I’m not sure my rugby-watching emotions could have been more mixed as I watched Dan Biggar prepare to take his last-gasp conversion for the Ospreys against Leinster in the 2012 Rabo Grand Final at the RDS.
Sure, I was naturally still on a high from the whole “3rd-Heineken-Cup-In-4-Years” thing a week before, but I kind of had my heart set on the boys in blue capping it off with the league title as well until Shane Williams decided to spoil the party with a try right at the death.
However, that only brought them to one point behind...Biggar needed the extra two and it was from pretty much the furthest extreme of the touchline, and on the “wrong” side for a right-footer as well. I could have lobbed a stone and hit him from my seat in the Grandstand. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have though. Honest!
Still, as much as it hurt to see it go over, and as much as it inspired me to coin the term “Those Pesky Birds”, I have to say that given the situation it has to be the most impressive place kick I have ever seen live. (Had I been at the Stade Charles Mathon yesterday that honour may have gone to Paddy Jackson, by the way)
But back to the Ospreys...one feature of their march to the league title that year was that after dropping out of Heineken Cup contention they regrouped and went on a run of impressive form which saw them win their last 7 matches on the bounce and 9 of their last 11. It was truly an amazing achievement and a much needed boost for Welsh regional rugby.
The reason I bring up that 2011/12 Celtic League campaign is that don’t recall our getting a whole lot of sympathy after losing that final (not that we looked for it mind you) considering we had the European campaign on our minds during that run in, and this relates to Friday night’s match at Liberty Stadium because in many ways the boot was on the other foot.
We Leinster fans don’t need reminding where we sit in our Champions Cup Pool 5 yet over in Pool 2, the Ospreys are very, very much still in contention to not only reach the knockout phase but also secure a home quarterfinal. For this reason they went the conservative route with their team selection for what is arguably the league’s biggest cross-border rivalry.
Leinster on the other hand started with a XV that could have easily graced the European stage itself, though in reality we too were resting key players only they were our up and coming youngsters like Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier. So I suppose when you put the result in the context of the selection, you could say it is neither all that surprising nor all that impressive.
Well maybe you could say that, but I’m not going to.
Regardless of the names we had on the park, they still had to knit together and perform (not to mention put a prolonged spell of indifferent form behind them in many cases) to get a result in a place where we generally find it very difficult to come away with anything in this league.
And in virtually every aspect of the game, with the one exception being discipline, we defied the conditions which somehow were even worse than those in Ballsbridge against Connacht in the last round to silence the typically raucous Ospreys crowd and extend our league winning streak to seven.
Where else could I start in our performance but our defence. But this week, just for once, I’m not going to focus on our structure and tackling, strong and all as these were on the night. This time I’ll be harping mostly on another important aspect of defending - exit strategies.
There was one moment of indecision when Sexton ran into a dead end and threw a hasty forward pass close to his own try-line, but this was shortly after a turnover by Dom Ryan. I’m actually talking about the exits that were a result of set-pieces, ie strategies worked on in training. Here we were nigh on flawless every time, taking the lineouts and escaping with either touch clearances or well-followed-up box kicks to negate the pressure being applied on us by the home side.
But all the organization in the world without the ball isn’t going to be good enough if you aren’t putting points on the board down the other end, and as I have already pointed out, Dan Biggar is more than capable of keeping the scoreboard moving even without 5-pointers - he showed this with a well struck drop goal to give his side an early lead.
The Ospreys despite holding back some of their more recognised names had one or two in their lineup to look out for in the future. Sam Underhill is definitely a promising 7 and showed it on the night, as did Owen Watkin in the centre. But they also showed a measure of naivety as Underhill allowed Sexton to “buy” a pen for a late hit and Watkin after one early break allowed himself to be stripped of the ball and caught in a choke tackle at other times.
This was definitely an occasion where we needed Johnny Sexton to find his mojo, and boy, did he. Crossfield kick in the driving rain? Surely not? But yes, he did it and Dave Kearney both caught and finished superbly to put us in the lead on 17 minutes.
We traded penalties shortly after that but there followed what is becoming a feature of Leinster matches these days….a long period without us scoring. From the 27th minute to the 66th, we relied on both our defence and Biggar missing placekicks he probably shouldn’t have (even given the weather) to stay ahead of our hosts.
