I often enjoy Leinster matches from the RDS press box this weather, and when you watch from up there maybe it’s the company I’m in but I tend to view matches much more analytically. Luckily when I do decide to take my seat in with the rest of the crowd I am able to switch all that off and be simply a fan, and that was certainly the case on Saturday.
When that full time whistle blew, I wasn’t bothered about one-out runners, or controversial calls by officials, or which individuals put their hands up and which didn’t, or what decisions were made by the respective coaches. My team had more points than the other team, and I let out a massive roar of approval for that fact. Because that’s what you do when your team wins, as the following week it may not happen.
But given the enormity of this particular fixture, there is always going to be analysis and opinion to pour over afterwards whether you run a website or not, though I managed to stay away from most of it until the Sunday morning, allowing me enough time to at least savour the feeling of my team being in first place on the ladder for the first time in well over a year.
And when I did begin to wade through the responses throughout the ruggersphere, one general thought sprang to mind. Whether or not the “Dublin media” phenomenon to which people such as Ronan O’Gara liked to refer in the past ever existed, it most certainly doesn’t now.
Before I explain, let me be clear. I don’t really care what other people say about Leinster. If some choose to talk us down it’s probably because we’re doing something to annoy them, ie winning. What does bug me is the suggestion that there is any kind of general bias towards the province going on, because apart from places like here at HarpinOnRugby (where, being a fan site, it’s part of the remit) I sure don’t see it anywhere.
Just take the way the press went so heavily on just one of the post-match quotes. “I think a draw would have been a fairer result”, said Jonathan Sexton. Look folks, Leinster were lucky, even Sexton himself says it. OK, fine - you could definitely make a case for that based on what happened. But, erm, what about last weekend over in Galway?
Then, Leinster were the ones pounding away at the line at the end in search of a match winning try. Then, Leinster were the ones making questionable decisions that cost them. Then, Leinster were the ones wondering if more penalties could have been awarded. Yet no “unlucky to lose” claims to be found - then, it was spun as a remarkable hold-out by the home side resulting in a famous victory.
But like I say, such is to be expected when you have the success Leinster enjoyed in recent times compared to the other provinces. And while the modern day version might not be at or near the standards of the Cheika/Schmidt eras, we are now both top of the league and bookies’ favourites to lift what would be our 5th title.
OK I think I have made my point. And despite it, I will do my level best to make my harping on the match itself as objective as I can. Believe it or not, I think that’s a relatively easy task.
Having put my “analytical” hat back on to watch it over a second time, I was amazed by just how much happened to one side that had a virtually equal occurrence which happened to the other. One try each. Assault on the opposition tryline right before the end of either half. Three kickable penalties each.
And ultimately, it was the ability to convert those penalties that proved the real difference. Both Ian Keatley and Jonathan Sexton had chances with the score delicately poised at 13-13. One went over. The other did not.
In Keatley’s case, we first have to look at how he got on the park in the first place. Clearly much has changed for him down at the southern province since the last time Munster graced the Aviva Stadium. On more than one occasion I have seen Munster fall short in matches based on his performance, so I have to say much like their own fans I raised an eyebrow when he came on for Johnny Holland as early as the end of the third quarter.
But having contributed all of Munster’s points and done a reasonable job guiding the team against the best defence in the league, a couple of second half wobbles like a kick out on the full and a dropped pass didn’t seem enough to warrant Holland getting pulled at that stage. And though you could make a “chicken and egg” argument about Keatley’s form (would he have been poor anyway or did the pressure of the criticism take its toll?) on the day, the net result was the same - penalty missed and no real addition to Munster’s play going forward.
Contrast this to the Sexton kick on 63 minutes that ended up being the winner. Who knows...maybe he really is able to tune out every other noise the way he did in that ad for O2 - but the chances are he chose to ignore referee Ian Davies’ call of “10 seconds”.
Whichever it was, you can’t put the fact that the ref didn’t blow his whistle on the out-half, any more that you can put Archer’s later neck-grab of Strauss in plain sight of the ref on the prop (for example). You’re told to “play to the whistle” and Sexton didn’t get one, so he kept his nerve and slotted the kick.
Now...to the referee. I got called a “ref basher” online today but I reckon that’s a term that needs a proper definition. For me, it means blaming the officials on the fact that your team lost or even failed to win by more. That is certainly not what I am doing here.
Before Munster fans get on my case for highlighting the Archer/Strauss incident on Instagram, I didn’t choose that because of who was doing what, rather that it provided a perfect angle to show the referee either not seeing or just plain ignoring clear fouls.
I could write at length on several missed calls that would have affected both sides, but that would make this writeup into an epic. I’m going to single out the Zebo incident at the end of the first half because I feel it demonstrates that Davies probably wasn’t up for the occasion.
As it happened over in the far corner of the pitch I didn’t see it live and thus couldn’t work out why Sexton and Reddan were in the official’s ear on the way to the tunnel. But watching it back it was clear that what Zebo did, ie swatting the ball out of play to prevent what could have been a try, was definitely worth at least a look by the TMO. And I have to assume that the thought crossed Ian Davies’ mind even without the remonstrations of the Leinster players.
This is why I suggest he was out of his depth. The only logical explanation I can think of for his ignoring that incident was that he didn’t fancy the idea of putting a second Munster player in the bin going into the break. If so, then it amounts to “bottling it”, and like I said before, it wasn’t the only time on the day this happened (the “10 second thing” of course being one that probably should have gone against us).
