Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Connacht-7 Leinster-6

on the bounce


logo post blueWhat an amazing match!

They have to be the first words of the writeup.  The scoreline may have been one to make Super Rugby fans fall asleep without watching any of the action but surely you can’t look at those 80 minutes of intense tackling and all round breakdown ferocity without being impressed by the effort of both sides.

First and foremost, I feel it’s important to put the match into the proper context.  I know it was very much a weekend for us to be mindful of Irish history, but when it comes to both Connacht and Leinster Rugby we have to forget what has happened in previous seasons and focus on where the two teams stand right now.

Of course when you compare the trophy cabinets of the two provinces that makes this look like a David and Goliath clash, which in turn makes victory for the home side one for the plucky underdog over illustrious opposition.  But that is not what happened at the Sportsground on Saturday, and I mean that in the best possible way for Connacht.

This was far, far, from a one-off display from Pat Lam’s men.  If it was, they would hardly sit atop the Pro12 table with just four regular season matches left.  They have won 13 matches out of 18, and more than half of those came with the try bonus. 

Maybe they don’t quite have the depth of squad Leinster are used to, but things on that front certainly aren’t as bad as they were, say, back in 2012 when we also mustered just the 6 points yet shipped 34 down the other end at the same venue.  By the by...on that occasion the Connacht side also featured Marmion, Henshaw, Buckley, White & O’Halloran.

On to Leinster’s side of things.  Is this the same outfit that won 3 out of 4 Heineken Cups?  Absolutely not.  Failing to make the Pro12 playoffs last season and a calamity of a European campaign this year have done much to alter the expectations of the RDS faithful.

Now I know I’m running the risk of getting myself into trouble by talking down Connacht’s performance and talking up Leinster’s, but please stay with me as I get to my point.

The reality of this contest was that it comprised the top two teams in the 2015/16 Guinness Pro12, it was a fascinating battle from start to finish and one you could watch multiple times and discover something different after each view, and the way the league stands right now, it would be a fitting final for Murrayfield in May.

My point is that whatever about the histories of the two sides in question, both should be looking at their displays with equal amounts of satisfaction and disappointment regardless of the final result.  Satisfaction in that they were able to put in such a quality display on defence for 80 minutes, disappointment in that they were unable to to find a way through the opposition more often.

When it comes to this one match, it was decided by a try which had several elements to it, most of which impacted on the match as a whole as well so what say I go through them one by one.

The defences

I’m always harpin’ on the way tackle stats aren’t the be all and end all, but for this match, the fact that the two starting 7s were credited 24 tackles each should tell you pretty much everything about how well the back rows performed. 

Eoin McKeown and Josh van der Flier were simply unplayable, and they were ably supported by their teammates particularly their fellow back rowers and individuals like Denis Buckley - this put it firmly into the opponents’ heads that absolutely every facet of their own game had to be 100% perfect if a way through was to be found.

And what was most impressive about the D from the two sides was that they got better as the game wore on.  Connacht could barely buy their way into Leinster 22 all day, certainly not when it came to phase play.  And though the visitors did manage to infiltrate the red zone more than once, there was no way through even right at the very end when a score seemed likely.

The offences

Good and all as the defences were, it’s still up to the opposition to find a way through, and I reckon both sides were poor at this on the day, and indeed they have been for the entire 160 minutes they played each other this season...just one try each proves the point.

On Leinster’s side of things, both our decision making and our execution were below the standards required of a team looking to lift the league title, and on the evidence of recent weeks I really do feel our chances do rest on whether or not Jonathan Sexton is on the pitch for us.

When it comes to Connacht, they are having an awful time keeping their number 10s on the pitch, with AJ McGinty becoming another to find his way onto the treatment table.  However I feel the situation is different for them.  England won a Grand Slam with what I felt were very average out half displays and the Westerners tend to play more on belief in game plan than they do reliance on an on-field general.

On this occasion, they put their faith in getting the ball out wide ahead of the Leinster line speed.  99% of the time it wasn’t fast enough, but for the try, they had both transition and the uncertainty surrounding a suspect tackle from Isa Nacewa on McGinty working in their favour and they were able to get it into the wide channels at a time when there was a chink of space in behind the Leinster D.

Nigel Owens

I saw a tweet go by on my twitter feed while this match was on that read (paraphrase) “For someone who is meant to be the best rugby ref ever, Nigel Owens ure does let a lot of things go unpunished”.  I’m not sure who offered that but if I’m following them it must be someone who is meant to know the game and thus I find it disappointing as they seem unclear on what a rugby ref is meant to do.

Were a referee to blow the whistle for absolutely every offence they see, matches would only ever be decided by penalty kicks.  The job of the man in the middle is to get a sense of what the two sides are trying to do and once that isn’t completely overboard in illegally disrupting their opponents, then simply let them play and look out for the overly serious stuff.

This is what Nigel was doing in Galway – only 9 penalties called in total - and it played a large part in making it into the enthralling defensive contest that it was.  Sure some of the tackles were “meaty”, sure some of the clearouts were done by players diving way off their feet, sure some of the line speed was achieved by first tiptoeing over the offside line.  But the players knew the score and got on with it, because they were allowed to.

