“It’s fair to say the reports of Leinster’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. This has been a revelation today.” - Stu Barnes
This match will always be remembered for the display of Leinster’s youngsters. I haven’t exactly discouraged that narrative myself, what with the #CullensCubs hashtag and indeed the title of this writeup.
But first I'd like to harp on something different because I believe what was impressive about this display reached far wider than those making their European debuts. Throwing them in the deep end is one thing; ensuring they know what to do next is another.
I reckon this result speaks more about coaching than anything else, because whatever about the experience levels of the players, with the exception of our back three there were key combinations all over the park for Leinster that hadn’t played together much at this level, if at all.
Sure, there was the odd knockon here and miscommunication there. But for the most part, and yet again especially on defence, all 23 clad in blue knew what their job was and they were able to execute it when needed. I feel it’s important to point this out because of the far-too-simple line that has been drawn in some quarters from Leinster’s elimination from the Champions Cup to the supposed inexperience of our current coaching ticket.
On the subject of combinations having spent little time together, this certainly cannot be said for Bath. Their starting XV was identical to that which lined out at the Stade Mayol last Sunday. You could say the six-day turnaround won’t have helped them, and that is a valid point, but you couldn’t say they were strangers.
And when it comes to the description of this match as a “dead rubber”, I think I need to have that term re-explained to me. As far as I’m concerned, it applies to a league/pool match where NEITHER team has any hope of qualification. Mike Ford’s men may have needed a bonus point win to stay in contention, but they were definitely still in with a shout.
So to summarize, in a match which supposedly didn’t mean anything to Leinster, we dominated from start to finish, outplayed our opponents in virtually every aspect of the game, negated most of their threats and if anything could have won by more. Or to put it another way, it was pretty much the complete polar opposite of the Wasps match, which suggests every lesson we were taught that day was learned.
Now to look at our opposition’s display in a bit more detail. No doubt you’ll recall they beat us by 3 points at The Rec not too long ago. That match is remembered for their utter domination of our scrum. In my preview just last Friday, however, I tried to point out that this didn’t happen without a touch of good fortune on their part.
Bath had a freakish 12 put-ins from the 15 scrums on the day. With even half of that number, that 3-point advantage at the end evaporates.
Yeah, I know, I’m a Leinster fan so I know it looked like I was trying to “put lipstick on a pig” with that statement. But still I honestly believed it and I reckon I have been vindicated. The amount of Bath put-ins actually WAS cut in half, and indeed they won all six and got themselves a penalty or two from them.
But while one of those pens led directly to their try, it was clear that victory was never going to come from waiting around for Leinster knockons. They needed other ways to get past us, and there were precious few to be had.
I very much doubt that the decision to be Leinster’s (or indeed any pro rugby team’s) water carrier is made by drawing lots. Kurt McQuilkin had the duty on Saturday, and no doubt this was to help iron out any kinks that may have been spotted in our defensive setup. Not that there were a whole lot of kinks to spot, however.
Apart from Leroy Huston’s try, the visitors had just one other gilt-edged opportunity for five points throughout the match, and this came shortly after Ben Te’o followed a decent line break with an errant pass.
I use the term “gilt-edged” above for a reason, because these situations were like gold for Bath and they would have known full well they needed to act quickly before the fifteen-headed blue monster could take shape once more to swallow them up.
Jonathan Joseph put in a cheeky grubber behind the transitioning Leinster players and it was perfectly weighted to fall just over the try-line. It looked to all intents and purposes that number 8 Huston was going to be the one to win the footrace to get the put down, until out of nowhere came Dave Kearney to get there first, and he even had the padding around the goalpost partially in his running line.
My point is that for a side which badly needed four tries to stay alive in this “Pool of Death”, Bath didn’t really appear to have a whole lot to offer once the supply of scrums was limited. Which brings me nicely to what Leinster had to offer.
Hopefully after all the nice things I said about him when news broke of his move to the Top14, Ian Madigan will forgive me for pointing out he had a bit of a stinker of a first quarter by his own standards. Wayward pass in the first minute, kick out on the full, pass thrown straight to Joseph, even a rare miss from the tee. We’ll see how many stinkers he has when he’s playing regularly at 10 for Bordeaux, though – they should be few and far between.
