Much has been written about that famous half-time speech by Johnny Sexton at the (then) Millennium Stadium back in 2011.
Personally I’ve always wondered whether his words actually motivated the team or was it case of him getting himself fired up for the second half which eventually inspired those around him out on the pitch. We’ll probably never know.
This latest Leinster vintage seems to be having similar lop-sided issues from one half to the next only they have it the other way around. We’re getting off to brilliant starts in matches yet turning them into points on the Pro12 table has become something of a chore from the 40th minute onwards.
On this occasion, we were at least able to get away from the Scottish capital with a 5-point haul which is not to be sneezed at so I’ll do my best not to – though there might be a sniffle or two along the way!
It was long forgotten by full time but in fact the first five minutes did not go well for Leinster either - we found ourselves 8-0 down. A strong break from Sasa Tofilau evaded about half a dozen would-be tacklers off the first series and with their tails up deep in our half a neat through ball was run on to by former Ulster winger Michael Allen who ghosted past Zane Kirchner to touch the ball down in a manner that made him flip over in bizarre fashion, requiring treatment for possible head injury.
Duncan Weir’s conversion attempt was unsuccessful but shortly afterwards he was able to add three point to their total as Mike Ross was pinged for not rolling away (he actually did but apparently not enough). So not ideal though I am always wary about forming opinions on a match even after multiple early scores for one team, especially when the other hasn’t yet had a chance to show what they can do when they have it. And we certainly did well for the rest of the first period.
Man-of-the-match award went to Hamish Watson and he was certainly Edinburgh’s most influential player by far but call it my blue goggles all you want; I’d go for Jamie Heaslip. I had concerns about our marquee players’ ability to hit the ground running yet he quickly showed I needn’t have worried at all in his case. From start to finish he was making telling contributions - strong carries including one time he miraculously kept the ball infield on the way to our bonus point try. But most of all he was forcing turnovers either by tough tackles or by burrowing into breakdowns.
On the back of one such poach we won a penalty which was quickly taken by another Jamie to impress on the day, namely scrum-half Gibson-Park before Noel Reid timed his pass to Leavy perfectly taking out the defender and allowing the wing forward to stroll under the posts. As it happened I thought the pass might have been a shade forward but the photo evidence shows otherwise.
The second try came in classic rugby fashion...forwards doing the heavy lifting, backs getting the glory with the score. Watson had just forced a turnover of his own but the resulting clearance only went as far as Zane Kirchner who ran it back strongly before we hopped on the phase train once more. Pretty much everyone from 1 to 8 was involved in the series that followed, pretty much every carry gained some ground, and there was pretty much nothing the Edinburgh defence could do once we got going...eventually it was Garry Ringrose dotting down, another Isa conversion, now it’s 8-14.
Next up was from another quick-tap situation (love the desire to keep the tempo up it is really getting results) and when the ball was shipped into the wide channel, Sean Cronin showed a centre’s expertise in fixing his man and firing it to his skipper Nacewa who was able to go round and under the posts. Hey presto, it’s 8-21.
Then with 5 minutes left in the half, as I said earlier it was Heaslip’s fancy touchline footwork keeping an attack going before we win a pen close to the goal-line - again we kept the pace moving nicely and this time it was Gibson-Park, who along with his fellow half-back Carbery was never shy to keep the defence honest by having a little dart himself, who got the vital fourth try.
All this time Edinburgh were unable to re-discover the momentum that got their early score. The one time they did threaten our line we turned a scrum against the head courtesy of an opportunistic hook from Sean Cronin. The rest of the time we were doing another good job hitting them well behind the gainline and they were finding it hard to get their attack patterns going.
Wow - 8-28. Where on earth did this blogger get his prediction of a 3-point home victory from? After a shaky start we had made our hosts look extremely ordinary. And it has to be said, overall they were extremely ordinary - yes, in the likes of Watson and in the latter stages the wonderfully-named Blair Kinghorn they had some individual displays, but overall the cohesion just didn’t seem to be there for the home side and we took full advantage before the break. We even got an extra man for the start of the second half as skipper Grant Gilchrist was shown yellow right at the death. What could possibly go wrong from here?
See - this was the method in my match prediction madness. I had two concerns on our behalf - one specific, one general and both were actually borne out. The specific one was our ability to secure ball on our own set-pieces. After the clearly mandated complete front row swap on 50 minutes things really started to go south in this area, with several lineouts especially going astray.