AJ McGinty

not a high tackleDeserves credit for not making a meal of the challenge from Nacewa, and this was ultimately rewarded by the try.  Had he “done the football thing” no doubt Nigel would have stopped the action.  To be fair, however, the tackle itself wasn’t high as many suggest.  There was a case for it being called a “swinging” arm and it certainly wasn’t the only time Isa put himself in yellow territory on the day.  At the end of it all I reckon it’s good to see your skipper fired up wherever he plays on the park and it was just about right that neither side saw yellow.

Niyi Adeyokulun

After that challenge, as everyone dialled down the intensity from 20 on the scale of 1 to 10 down to about 19 and a half, the Connacht winger Adeyokulun spotted some rare space up the touchline and put in a cheeky little kick over the top to make the most of it.  I’m pretty sure he meant it to bounce before the Leinster tryline, but it didn’t.

Garry Ringrose

These next headings are going to involve my criticising Leinster players, but please don’t read too much into that fact as I believe they have great careers ahead of them.  On this occasion, I reckon that Ringrose tried to read Adeyokulun’s kick off the boot and made the instant decision that it was too long. 

Maybe I’m being nit-picky but for me once he sees the kick is about to be made he should be on the turn to put himself in a position to help deal with it should the bounce go against him.  And boy, did the bounce go against him and his team.

Luke McGrath & Kieran Marmion

In my preview I figured this was to be the biggest battle of the day; maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t but their battle for the touchdown after that bounce certainly did decide the match.

As Scott Quinnell pointed out at half time, the chip landed in the try area right in a patch of grass where there had been scrummaging practice before the match.  It’s a bit like the way in cricket, off-spin bowlers try to aim for a bumpy spot on the pitch to make the bounce do unpredictable things.  Well this bounce could not have gone better for Connacht, and I mean that with all due respect (I’m willing to cite the adage “you make your own luck”...but it WAS lucky).

Unlike Ringrose, Luke McGrath never gave up on the ball but it just got away from him and landed perfectly for Marmion to touch down.  However, over the entire match I think the Leinster 9 will have learned a lot from the way he was treated by his opposite number.  Again, none if it was (too) illegal, but right from the opening scrum Marmion did an excellent job of asserting himself and this set the tone for the day.

So that’s me done with my headings surrounding the lone try.  WIth 13 minutes on the clock, Connacht led by 7.  They weren’t to score again on the day, and this was mostly due to being completely shut down by Leinster’s league-leading defence.  And for the remainder of the first half, it seemed imperative that they add to that lead as their opposition supposedly had all the advantage in their favour after the break with the wind and a bench full to the brim with international caps.

I thought Leinster’s best chances to score came at the end of either half.  But a way through wasn’t to be found.  And what had us scratching our heads more than anything was the fact that we didn’t even attempt a drop goal in that energy-sapping series of 26 phases around the 77-minute mark.

Unfortunately once more we have to look at Ian Madigan, who hasn’t been having the best time of it starting at 10 of late.  He played his role in the defensive side of things for the most part and as I said earlier his 9 was having a battle with his opposite number, but the bottom line is that you should go into any match under the assumption that your out-half can get you a late 3-pointer if required.  And what’s more that assumption goes triple over in France.

Madigan reminded me of Stephen Jones at the end of another epic low-scoring encounter decided by one point, the semifinal of RWC2011.  Your confidence needs to be at a certain level to go for the drop goal and it’s very clear that his wasn’t.  To be fair, he had two relatively simple clearances blocked earlier in the half and as I pointed out before, the referee wasn’t exactly holding true to the “hindmost foot” rule.  Still, I think it was important to at least have a go at the drop goal and it was simply never on the cards.

Yet even without an attempted DG, Leinster had a 5-metre scrum and we definitely had a shove on.  Trouble is, this is a situation that is a bugbear of mine.  I HATE it when a pack looks to the ref for a penalty and my “party line” is that I respect refs who don’t give in to the pleas.  So I have to hold true to that here...sure, many’s a ref would have awarded a penalty for that particular scrum but perhaps we should have known this was a ref who tends to rewards teams who want to play rugby,

This meant a reset scrum and the clock practically at 80 minutes.  A few more phases, more tenacious D from the home side, and as had happened on several occasions throughout, the result was a knockon, allowing Connacht to boot the ball into a grateful Sportsground crowd and the four points were theirs.

Hey, I get it...Leinster were the bad guys on this occasion to everyone that wasn’t a card-carrying supporter.  The reactions on social media could hardly surprise me with their over-the-top-ness.

But for me, the reality is this...I can totally see the positions on the Pro12 ladder staying as they are, followed by two home wins in the semifinals, and this would, for me anyway, make for a perfect finale for the campaign.  And if that does happen, what a party that would be in Edinburgh.  Two proud Irish provinces, both at full strength, and hopefully with the same standard of officiating. 


Of course there are bound to be a few twists and turns along the way before then.  Whatever about the bounce of a ball in Galway, it is imperative for Leinster to make sure our current run doesn’t extend to three defeats on the bounce at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday.  JLP

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019