Overall our use of the ball was excellent until we got into the opposition 22. In fairness to the visitors, their organization on defence was also good, and we found it tough to break them down. Still, 63% possession and 69% territory is bound to at least give you penalty chances and Madigan did convert four in the first half to build a decent half time lead of 12-3.
We extended it to 15-3 shortly after the break but when Bath got their try it looked like a comeback was on the cards. What we needed at that point was to find that spark that was in all three of our Heineken Cup winning teams which meant we could bounce right back after conceding a score.
If Bath want to focus on their set pieces, they should probably acknowledge that restarts count as one. Having gotten back within a converted try, Auterac and Banahan made a pig’s ear between them of receiving the kick off. Sean Cronin pounced on the loose ball, had a decent carry a few phases later, and ultimately stretched out for the try spotting a rare gap in the Bath cover.
But with all due respect to Sean, this was more of a team try for me. We plugged away for 13 phases on the way to the score and the general carrying, support lines and clearing out seemed to go up a notch on the back of the try down the other end. It was great to see such determination and “playing for the jersey” and it put the match well beyond the visitor’s reach.
One last topic before I get to the “kids”...you see at the start of this piece I have a quote from Stu Barnes. I’m not always wild about his contributions for Sky, but in the past I have been critical of both BT and Sky for clear bias towards the Premiership clubs in their coverage, so I must also point out when the opposite is the case.
Despite Barnes’ allegiance to this particular English outfit, when Josh van der Flier was lucky to escape a yellow card for holding back Chris Cook on the way to Bath’s try, he rightfully pointed out that Cook himself could have gone for an earlier incident down the other end when he took out our own scrum half Luke McGrath when we had excellent front foot ball. Personally I thought both were yellows; Te’o was also lucky with his tackle on Joseph late on and the one card that was awarded on Dominic Day was a bit harsh.
OK. Finally, to the youngsters. Hopefully my title isn’t misunderstood. As rugby players, they are certainly more than just “alright”! And as Leo himself said before the match, it’s not as though they haven’t proven their worth so far this season, mostly in the Pro 12 but also in Europe in some cases as Bath themselves will attest.
It sure didn’t hurt him having an on-fire Mike McCarthy alongside him but that said, Ross Molony thoroughly deserved his man of the match award in his own right. He has no fear around the pitch and clearly knows how to both call his own team’s and disrupt the other team’s lineouts.
Garry Ringrose’s form seems to be improving exponentially, and once he gets a few matches under his belt with the same centre partner, can only get better. Here he demonstrated an uncanny knack for spotting open field running opportunities ahead of him.
At a time when the English are literally at 6’s and 7’s over who should play in their back row, there’s no debating that Josh van der Flier is a near-perfectly “natural” 7. There’s no need to mention any “6.5” nonsense, and Sean O’Brien’s introduction at number 8 pretty much shows the young lad from Wesley has a good run in the first team ahead of him to improve even more.
For all the ball carrying brilliance of Sean Cronin, his kryptonite has often been the principal hooker duties at set-pieces, and it appears that in James Tracy we have someone who can get that job done and even ship a lightning quick pass or two when required.
I could go on, but I find myself caught in the space between wanting to encourage this crop of talent and wanting to avoid smothering them with praise thus denying them the space to grow. I wonder if Joe Schmidt finds himself in a similar dilemma, and one compounded by the fact there there is talent coming through at all four provinces.
Let’s just say the future looks bright, not only from this performance, but also by those being put in by our ‘A’ team in the British & Irish Cup – they have consistently shown they could easily compete in the upper half of the RFU Championship, not a bad shout for a second string of any club.
For now it’s probably best for me stick to the remit of the writeup, which is this one particular match. As I say, despite having little to play for you couldn’t but be impressed by the way the team got themselves together and put on a show for what was a sizeable RDS turnout on a chilly January evening.
Clearly the Pro12 is now our priority...Top 4 gets us back in the playoffs, Top 3 gets us in at least Pot 2 for next season’s Euro draw, Top 2 gets us a home semifinal...and of course if our form continues as it has done in recent weeks, we’ll be among the contenders for the Top 1 at season’s end.
But I sure wouldn’t say no to offering some payback to another Premiership outfit next weekend, and I reckon the perfect way to honour Saturday’s display would be for Leo Cullen to name as close to an identical matchday 23 for the trip to Wasps as fitness allows. JLP
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