What a crazy match this was! I feel like I could harp on the final five minutes alone for over 2000 words, so much happened. But if I did that I’d be missing out on three or four other five-minute bursts throughout the contest on which I could have written just as much if not more.
So I suppose the first thing I need to focus on is what all those key passages of play had in common, and surely there can be very little debate over what that is.
I’m starting to think that there is something almost mystical about what the return of Kurt McQuilkin to Leinster has done to our defence. I mean - the Pro12 may come in for a lot of stick for being inferior in standard to the English and French leagues, but just by its very name you can tell it involves a dozen professional rugby teams.
Being a full-time outfit means that you have about a month before a season starts, as well as around a week in between matches, with not much else to distract you from preparing yourselves for each battle, particularly when it comes to the basics. And one of the areas of play that requires getting the basics right more than any other is that of defence.
So I still find it baffling that one team in a league can be so incredibly dominant in this area. Yet so far this season Leinster have conceded on average 11.4 points per game and just 1 try per match. And with all due respect to the Italian teams, we have still to play each of them once in our remaining 8 fixtures.
What exactly does Kurt do to get the amazing linespeed, the constant “twin-tacklers” behind the gain line and the monster hits like one by Richardt Strauss on Dan Fish in the closing stages? Does he sprinkle magic dust over the players before kickoff? Employ a hypnotist and say a buzz-word that clicks them into gear as they run through the tunnel? Or is it something more simple like offering to buy the first round every time they grind out a win? Well if it’s the last one, he’d be well out of pocket.
Leinster were by far the better team in this contest overall. That’s not my blue goggles talking either….I’m not saying they never influence me, just not this time. We should have put more points on the board than we did, and we certainly shouldn’t have had to scramble after the clock went red to deny the home side snatching a victory.
But while you can spread the blame for our failure to score more pretty evenly between ourselves, the ref and Cardiff’s own defence, the fact that the Blues’ failure to turn 74% possession and a whopping 85% territory in the second half into enough points to overturn a deficit of just three at the break leads to only one conclusion...there was just no way to tame the fifteen-headed blue monster, albeit one clad in white this time.
It was so good, I had to check if we were offside more often than not. Were we always behind the hindmost foot? Maybe not. But with two Welsh assistant refs roaming the lines you’d assume we would have been caught out more, especially after being pinged for just that in the opening exchanges allowing Gareth Anscombe to put the home side ahead (for the last time) in the 3rd minute.
We probably shouldn’t go too much further without mentioning the conditions. They were treacherous. You simply did not know what way even the most simplest exchange was going to turn out; it was an absolute lottery from start to finish.
You do know I’m talking about the refereeing of Peter Fitzgibbon, right? Though the driving wind and rain did make things almost as unpredictable.
It’s a theme that crops so often when he takes charge of these Welsh/Irish matches that I’m surprised he keeps getting named for them (meanwhile Nigel Owens has the whistle just once for the Six Nations?). I’m not going to go as overboard as many do with my appraisal of this particular ref...my assumption is that he finds it extremely difficult to calibrate his sense of fairness in such a way as to ignore any suggestions of bias towards an Irish team.
Of course we all see things in different ways, but as well as the Leinster defence, another distinguishing feature of this match is that I’m not sure I have ever seen someone report something so incredibly contrary to how it so obviously appears, at least to my eyes.
Take a scrum we had on the Cardiff line after about 10 minutes. We had already levelled the scores at 3 after a massive shove and it was clear we had dominance in this area. Much like the French did to Ireland in Paris last week, we were trying to turn this advantage into a score/sinbinning. So on the third put-in and the pressure really on the home side, why on earth would we try to wheel a scrum? Yet that was the call.
Next was the McFadden tackle that had him see yellow. No big screen in the Cardiff Arms Park this weather (rather ironic seeing it’s sponsored by BT Sport) so Fitzgibbon had to be led to a small telly by the side of the pitch to see for himself what happened after our winger took down Lloyd Williams to end the first of the home side’s two decent territory gains from the same passage of play.
To be fair, on first look the challenge didn’t look great. Certainly worth the use of the technology. But when the replay clearly showed Ferg both used his arms and hit Williams around the chest, for it to be called for a high tackle with no arms just completely defies logic, particularly when Rhys Patchell had just denied McFadden a try with first contact around the neck moments earlier with no sanction whatsoever.
