This match had all the hallmarks of a previous one-sided Leinster v Wasps contest, one that took place in the RDS.
You might think I’m referring to the one from last November (probably because that’s the one I wanted you to think of in my cunning plan to throw you off the scent) but in actual fact I mean the one from October 2008. That day it was Wasps who had the more established European pedigree as we played the part of the emerging hopefuls.
We also lost our skipper early in that match, it had a halftime scoreline of 15-11 (close to 15-10 at the Ricoh on Saturday), the visitors didn’t score in the second half and despite having put the match beyond all doubt we didn’t let up with the try-scoring until the very end.
Having suffered that defeat and then come so close to us on both occasions last season (not to mention an Amlin thrashing thrown in for good measure), you can see how Wasps could well have viewed us in the same way as we would have done Munster back in 2008, namely a team we definitely had to overcome if we had serious designs on the continent’s biggest prize.
Well, I think I can safely say that Dai Young’s men have slayed that particular dragon in this campaign, and now twice. And they did it with solid organization, talent, depth in squad and most of all sheer determination. They deserve a whole heap of credit for winning this stinker of a pool and far be it from me to deny it to them.
But as it says in the banner at the top of the page, this is a Leinster-centric website and my focus has to be on how the result came about from our standpoint, together with how it relates to our season as a whole.
Obviously it’s extremely difficult to find anything positive to say about a tonking like this one, particularly the way the second half went. Going scoreless after halftime is one thing, having fifty put on you is another, but both, particularly when you have three stars over your crest, is pretty much unacceptable.
Before I get to my many concerns over our display and what comes next, I do have to point out some mitigating factors. And whether you’re prepared to admit it or not, there are some. Remember, these are not excuses. The right team won and deservedly so and I have already made that clear. But as I said here on the site before the match…
We have but a six-day turnaround from this road trip to our next Pro12 encounter which involves travelling to what will be a well-rested Newport team...all I’m saying is that the Pro12 is our priority so if things don’t go our way in Coventry maybe we should reserve judgement for a few days, that’s all.
In my preview I predicted that we would lose, and by more than the bookies’ expected margin of four points. Of course I take no pleasure in being right, though I never imagined the result would be what it was. The 10 points on our side of the scoreboard didn’t surprise me, but what ended up on theirs did so, very much.
A decent display and a good result at Rodney Parade this Friday certainly won’t wash away what happened in Coventry for ever, but it will definitely put us back on the track we have been on since that first defeat to Wasps back in November; one where we most definitely have shown we can make our lives a lot easier in the next campaign.
OK - enough of the mitigation, now to the concerns. First and foremost, there’s Mr J Sexton.
This is the second season in a row that his European campaign has ended with his team in the lead only for them to go on and lose the match. And it looked to all intents and purposes that he had done the homework required to keep the buzzing Wasps defence honest. With little grubbers and dinks over the top we were not only doing that but also getting some end product from the start.
Zane Kirchner’s try to open the scoring is still great to look at even when you know the final result. Reid’s little kick through into the path of Fitzgerald, the good support of his pack, the quickly shipped passes out wide for the South African to get the touch down. If later we were to see the bad side of having nothing to play for, this was most certainly the good.
But then before the clock even had a chance to reach double figures there was Sexton going off, and while the home side suffered a blow of their own in losing Joe Simpson moments earlier, let’s just say their half back replacement was a little more ready for the occasion than ours.
Doing more than you need to can hardly be a criticism, especially when your task is at the pinnacle of your chosen field. Since rugby went pro the players at the very top have often had to prove themselves to be capable in roles outside the confines of their position in the team - forwards behaving at times like backs and vice versa.
This definitely can be applied to Johnny Sexton. As well as orchestrating the offence, when the opposition have the ball he is never one to shirk responsibilities on the defensive front. And when (ironically) Brendan Macken was tackled, the Leinster, Ireland and Lions outhalf was stood fully prepared to engage in support.
But as the tackled player was coming to the ground his head banged into Sexton’s and our man took the brunt of it. And as any Irish rugby fan knows, this hasn’t been the first time. That wasn’t enough to prevent him getting up and mahing the next tackle either! Admirable senstiment but questionable decision.
