Though this writeup is about Ulster and Leinster, I know the entire rugby family will understand if I dedicate it to the memory of passionate Munster rugby fan Joanne Brennan, who sadly passed away last night.
We had several pleasant social media exchanges with her over the years on many different rugby matters, and I was lucky to actually be able to meet her in person at one function at the Aviva Stadium.
The rugby community, particularly that which operates online, was always enriched by her many contributions whether under her own name or as the Irish Rugby representative for #rugbyunited.
Sincere condolences to all her family. RIP
Quite a few talking points arising from this match, as there should be for a massive interprovincial clash at the business end of the season. But for Leinster, there can be but one topic that is front and centre.
Just how on earth are we going to put enough points on the board in the coming weeks to justify our position as bookies’ favourites to lift the Pro12 title for a 5th time?
It’s not like our worries didn’t exist before this trip to the Kingspan Stadium. Folding the many Six Nations players back into the squad was a process that was meant to help but it hadn’t, though the assumption was that with the playoffs imminent now was the time to crank things up.
And I know that by having a pop at what we do with the ball I leave myself open to being labelled a “keyboard warrior”. ‘What would you have done differently?’ some might ask, and it’s a fair enough question. If only I could cite a performance by a team that was playing against a defence similar to the one we faced in Belfast…
...well guess what, I do. Simply put, Ulster played on Saturday the way we should have, and this is why they won. They had the right attitude, they had the right intensity, the right gameplan and the right execution. Had we been able to at least match them in those areas, we could have won. But we didn’t, and we paid the price.
What was most frustrating for me was the fact that the strategy that contributed most to Ulster winning, ie kicking the ball in behind the defence to make them turn and face the maximum amount of pressure near their own try-line, was something that we did first in the opening exchanges, and what’s more it worked, though not quite enough to put points on the board. It’s just that the reason we neglected to go back to that well more often is beyond me.
I mean...knock-ons can happen. I have seen Leinster displays before which involved mistakes aplenty, with sequences of phases ended by a strong tackle jarring the ball loose or even a simple misjudgement on the carrier’s part. But this was a lot more than that.
The phrase “trying to get a square peg through a round hole” comes close to covering it but Leinster were doing it after already finding out they had a round peg that fitted fine, choosing instead to stick with the square one.
I reckon it was Ulster’s second try which highlighted the difference between the two sides most of all so I’ll harp on that first before dealing with the controversial one that came in the first half.
The sequence actually began with Leinster on the attack in the Ulster half. Having clawed our way back to 10-6, the match was still very much in the balance at this stage. But as you can see from this Vine clip below, we chose to run a play that every team knows we love, namely the “pass back inside” (that’s what I call it…no doubt on the training pitch they have a much fancier technical name for it).
Clearly the hope is that a strong line by a back three runner will exploit a gap caused by forwards caught on the wrong foot. That’s all very well if the defence gets fooled by the ball travelling through the hands from the half-backs, but when so many from the opposition have not only seen you run those patterns for Leinster before, but also run them with you regularly for Ireland, the “readability” of the play is clear to see as Rob Kearney is swallowed whole by tacklers.
In fact there are so many Ulster bodies ready for the play they manage to pin him in and force a penalty for holding after the tackle. And what’s more, Ruan Pienaar was also aware that this was a perfect moment to make use of Leinster transitioning from attack to defence and he put in a cracking kick behind Isa Nacewa over on the far wing which forced him to clear his lines.
From the lineout, a strong line by Stuart McCloskey broke through the tackle attempts of Sexton and Murphy before an offload saw Luke Fitzgerald interfere with the arm of Rory Scholes who couldn’t take the pass. Yellow card all day long...penalty to Ulster and the crucial first score of the second half of what was at that stage a close game.
A few minutes later, Jared Payne is running at the Leinster D in a similar position to that which we had in the Vine clip, but his plan is to dribble the ball into the corner. Rob Kearney clears, but it’s a lineout to Ulster. Now they have an extra man an ultimately it’s Payne himself going over the line after some nice work by Jackson in the process.
So in the space of just 4 minutes on the clock, it went from Leinster on the front foot just 4 points behind, to Leinster down in the dumps and even a losing bonus point out of reach.
Of course it’s simplistic to suggest that had we just put the ball in the corner down the far end instead of running that pass back inside, we would have won, so I’m not saying that. But what I am saying is that if we had at least tried it and failed because of a handling error or good defence, I’d feel a lot better about it.
Instead I am honestly questioning whether we’re going to be able to get four points next weekend against Treviso in our final match, let alone five. Maybe that’s a bit over-dramatic, but the Italians did just beat our fellow title contenders Connacht, and they do need the points themselves to pip Zebre in their annual race to the bottom.
But we can talk more of that match later in the week. What say I look at things that happened in Belfast which perhaps weren’t our fault, and of course we must begin with the penalty try.
Again, this came from Ulster having the right attacking mindset. Ruan Pienaar had just wriggled his way through a gap at the pillar and found himself in space. Thing is though, both these teams have built impressive defensive reputations out of being able to scramble in these situations enough to create at worst a series of phases on the 5m line. So Ruan tried something different, namely a kick forward over the try line creating a foot race.