Now if you think this is to be a ref trash-fest and Leinster gush-fest you’d be mistaken. It wasn’t all about the officiating and great and all as our D was, as the final score suggests we struggled to make enough points to stay ahead and I have to say Cardiff were generally using more intelligent options with the ball than we were.
Of course the wind and rain would make ball advancement more difficult but I just thought our decisions could have been easier and more direct. We had two potent weapons wearing 12 and 13 yet more often than not they seemed to be receiving the ball from a standing start.
What eventually gave us a breakthrough came, fittingly, shortly after we turned the ball over. It was always going to be a day for making the most of your opponent's’ mistakes, and when Jack Conan (who, fair play to Sky I have to say, rightly got man of the match - I presumed they’d plump for Vosawai whatever the result) spotted there was no pillar on a ruck he took the opportunity to pick and go, with the space allowing him to get deep into the Cardiff half before shipping it (let’s say “flatly” ahem) to his skipper Isa Nacewa who got it the rest of the way - and I’m pretty sure he was the only Leinster player to disturb grass in the Cardiff 22 for the entire second half.
This gave us a handy 8-point margin, and at this stage all I could think of was that it would take a mistake of monumental proportions to give the Welsh region a way back. Here is where I’m wondering if perhaps our D is too good!
OK, maybe “too good” isn’t the right way to put it, but what I’m trying to say is that we were so comfortable keeping the home side at bay that I think it maybe made us too cocky, especially towards the end? Were we so confident that, rather than simply continuing to frustrate them, we wanted the cherry on top of a spectacular turnover of possession when perhaps it wasn’t needed?
Of course I’m referring to Jordi Murphy’s snatching of the ball when it wasn’t necessary, though it wasn’t our only needless penalty in the closing stages, with Triggs and Strauss also being guilty at times.
To put that moment in context...with Conan already in man of the match territory and Rhys Ruddock on the way to a match-leading tally of 29 tackles (need an ice bath just reading that stat), Jordi himself contributed with a “jackle” turnover of his own.
So he was still no doubt still “pumped” over that as Lloyd Williams took a quick tap penalty before shipping it to Tom Evans who managed to slip a tackler or two before crashing into our 22. One feature of our defence that wasn’t really shown in this performance has been our ability to scramble quickly and reorganise...and this was one time we could have shown this ability.
Yet despite having been warned against the very same manoeuvre about ten minutes earlier, Jordi just could not resist shooting out of the line and grabbing the ball, which was illegal plus it thwarted Cardiff’s momentum. Yellow card all day long for me.
Now the home side had something they needed to break down our D - an extra man. And though it took them recovering three sloppy lineouts on our 5m line (it was a bad day for both sides on this set piece thatnks mostly to the weather, I’ll give Sean Cronin a break for once!), they eventually managed to get it over courtesy of strong carries by first Vosawai and finally Josh Navidi. A great strike by Patchell with the conversion makes it a one-point game.
Unlike Paris a week before, Ian Madigan did extremely well with the important restart that followed. But what came after that for the final 6-7 minutes of play (final whistle didn’t go until 81:59) was a sequence that could only beg the question : “does either team actually WANT to win this”? We had what should have been clean, match-ending possession of the ball (albeit deep in our own 22) right up to the 79:56 mark yet still managed to give the Blues a chance to win.
Eventually it was a great block by Leinster’s smallest player Eoin Reddan that denied Rhys Patchell a game-winning drop goal. Ironically it was these two players who had incredible luck throughout kicking out of hand in the seemingly impossible wind...it was mostly Reddan availing of this but Patchell had the last laugh with a one in a million punt that went from outside his own 22 to find touch inches from the Leinster line, thus creating the last-gasp drama.
On a day when it was all about making the “hard yards”, we deservedly came away with four very-hard match points. I am of course absolutely delighted that we can show such strength in defence, but as I suggested before, it gives me some concerns. You shouldn’t say about your team that you’re actually better off without the ball, and this can definitely be said about our performance on Saturday. Next up we travel to Zebre where victory with at least four tries is the priority but we can worry about that more when the time comes.
In the meantime, bravo to Kurt McQuilkin in particular for all he has brought back to this key role in the Leinster set-up. Yes, I know we’ve had a bad beating or two this season but we can only look at the road ahead and from where I’m standing it looks like one that can have silverware at the end of it if we can make a few tweaks here and there. JLP
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