Luckily for the general well-being of the sport and it’s players, the protocols kicked in and were applied correctly. Thankfully the news from the medics seems to be positive. (sidenote - In yet more irony I have been invited to watch a special screening of the Will Smith movie “Concussion” this week)
When Sexton himself was the young pretender coming on for Contepomi back in 2008, at least he had a number of Pro12 starts behind him. The same can’t be said for young Cathal Marsh - sure, he has impressed greatly at B&I Cup level, and I understand why he was selected here given he’ll probably be needed during the Six Nations, but a 70-minute shift in these circumstances was a particularly big ask for him.
And what made it an even bigger ask was the presence outside him of Noel Reid. He has a great step, he knows how to find the try line and as he showed in the lead up to the Kirchner five-pointer he can put a decent grubber through. But the downside to his game has always been his defence, both in coverage and tackling.
One thing is for sure...in this season in particular when we aren’t exactly scoring tries for fun, we can afford to be vulnerable in neither the 10/12 nor the 12/13 channels. Our selections here are going to be pivotal the way I see it.
In the lead photo above, you see the moment we pretty much lost this game. Jimmy Gopperth, no doubt running a play he would have done on the training ground up at UCD more than once facing these same two players last season, draws both Marsh and Reid to him while getting his pass away before either can even think of laying a hand on him.
BT Sport and the entire English media have been gently purring about Elliot Daly over his try, and there is no doubting it was a strong finish and he is a quality player more than ready for test level. But without the space this was never a try and the way our defence has performed lately, this was very clearly a serious systems failure.
Not that our D in open play was our only problem, mind you. We couldn’t come to grips with their (admittedly tightly organised) attacking maul and just as we were outplayed at the scrums at the Rec, it was lineouts that did for us here.
Speaking of lineouts, they weren’t so rosy on our put ins either. This was a classic performance from Sean Cronin...devastatingly effective in the loose, yet when it comes to his more traditional hooker’s duties he seems to have a knack of getting the yips at the worst possible moment.
One other injury concern was that of Marty Moore, who has had an eventful few weeks. First linked with a move to the Premiership (am I the only one who has a problem with clubs we’re about to face approaching our players mid season? Wasps seem to like doing that), then the links are played down as Joe Schmidt (allegedly) intervened, then he gets effectively ruled out for the Six Nations. If the net result of it all is that he recovers and stays with Leinster we’ll all be happy I reckon.
(update – no sooner do I click “publish” than news comes through that Moore is going after all…)
Anyway...as that nightmare of a second half wore on it got even more painful to watch. Letting up after the bonus point penalty try was not on the home side’s radar and while we did keep running at them throughout the final quarter when a couple of tries would have brought a crumb of consolation in a bonus point, we just didn’t have what it took to breach their D (19-phase denial being the “highlight”) which was very much at the standard we generally have been setting ourselves of late.
Which leaves us the question...given the way our performances against Wasps bookended our European campaign, can anything happen between now and May to make this season worth remembering?
That depends I suppose on your mindset. If you want to debate the declining European fortunes of Leinster in particular and the Irish provinces in general (or indeed the long-term competitiveness of the Pro12), then you most certainly could do so for a long time. But I’d rather get stuck into that when the season is over, because there’s a lot of rugby to be played before then.
In the short term, we need those defensive standards back asap - in other words, in Newport this Friday as I mentioned before. To do this, if Six Nations selection means we must play Marsh at 10, then outside him should be a pairing like perhaps Te’o at 12 and Ringrose at 13.
Elsewhere in the squad I can only assume the “Cullen’s Cubs” principle will be restored. Back will be the Peter Dooleys, the James Tracys, and if Josh van der Flier isn’t available, there’s an able deputy in Dan Leavy who has done well in the B&I Cup - in fact, having seen them myself there’s even more on that team Leo can call on if needed.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that the road ahead will be easy, but as Leinster coaches, players and fans alike we have to put these results behind us. Sure, it’s not the way we want this portion of the schedule to look. We have come to expect big European quarterfinals after the Six Nations and for the first time in a long time, there are none to be had.
But not facing teams like Wasps, Bath and Toulon for the next few months can actually be spun as a good thing, because if we can keep our Pro12 form going there’s every possibility we won’t have to face them in the pool stage next season. JLP
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