After 22 rounds of 6 matches where every team in the Guinness Pro 12 played the other home and away, Leinster Rugby, led by “rookie” head coach Leo Cullen, finished in first place on the league table.
I just wanted to make sure I got that point across before any other, because it certainly isn’t made clear by the coverage and opinion in the media, both mainstream and social. There, the general sentiment is something like “If you squint your eyes and tilt your head sideways a little, what you actually see is that (insert one from Connacht/Glasgow/Ulster here) were the REAL winners.”
Now to be fair, there can be no debate over who has done better in more recent times...Leinster have lost to all three fellow semifinal qualifiers since the Six Nations (albeit away from home each time), including last week’s tonking against our upcoming playoff opponents Ulster.
And there is indeed much to be said the achievements of those other playoff contenders. Ulster have hit peak form at just the right time. Glasgow did an excellent job of assimilating internationals back into their squad after World Cup and Six Nations to go on a long unbeaten run which lifted themselves out of the chasing pack into the top four. And then of course there’s Connacht’s amazing heroics which fell one late penalty in Treviso short of sealing top spot for themselves.
But given there is no tangible prize for finishing 1st anymore (it used to at least guarantee you would host the Grand Final should you qualify until Leinster gave the impression they were going to win every year so they changed it, rightly so IMO) I think it’s fair enough to acknowledge the achievement, so being a fansite for the province I reckon here is as good a place as any.
No team got more points, we had the most wins, and we had the best defence (even after shipping 6 tries in the last two matches). Put all of that together and we finish first place on the table above everyone else. Oh, and as a cherry on top there’s the eleven wins out of eleven at the RDS. Sure, the playoffs pose a challenge, but they’re not for a couple of weeks so what say we use the time to celebrate something positive.
Yes, I know this is meant to be a writeup of our match against Treviso. But if I’m going to make such a song and dance about the significance of finishing top of the ladder, can I really harp too much on an 8-try, 31-point home victory over the side that finished last?
So this week, to follow on the theme of my preview from Friday, I’m going to look at the match with more a view to the occasion itself rather than the technicalities of the rugby on show, and I will do so through the eyes of my 7-year-old son, attending his first ever Leinster rugby match.
I never wanted to bring him when he was too young to at least appreciate what was going on, or indeed require so much minding that nobody would get to. So from the age of about five the process of getting him to a stage when he wanted to go was a bit like a classic family car journey only with the roles reversed...I kept asking him if he’d like to go (in other words, “Are we there yet?”) and he’d say “No”, and that was fine. Until now.
During the week my question got a “Yes” that was far more enthusiastic than I ever imagined. You see, I’m sure he’ll come to like sport-watching to some degree one day, but for now he sees it as “that thing which sees Daddy shouting at the telly” so his reluctance was understandable. But now he’s willing to overcome that and see what all the fuss is about, and I was happy that he was a willing participant.
The day had to be structured carefully. At first I thought the promise of food AFTER the match was the way to go, but with a 3 o’clock kickoff it turned out a pre-match meal was the better option. So having donned our blue jerseys, we set off early and as we got closer to Dublin 4 we spotted more and more people dressed in similar fashion, which prompted us to chant “Leinster, Leinster” each time.
Having parked in Donnybrook and ordered our food in Eddie Rockets, as I sat across from the youngster I thought about how he had absolutely no idea what to expect from the event we were attending. Was there any way I could spin it to make it exciting? Or to put it another way...was there anything about Leinster rugby I could use to connect with something he enjoys?
Wait - I think I’ve got it.
“Hey - you know Johnny Sexton plays for Leinster, right?”
He nodded. That was the only name he knew.
“Great, and he’ll be playing today. But I bet you didn’t know that Leinster actually have a giant playing for them as well?”
He looked at me with genuine wonder. “Really?”
“Oh yes. His name is Devin and he’s taller than everyone else in the league! Wait until you see him and they throw the ball so he can catch it, nobody else can get near!”
Now here’s where I can imagine regular readers going - “Well he won’t bloody catch it if we don’t hit him with our darts, especially in good attacking positions in the opposition 22...and even if he does, can we be sure we’ll be able to properly set up a driving maul?” but this of course was furthest from my mind at this point.
Such is the challenge in attracting spectators to rugby grounds all over the world...if the only people who showed up were those fully clued in on the Laws of the game and the history of the home team, you’d be lucky to fill the lower tier of the various stands let alone the whole ground. Whatever the age, you need something to make them want to go as well as something to make them want to come back and hopefully they can bring themselves up to speed on the nitty gritty details at their own pace after that.
From the diner all the way to the stadium he was asking me more questions about Devin the Giant...I thought it best to perhaps tone (pun not intended for once, only noticed it on proof read!)) down the expectations in case he thought it was someone as tall as the goalposts, but I’m pretty sure he got the idea and it seemed to capture his imagination.
And as we made the turn before Donnybrook Church and headed up Anglesea Road I could tell he was impressed by the growing amount of fellow supporters heading in the same direction. He was also impressed by the fact that his father was greeted by those sitting around us when we took our seats. Not a bad start.