Maybe the missed offences did cancel each other out overall, but a dozen wrongs don’t make half a dozen rights.
The reason I’m devoting so many words to the referee is not that I want to bash him, rather I want to highlight the importance of this fixture. In a professional league which is desperate for attention in the rugby mainstream, Leinster v Munster is most certainly what Americans call a “marquee matchup”. Just look at the attendance - not a full Aviva Stadium it’s true, but the 43,108 was more than the other 5 Pro12 fixtures the same weekend combined (39,392). So if it’s not treated like a test match, it should at least receive status similar to a top Champions Cup one.
OK, enough on the ref. We probably should get to the actual rugby itself at some stage. Though in fairness I won’t need a lot of words to describe it.
Two strong defences facing two average offences which did have strategies for breaking through but couldn’t make them work and certainly couldn’t adapt mid-contest.
Maybe I should use more words than that, but the fact remains that all the “box kicking” and “grubbers” and “miss passes” and “inside passes” and ”clearing out players grabbing opponents of a bit longer than they should” in the world wasn’t going to make an impact on the day.
Imagine a pizza if you will. (Guess what we had for dinner last night here at Harpin Manor ha ha) Think of one that has the most awesome crust & base you’ve ever tasted. Now imagine that base served with nothing but the most basic toppings like store-brand tomato sauce and grated cheese. While the base being tasty is wonderful, that’s probably not why you ordered the pizza in the first place.
That’s how I saw these two teams on the day, and Leinster in general throughout the season. Week in week out I harp on how well organised our D has been thanks to the return of Kurt McQuilkin, yet week in week out I point out how that probably won’t be enough to win this league.
The Munster try came from a missed tackle by Sean Cronin but overall, I think that is the least of our worries. From a defensive standpoint I’d rather focus on the 24-phase denial in the second half after a quick tap penalty from Conor Murray because without the ball we are getting stronger by the week. Besides if we want to be champions, the concession of 13pts should be enough for us to win more often than not.
Now with it being Sexton’s first game back in blue since January, unlike some I am willing to offer some leeway and hope that things will get better, though with just three matches left before the playoffs that will have to happen quickly. And something from his post-match interviews did bother me - he claimed he was running “Ireland plays” which apparently Ben Te’o wasn’t quite used to.
I’d be inclined to suggest that since Te’o is destined to play in (and more than likely also for) England, maybe using Ireland plays isn’t the way to go on several levels. What say instead we use the (regrettable yet still also useful) upcoming weekend off make a few tweaks here and there to suit Ben’s own style between now and the end of the season? Just a thought.
Despite having a tough time with the ball I reckon Sexton was the right choice for man of the match – the determined finish for his try during our best “purple patch” at the end of the first half didn’t hurt. But if there was to be a prize for “liability of the match” we could have a long debate – Keatley was by no means in his own.
Sean Cronin won’t get nearly as much criticism from me for his missed tackle than he will about yet another failure to hit a lineout with Devin Toner in at a key moment in the opp 22. That could of course also be down to the call...we had just shown some great technique in our maul and the tactic didn’t seem broken so why we tried to fix it I’ll never know.
Then there was Kilcoyne’s decision to tap and go at the very end. I can see the logic in it to an extent in that Leinster’s D was so good it made sense to try and catch it unawares when possible, Plus, it offered the chance of a blue player being carded if caught encroaching.
Here is where I made no sense of the online rhetoric. Again, this happened down the other end of the pitch so I had no idea of it as I left the Aviva. But according to many commenters, Leinster players were “miles offside” tackling Kilcoyne.
I’m sorry but while I admittedly only saw one angle courtesy of Sky, it showed two tacklers - Te’o first, then Ruddock. The latter was definitely over the tryline when Kilcoyne tapped. Te’o, while angry about the pen, was still retreating towards the line and went out of shot before returning to make the tackle but I’d be surprised if he was “miles offside”.
All in all, I think the more pressing concern was over Kilcoyne’s decision. I credit Munster for going for the try because I really don’t think a draw was much use to them, but they could have taken a lineout or scrum for one final bash at Leinster’s 14 men.
On the subject of Leinster’s 14 men...Cian Healy. Oh, dear. Though our lead was only 3 at the time, our defence was pretty comfortable. That challenge was just plain dumb, there’s no sugar coating it. Was it a red? I’m not sure, but for Leinster on the day it was as harmful as one.
Not that Munster were without their own disciplinary liabilities either. They had just breached the Leinster line and re-established their three point lead when Saili gives away his own ridiculous penalty. I know I have had a go at the ref, but there were some decisions that were made very easy for him.
Finally with regard to the players I thought it was ironic that Stander had a quiet match. He’s great in general and he’ll definitely be back soon, but this display was a bit ironic for those who like to accuse Jamie Heaslip of being “anonymous” on big occasions.
All in all, a slightly lucky win for Leinster maybe, but one I’m happy to take and one for which I’m certainly not going to apologize. These big derbies come but twice a year….it’s always nice to do the “double” in a given season but not only will Munster be back winning them in the not too distant future, I wouldn’t rule out their chances this season completely just yet either.
No matter who your own personal favourites are province-wise, there’s still a lot to play for this season and I’m still very confident we can get all four in the Champions Cup which would make for a very successful season for Irish rugby.
As for now, I seem to be strangely hungry for leftover pizza. JLP
PS Next week our Monday match writeup will feature Connacht’s Challenge Cup quarterfinal in Grenoble.
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