And when the home side went to their bench to find the likes of Alun Wynl Jones and Justin Tipuric to call on, our one-point lead looked like disappearing for good pretty quickly. Well - it looked like disappearing for good to pretty much everyone watching BUT the fifteen men clad in white out on the pitch.
The scrums throughout the night were something of a lottery, but for the most part we had the upper hand (even after Heaslip went & stayed off for HIA – Ruddock deputised well at 8), and having taken one against the head, Sexton made great use of as many as three decoy runners to put Ben Te’o into space. You’d have forgiven the Worcester-bound centre for running until he was tackled and recycling, but he had other ideas.
Unfortunately his starting centre partner Luke Fitzgerald had gone off with an injury shortly before (fingers crossed his rotten luck hasn’t returned), but on in his place was Noel Reid, with whom the rugby league convert clocked several minutes last season. Surely it was this time together which helped them combine for a cheeky offload by Te’o and an even cheekier grab at the knees by Reid to cut a swathe through the home resistance for try number two.
Sexton had his only missed placekick of the night with the conversion, though only just, as it hit the upright. Still, the margin was only six and you certainly wouldn’t have ruled out the possibility of Biggar having yet another late, great opportunity to steal the spoils.
The thing is, to do that the Ospreys not only needed something close to the territory and possession they enjoyed throughout the third quarter (Sky had poss around 90% at one point), they also needed to be able to turn it into points.
Not easy to do that when the opposing out half is pinning you back with stunning kicks like this one…
Sexton back to his best last night. This kick was beautiful. @OLSCRugby @HarpinOnRugby @RugbyKino pic.twitter.com/NXZT9u7dxh— Oval Digest (@OvalDigest) January 9, 2016
What made that so awesome was that he faked to kick one way before going the other with deadly accuracy.
The third Leinster try was something of an afterthought. Well, we’re here with an attacking lineout, let’s see if we can break through again. And we did. Super line by Dave Kearney and another impressive finish for his second five-pointer which capped a timely good showing from him. By the by, his brother wasn’t too shabby either...nothing flash mind, but still steady as she goes which is pretty much what you want from your 15.
Many have complained about the way Ian Madigan was brought on with just three minutes left in the contest. I suppose it could be taken as a slight given his recent decision to leave these shores and the length of playing time is particularly ironic given the hullaballoo from years ago when the current Leinster head coach got the same amount for Ireland from Declan Kidney.
But I didn’t see it like that at all. It has become a “thing” these days for a player to be substituted before the end where possible to get his moment of glory as his man-of-the-match award is announced to the crowd, and my first reaction was that this was way more about Sexton than it was Madigan, though of course I could be wrong.
Anyway...whatever the reasoning behind the scenes, the net result was another emphatic away victory for Leinster putting us just the one point off first place with a game in hand. Not a bad position to be in whatsoever at the halfway stage of the regular season, and provided we can maintain these levels of performances there’s every reason to believe we can finish the season as the Ospreys did four years ago.
Like I said earlier, one area we may need to look at in the DVD sessions this week is our discipline. 13 penalties vs 5 to the home side is almost an exact reversal of the way things went against Connacht. Perhaps the Welsh may wonder why we didn’t see yellow, but it really didn’t seem as though referee David Wilkinson was honing in on one particular area and our infractions seemed spread throughout the 80 minutes.
The one time we could have gone down to 14 was when Sexton appeared to “tip-tackle” Dan Biggar but having looked at the replay the Welsh outhalf showed he has class in sportsmanship as well as rugby when he told the official there was “nothing in it”. Always good to see at any level but particularly this one.
So Leinster’s quest for a fifth league crown takes a breather for the next couple of weeks as we aim to act as “spoilers” to our Premiership opponents in Europe. Hopefully the youngsters will get much game time and we can see out the pool with at least one victory. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the Pro12 for Leinster now this season.
Anyway, best of luck to the Ospreys against Clérmont and Exeter in the coming weeks, and sorry if we put something of a dent in your preparations. Surely it’s no harm if we’re the pesky ones now and again? JLP
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