cian Healy’s involvement...penalty at a scrum which led to the first Toulon try, taking too much out of a carry allowing Steffon Armitage to do what we does so well, and of course the senseless challenge that saw him yellow carded.

I could also talk about Isa Nacewa dropping a simple catch and having Delon Armitage breeze by him, or some poor lineouts of our own, particularly one towards the end which is becoming a trademark of Irish sides - brilliant attacking situation ruined by a called play that is unnecessarily complex.

But for me the biggest turning point was Sexton’s missed place kick on 44 minutes. And it wasn’t even so much that he missed it, he missed it terribly, never catching it right at all.  Had that gone over, we’d have a lead to defend, and the final score completely disguised just how well we were doing without the ball.

If the pre-match hype was to be believed, Ma’a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud were going to tear Leinster apart.  This did not happen with both Luke Fitzgerald and Ben Te’o among our top tacklers with 26 between them.  Also there were oft-derided Jamie Heaslip with 13 and even Sexton had 12.

Now I know tackle numbers can be deceiving, but in this case I reckon it’s ok to use them because they do help demonstrate what happened on Toulon possession.  And topping the charts, not for the first time either, was Josh van der Flier with 19 - he is hands down our player of the season so far.  I was particularly impressed with his tackling off scrums, something 7s rarely seem to get acknowledgement for these days.

But if you won’t go by those stats to see who well-drilled our D was, how about these...Toulon had 59% possession, a whopping 68% territory and over twenty minutes with an extra man, yet both tries came straight off of lineout/mauls.  Our choke tackling in open play was also very much on song.

What about the ref?  Of course Nigel is the best in the business right now, thoough I don’t think this was his best outing.  One or two of the breakdown calls were particularly baffling, especially one against Rob Kearney under the posts which made it 16-9.  I thought he had barely hit the ground before it was blown.  Still...not worth much more than a paragraph because the officiating was far from the root of our problems....

...and this brings me back to our out half.  We all know what he can do, but what needs to be up for debate now is how long to we give him to do it.  This comes under two headings...how long to give him in a match and how long to give him in Leinster’s, and dare I say it Ireland’s, season.

In Toulon yesterday, Sexton should have been substituted around the 60 minute mark. .  I know that a lot of bench calls are timed as part of an overall game plan these days, but you surely can’t stick religiously to this.  

Having Sexton leave the pitch early isn’t exactly the ideal scenario, but leaving him on when things just aren’t clicking is worse and it’s not as if Ian Madigan hasn’t stepped in for him before. While I give the coaching ticket loads of credit for the game plan forged during the week, I definitely have to take away points for what happened during the 80 minutes.  The essence of team management is striking a balance between these two areas.

As for what happens in the future however, I’m not so sure I’d be quick to give up on Johnny just yet.  This probably won’t be a popular opinion, but I’d be inclined to start him again next weekend.  I’d consider it a carrot-over-stick approach.  Get back to the more familiar surroundings of the Aviva Stadium and show us what you can do.

Worst-case scenario, he tanks again, all the doubters get to say I told you so, and we can look at other options going forward.  Europe is all but gone anyway.  But if he clicks, the rewards of a confident display make the risk totally worthwhile.  

Anyway...what frustrated me more than anything about this match was the try right at the end.  It was definitely something of a bonehead penalty from Denton (one of many on the day - whatever about Nigel’s interpretations, our discipline was still poor), and not for the first time in this pool we saw a losing scoreline made worse with the last play of the game.  

Social media is usually a depressing place for any fan after their team has lost, and when your team is as used to success as Leinster has been, falling to your third European defeat in a row makes it even more so.  There seems to be delight in certain circles at the Irish provinces’ demise this season - this makes for an interesting debate in it’s own right and I’ll expand on that later in the week.

But going back to Leinster, how you view this match depends on the context you are using.  Many appear to be judging it with the Wasps and Bath defeats still in mind, and I can’t fault them for this.  Personally I try to focus on what happened in this particular 80 minutes and I saw many positives - thankfully I wasn’t the only one going by some of the post-match comments on the HoR Facebook page.

Also it has to be said this season is far from over yet.  We may be out of Europe, but we have our three conquerors still to play again, two of them at home.  If we go down, it should be fighting.

Meanwhile in the Pro12 we have 6 wins out of 8 and the best defensive record in the league. Any reason to believe we can't win it?

We also have promising talent coming through the ranks - maybe not all of them are getting the amount of chances we’d like, but Leo is certainly nodding more to the youngsters than any of his predecessors.

That said, the fact that I have made this write up so heavily focused on Sexton shows just how much I believe our fortunes now depend on his.  He certainly isn’t undroppable; nobody should ever be in any team sport.  I just think he deserves another crack at Toulon to help him find his mojo, with the full support of the Leinster faithful behind him.  JLP

#COYBIB

PS - Spoiler alert on next week’s Leinster v Toulon writeup….whatever happens in the match itself, expect more Star Wars references than you could wave a light sabre at.
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