“Here’s the song I told you about...Leinster are on their way out!” In the car as we set off I played the intro to “Welcome to the Jungle” so he recognized it and everyone around us started waving their flags. Sadly I found out at the last minute the flag I had at home was broken and I didn’t think to look for one on the way to our seat, but he didn’t seem to mind in fact he liked the buildup of excitement as the players took the field.
So all the pomp and ceremony was now done...time to kick off. This was to be the challenging bit. Suddenly I have to place myself somewhere between a father who’s worried his son is going to be bored out of his bin for up to two hours because he hasn’t a clue what’s going on, and a die-hard Leinster fan who wants us to secure the try bonus as early as possible so we can rest key players.
At one point Leinster won a penalty which I knew would be kicked to touch and thus, given the angle, would probably come in our direction.
“Look out - Johnny Sexton is about to kick the ball toward us...are you ready to catch it?”
He wasn’t sure what I meant at first, until he spotted Sexton taking the ball and looking right in our direction before launching a kick just as his father had warned him. Off the boot it looked like it was heading towards us but it had too much height and actually got caught a few rows behind us by a kid not much older than my son, to great applause of course.
“Wait - Daddy? Where’s the giant?”
A good question, I thought. I hadn’t noticed him yet, but surely with this lineout about to take place right in front of us we were bound to see him...but there’s Ross Molony wearing 4 and Mick Kearney wearing 5??? Huh??? And Hayden Triggs among the subs behind the posts? Just my luck Toner pulls out of the one game where I was using him as a main atraction!
Thankfully it was only about ten minutes before we had the first Leinster try. The atmosphere was a bit subdued in the early exchanges, but when Sexton touched down the eruption of the crowd together with the blasting of the sample from the Fratelli’s “Chelsea Dagger” - he was left in no doubt that a good thing had just happened!
Next of course came the conversion, and here’s another occasion for which I had him prepared. In fact, my work was so well done that when I leaned over to tell him, he actually told ME to be quiet! That put me in my place, and to the guy sitting in front of me, as much as you tried to hide it I actually do know you were laughing! I don’t blame you though...it was funny.
A couple more Leinster tries followed, both by Richardt Strauss and one from a quick tap penalty by Sexton in the Treviso 22, and when the clock was just getting past the 30-minute mark I got my first “how much longer is left?”, and I knew he didn’t mean until halftime. I pointed to the clock and told him that when it got to 40 we’d be able to stretch our legs.
Of course, he tugged my arm when the clock hit 40 but Leinster still had the ball for about twenty odd phases so I had to explain that it was a teeny bit of a white lie. For once I wasn’t too concerned that we were unable to add to the score though!
I got a text that we could meet a couple of my friends at halftime and they had the idea of moving to the North Stand for the second half since it was likely that we’d get a few tries down that end. It wasn’t near to being full so it wasn’t as though we were pinching anyone’s seats...we got a decent enough position directly behind the goal.
And it was early enough in the second period when Jack McGrath got the crucial bonus point try, followed by one from Isa and then it was Jordi Murphy. The points now safe, I could let my attention slip. My companion had already done this, of course.
“Be honest - would you like to play a game on my phone? I promise I won’t mind.” after which he nodded vigorously. So he set about bursting bubbles for the next ten minutes or so, gazing up only when a Leinster conversion looked as though it could head towards us for him to catch. I was glad he was occupied while my friends kept me in touch with the scores in the other matches.
This was when visitors started actually putting some points on the board, much to the delight of the three men sitting to our left who let out a big cheer thus earning the name “The Treviso Ultras”.
“Can we go now?” he said around the 70-minute mark as he got bored with my phone. I promised him one final bribe, a visit the sweet shop on the way back to the car, once he stayed to the end and the deal was struck.
Again, all he had to do was wait until the clock said a certain number, this time 80. And again, Leinster played on with the ball well after the promised time only on this occasion, my man of the match Garry Ringrose got the icing on the cake with try number eight followed by a Nacewa conversion which brought up the 50 on the scoreboard.
So a perfect end to the proceedings...the atmosphere around the ground was perhaps a bit flat in the second half but I dare say many were minding their phones to see what was going on in the other key matches. In fact on the walk away from the RDS I had to dodge a couple of lamp-posts as I tried to keep up with both himself and the last few nerve-wracking minutes of the Connacht v Glasgow thriller.
As we neared the car, I anxiously posed the all-important question…”Well, did you enjoy that?”
He popped a Rowntrees Random in his mouth and took a thoughtful chew or two before proclaiming…”Of course I did - we won by 50 points to 19!!!”
You’d think it was the numerical accuracy that bowled me over, but it wasn’t. It was in fact the “we”. Job done. Too bad the semifinal against Ulster will go on past his bed time but here’s hoping he still has an interest when next season comes around because I enjoyed the day every bit as much if not more.
Of course I will harp on matters more pertaining to the actual rugby between now and the semifinal but I thought I’d do something a little different this time around. There must be something about the visit of this particular Italian outfit...a year ago the young lad’s little sister was born on the day of the match.
Who knows, maybe when she’s seven I’ll be able to bring all my kids willingly to a Pro12 match. Whether or not Treviso will still be in the league at that stage, however, is anyone’s guess. JLP
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