Recently I have gotten so used to doing writeups trying to go against the media narrative which has Leinster as a club in crisis that I almost forgot about the role in which we are more usually cast in wider rugby circles, that of pantomime villain.
Since our “glory days”, any victory for the boys in blue that comes with even a hint of controversy gets greeted with a cascade of column inches, video analysis and my personal favourite, still photographs with a yellow circle providing “indisputable proof” that a decision was wrong rendering the result unfair.
And not only did this match have the “bad guy” and the controversial incident, it also had the archetypal “underdog” heroes, Connacht, who are generally no lower than second on every Irish rugby fan’s order of provincial preference.
Now don’t get me wrong...they’re also my second favourite team, and I love seeing them do well. I have also been happy to join in when there has seemed to be an injustice against them...2015 saw that happen more than once against teams like Cardiff and Gloucester.
I’m not even suggesting that what happened in the decision to award the try to Josh van der Flier wasn’t questionable. But what I am asking is that people at least make an effort to not only view the incident objectively, but also to apply the same standards to the 80 minutes as a whole.
But before I harp on the match itself, I have to give full credit to the 46 players on Friday evening at the RDS. The weather was abysmal...80 minutes of wind and rain followed by more rain and even more wind. It made accuracy nigh on impossible yet more often than not the players knew the smart thing to try and it worked for them, particularly on defence.
And yes, I bring up Leinster’s D every week, but how can I not after a “shut out”? In fact if anything we seemed to be even stronger without the ball this time around than in recent weeks if that’s possible. On the rare occasions a Connacht player slipped by the first tackler there would generally be another two just beyond him to get the man down.
Not that Pat Lam’s men were too shabby in the tackling department themselves. Whatever attacking playbook Leinster had for this match had to be exhausted, re-tried and I dare say re-written at halftime before we could even hope to make any progress with the ball.
Right - let’s start at the beginning. The visitors won the toss and chose to have the wind in the second half. While I can see some sense in that decision, particularly as they are well used to these conditions back in Galway, I’m not so sure it was the right way to go in Ballsbridge, where the wind can be just as strong but direction-wise it is anything but predictable.
But decide to defend they did, and as it turned out they held us to just the three points in the first half. How that 3 came about is interesting, however, and also relevant to the rest of the match. We were pretty much camped in their 22 for the first 15 minutes, thanks mostly to our line speed when the visitors had the ball.
In that time Connacht conceded as many as five penalties, most of them in the 22. Eventually referee George Clancy had no choice but to have a word with skipper John Muldoon :
“There’s too many penalties against your team for various things - being offside, your fella coming in from the side, not rolling away from the tackle...you need to stop conceding penalties in this area.”
By the time he was having these words with Muldoon, Leinster had already spurned two kicks at goal by kicking for the corner, both of which resulted in lineout/maul attempts that were well repelled by the visitors, albeit by further penalties.
Even though this particular ping was right underneath the Connacht posts thus providing us with an “easy three” despite the wind, there was a decent enough case for us to go for the scrum to test both the resolve of their defence and the threat of a yellow card. Yet take the three we did and this actually gave them a chance to regroup and put the ball into our half of the pitch.
About five minutes later, they had tried several times to make inroads into our territory but were getting repelled each time. On one occasion at a breakdown, big Mike McCarthy was making mischief as he has been wont to do this season. Clancy clearly said to him “don’t play it 5” though that didn’t stop the former Connacht lock from having a hack at the ball with his foot.
For some reason this incensed a player who went the other way down the M4, Nathan White, enough to launch himself at McCarthy, with a swinging arm into the bargain. Play went on, but the officials went back to look at it.
The result of the consultation was that it was only a penalty, since White did not connect with McCarthy’s head. What I saw myself from the replay was that White would have had no clue as to where his arm was going to end up, which has us in “reckless”, and therefore yellow, territory.
We could also go back to Clancy’s earlier warning...this was the first penalty award since then. White is saved in this case by the words “in this area” as the incident did not happen in the Connacht 22 as the others had done.
Again...I’m not saying there was nothing “dodge” about the try, and I’m not saying Fergus McFadden has nothing to answer to in the incident where he is cited. I just don’t see a whole lot of online consternation about the things that didn’t go Leinster’s way in the match, so I guess I’m trying to redress that balance.
But for all the tackles and penalties and non-yellows in the first half, the net result was that it was “only” 3-0 to the home side as they went in for the break. And the way Craig Ronaldson gladly ran the ball out of bounds the second the clock hit 40 minutes, this was considered to be a positive state of play going into the second half for Pat Lam & co.
Despite supposedly having the wind advantage however, Connacht didn’t find it any easier to make headway against our defensive curtain. 58%-42% overall possession and a whopping 68%-32% in territory shows that the elements and the officiating were only bit players in the way the winners were decided on the night.