There is absolutely no doubt that what Rob Kearney did next was wrong, it was cynical, and at was a yellow card all day long. So let’s put that aspect to bed, as I very much doubt any Leinster fan is disputing it. The penalty try award, however, is another matter altogether.
A penalty try must be awarded if the offence prevents a try that would probably otherwise have been scored.
Such is the wording of Law 10.2. Clearly, the word “probably” is there to put the decision firmly in the hands of the officials. And naturally as fans, we have the tint of our goggles to consider when we make our own judgements.
For me, and yes I know what colour my own tint is very well thank you, this cannot be given as a penalty try any day of the week. The photo, taken immediately after the kick forward, shows Luke McGrath level with the Ulster scrum half and facing the try line. Given the distance between that point and where the ball would have had to be put down, I can say a try “maybe” would have been scored, but “probably”? Never. Ever.
So it should have been three points not seven for the Ulstermen. Does that mean we would have won if the “correct” call was made? Again...maybe, but not probably.
I’m not done on the officiating. When Rob was off the pitch Leinster actually did pretty well on the offensive front, and once we even put the ball in behind their defence when Isa chipped a ball forward. Thing was though...not only did Luke Marshall block his run, he actually turned as looked at our skipper a couple of times in the process to make sure he was blocking.
We have seen these both given and not given many times, but my problem with this is that Luke McGrath was pinged for the exact same thing earlier, and this led to the opening score of the game. OK...maybe their Luke sold it better than ours, but both were still blatant blocks.
That wasn’t even the worst of it. Moments after that, Marshall hauled down Josh van der Flier by the neck. Yes, it was called a penalty, and yes, Sexton slotted the 3 points from it, but some refs would have seen a pattern given the similar tackle by Scholes shortly before (also called) and one by Henderson on Nacewa in the second half (see pic – it was ignored by officials and Sky commentators alike).
And on the subject of interpreting the word “probably”...Leinster had a maul heading from about 15m out right towards the try line when it was pulled down...I actually can’t see that happening myself in the replays, but if the ref calls it as a pen, why doesn’t that make it a cynical act and thus at least a yellow?
Once more...all of the above are points I feel are ones that need to be made with relation to the match, but I am not saying it actually cost us, at least not the win. And while many take issue with this referee in particular I’m not going down that road, though I disagree with those who complain about so-called “ref-bashing as I feel they are as open to analysis as anyone involved in this wonderful game.
Ulster coaches, players and fans alike should be proud of their display after what has been a difficult enough season overall by their standards. And their key moments came primarily from their half-backs...I have already covered Pienaar’s involvement but Paddy Jackson definitely deserves some kudos as well. The power hit on Madigan and the steal for his breakaway try (further evidence of our predictability) were just two examples of his determined display on which the result depended.
Clearly the onlooking Joe Schmidt must have noticed, though surely similar outings away from friendly familiar surroundings (Ospreys next week and most likely an away semifinal) won’t hurt his cause either. I have little doubt he will at very least be on the plane for South Africa in June once fit.
But back to the remit of this site…one of the highlights of this season for Leinster has been the emergence of #CullensCubs like Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier. At this stage of the season however, I feel their displays have to be as open to analysis as those around them and I thought a bit of naivety showed at times for them; I have already mentioned Luke’s poorly-disguised block while the others saw the ball stripped in contact a bit more easily than it could have been.
That’s not to say the more experienced players were perfect by a long chalk; I’m just saying that the “youth = good, experience = bad” narrative that was touted by many earlier in the season doesn’t really apply now. Besides, when it comes to this stage of Leinster’s campaign, individual errors are nowhere near as important as the overall attacking mindset I have harped on for most of this piece.
I’m not saying Leinster’s chances of lifting the Pro12 trophy are gone by any stretch of the imagination. I AM surprised the bookies still have us as favourites, however, given Glasgow’s form and the fact that the final is at Murrayfield.
The frustrating thing is that this match in Belfast, ironically on the final day of April, was our chance to show that we’re ready for the challenges that face us in May. Sadly, while this has been a month where we have excelled since 2009, I don’t have a whole lot of evidence to give me confidence this time around, and even if we do put the Italians to the sword next weekend, it won’t make me feel any better about our hopes in the playoffs.
For me, the bare minimum we can do is put out a full-strength team for the final home regular season clash on Saturday. Give our “ideal” lineup another 60+ minutes to get used to playing together. After that, it’s down to the coaching staff and our senior players to get us match-ready in the same way Les Kiss, Rory Best & co did for Ulster last Saturday.
Now is a time of the season where you not only need to win, you must also play like you want to. Forget about test matches in the future, forget about poor displays in the past, just play with the 22 men wearing the same jersey on the day and focus on getting the job done.
There is definitely hope for Leinster...look where we are in the Pro12 now as opposed to this time last year. But we need to see something more in the coming weeks if we want the impact on our trophy cabinet to be any different. Over to you lads. JLP
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