But my general concern was in our ability to adapt to changes made at halftime by our opposition. Getting off to a great start in a match is a sign of proper preparation, but of course you also need to be able to react once the other guys make the necessary tweaks, and this had been a problem for us, not only this season but many times last.
Now the way this second half transpired, I reckon it may be a little harsh to put the blame for Edinburgh’s fight back squarely on the shoulders of our coaches.. Having recovered our own kickoff courtesy of Devin Toner, we tried a little grubber into their 22 but they were able to break up the touchline and deep into our territory before the clock ticked into the 42nd minute. It was to be the 61st minute before we had possession in Edinburgh’s half again. In between we just could not buy our way out, with our clearances generally recovered and run back.
Time to harp on the refereeing of David Wilkinson, which included several curious decisions. I already mentioned Mike Ross being pinged...his opposite number WP Nel did pretty much the same thing moments later only for it to be ignored. Then we had Garry Ringrose called for deliberate knockon when he was actually blocking a kick...Wilkinson said he “made no attempt to catch the ball” when I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone attempt to catch the ball directly off someone’s boot!
Overall I’d say he was suffering from what I call “bias-phobia” - this league seems to think putting in a ref from the union of the away team somehow “balances things out” yet you are actually putting the man in the middle in an unnecessary position where he doesn’t want any accusations of favouritism, thus leading him to overcompensate.
But to be fair, when he sent Dan Leavy to the sinbin in the second half for going “beyond the horizontal” with a tackle, his explanation did make sense as he had already warned both captains about dangerous play. This evened up the on-field numbers from the Gilchrist yellow and the home side were soon able to capitalise courtesy of a strong finish from Watson.
Once we finally managed to get the ball in their half Leavy was back on the field and had he held a relatively straightforward pass he’d have probably been over for his second...instead Edinburgh were able to clear and not long afterwards Kinghorn was able to easily dance around Noel Reid putting his side back on the front foot...eventually off a scrum in our 22 Magnus Bradbury pulled another try back and suddenly they were just six points behind.
Even the most optimistic Leinster fan would have been worried at this point that the lead was going to evaporate completely. I joked on twitter that I had the phrase “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” taken down from the cliché shelf and ready to deploy, though it really wasn’t a joking matter.
Thankfully this Edinburgh side wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Many other teams in this league would have made a lot more from all that second half territory and possession and I was disappointed by the contributions of Du Preez and Hidalgo-Cline off the bench; I thought they might make the difference.
Instead it was ironically an innovative lineout move which put the icing on our cake. Since his long darts weren’t happening, Bryan Byrne went the short route to Ross Molony who stole a march on the Edinburgh pack and got all the way to the line before he was stopped. Eventually Dan Leavy did manage to nab his second try giving a final margin which certainly didn’t reflect the 80 minutes that led to it.
But hey...another cliché I can reach for is “swings and roundabouts”...we ourselves were unlucky to be on the wrong end of a 5-0 points spread against Glasgow six days earlier. I’m not going to dwell too much on what went wrong here though we certainly won’t want a repeat against Those Pesky Birds who top the Pro12 table and are set to visit the RDS next Friday.
Before the season kicked off I was hoping for 10 points from these opening three matches...we got 9 which isn’t so bad. Also, compared to the corresponding fixtures from last year, we’re up by a net of two points, so also a positive. The overall attacking approach is also something I like...Gibson-Park put in a good shout for that 9 jersey though I’m assuming Luke McGrath will quickly get a chance to respond.
Despite the odd glitch here and there Carbery continued to impress at outhalf though you have to assume Johnny Sexton is close to returning. I toyed with the notion of Carbery at 10 and Sexton at 12 with Reid at 23 to give a bit more defensive bite down the middle but then again I’m not so sure the concerns are so bad that we’d need to think too far outside the box.
On the coaching ticket, while I had tongue firmly in cheek when observing Lancaster’s distance from Leo & Girv in Glasgow, I couldn’t but notice a similar arrangement this time around. But again, I’m not going to attach too much meaning to it (even though that’s supposedly my remit as a “keyboard warrior” isn’t it) because the new kid on the block is probably just sitting back and taking in the overall setup for now.
So while retaining a bit of concern over the in-game management and lineout throws, we should bring optimism forward from what will hopefully be our last regular season visit to Murrayfield now the capital club has found a new home in Myreside. Just three more chances to prepare for the Champions Cup...another 9 league points at the very least would be most welcome. JLP