And on Leinster’s side of the equation, I saw clear evidence of something I had thought was lacking earlier in the season, namely an ability to tweak the offensive playbook to crack the opposition D. Garry Ringrose nearly got through at one point only to do an extra spin after the tackle and place the ball down in the wrong direction, but the positivity of the slick passing that created the space can’t be ignored.
Other times it was good old-fashioned hacks forward into green grass that was keeping the visitors on the back foot, more often than not well followed up by wingers McFadden and Dave Kearney.
But it was a quick tap penalty from deserved Man of the Match Eoin Reddan (defying his critics and taking full advantage of the unfortunate late withdrawal of Luke McGrath) that put us on the road to “scoring” the match winning try. Let’s put a pin in the TMO call for a second because despite all the uproar it was nowhere near the only significant happening in this sequence.
Reddan’s industriousness, backed up by some great passing getting it to the wider channels and a superb line by Dave Kearney, got us deep into the Connacht 22. And from the time of the tap I counted 26, yes, twenty-six phases before van der Flier got it over the line.
When you’re effectively playing with a bar of soap, 26 phases is amazing. Glasgow Warriors won the league last season on the back of an ability to roll through over a dozen carries 5 metres out in perfect conditions, so surely this achievement is worthy of merit.
Then there’s the credit to the visiting defence in not shipping a penalty. Although, in all the complaints about the referee I don’t see any suggestion that maybe he overlooked a transgression or two in this sequence, given the fact that this WAS in the Connacht 22 meant a penalty had to be accompanied by a yellow.
So eventually we see the red-capped young van der Flier bringing the ball to the line. First things first...none of us know for sure whether or not he gets it down. Nobody that wasn’t right there at the try line can say yay or nay as there wasn’t a TV angle that didn’t have bodies in the way. Which left it down to referee George Clancy’s viewpoint.
I mentioned pantomimes earlier, and there was a degree of slapstick about his slip and fall as the incident happened that gave the soaked RDS crowd all kinds of amusement through the various replays. But on a more serious note, the debate is over his decision to ask the TMO the question “Is there any reason…?” as opposed to “Try or no try”.
The ref words the question this way if, in his opinion, it seemed clear that a try was scored only he didn’t actually see the ball graze the ground on or over the line. All I am saying in defence of the decision is that we can’t rule out that before he fell it looked to him as though Josh was definitely going to place the ball down.
One thing I will say for sure...maybe it wasn’t definitely a try, but it most certainly wasn’t definitely held up either. Whether the benefit of the doubt went to the home side, or the attacking side at that moment, or the dominant side on the night, we’ll never know. But to my (admittedly Leinster-goggled eye), suggestions of injustice or incompetence are well wide of the mark, and I’d even go as far to say that in many cases of those suggestions, “anyone but Leinster” goggles are being worn.
So the try is awarded and to all intents and purposes the best Connacht can hope for is a losing bonus point, and in fairness their contribution to the occasion did deserve at least that. And there was a much clearer case of injustice about what I thought was a knockon by Rob Kearney on his own try line - a scrum at that point would have represented the visitor’s biggest attacking opportunity by far.
But if the Westerners are going to be playing at the top end of the league and competing for a place in the top six, like I hope they are I might add, they will have to do a lot less looking at the referee in matches like these and a lot more looking at the little things that can make a difference like missed tackles, badly executed lineouts and most of all, poor discipline that has you “winning” the penalty count 12 to 4.
I’m confident they can bounce back from recent disappointments and stay at the top end of the table helping us towards getting all four provinces in the Champions Cup...they certainly have the talent and attitude to get this done.
Going back to our side of things, the overall performance showed a continued upward curve since the Wasps match.
Garry Ringrose had another impressive outing and it was good to see that he was being used as a part of set plays which demonstrates the faith the coaching staff has in him. I’m noticing a lot of “let’s all calm down about him and give him a chance to grow” about the place in general opinion. I appreciate the need for restraint but once we don’t start fitting him for a Lions jersey or anything similar just yet I don’t see the harm in pointing out his good displays. He will make mistakes at times, as do the more experienced players.
Speaking of experience, there’s Mike McCarthy. I feel a bit bad about a tweet I sent during this match...I worded it as though I didn’t think he’d last the full 80. Turns out he played a solid 67 and could have easily finished just as strong as he started. He is definitely playing like someone who knows there’s an Irish number 5 jersey up for grabs and I see no reason why he shouldn’t be well in the mix for it.
After all the news surrounding Ian Madigan during the week it was great to see him getting such a warm reception as he took the field for his late cameo, and the way he took the placekick to make it 13-0 was sublime.
So there we have it...not a bad way for Leinster to kick off 2016 all things considered, and you certainly can’t say we’re not well poised at least in the Pro12. The European campaign might be shot but the matches against Bath and Wasps still have significance for those looking for Six Nations slots.
In the meantime, we have what is always a challenging trip to Liberty Stadium on the horizon against those pesky Ospreys. We’ll see what way the wind is blowing that night. JLP