Overall, I have been completely won over by the method they have used in the Top14 for a while now and added this year in Super Rugby. Instead of getting a bonus for scoring 4 tries, you must instead score at least three more than your opponent. This means that even if you get the 4 under your belt in the early stages of a match, like Leinster did on Friday, you still have to watch you don’t leak a few the other end because the point can be lost.
Having said that, since the system is not used in the Pro12 right now, I can’t have too many complaints about the way this match transpired. We put 4 tries and 31 points on them before they got their side of the scoreboard moving - ok...maybe once they did they pulled three & 19 back respectively which were unanswered, but with the bulk of them coming in the final ten minutes, the actual result was really never in much doubt so it’s a second week in a row of 5 points bagged and we should only see it as a net positive and move on.
So that’s where I’m coming from with this writeup...of course there are a few concerns and I will get to them but what say we crack on and look at how the eight tries came about.
For teams that have won this league 8 times between them yet have lost their way of late, their approaches with the ball were remarkably similar to what we’ve come to expect from them in that time. The visiting Ospreys looked to get it into the wide channels quickly where they hoped a series of befuddling offloads would see them over the line.
On our part, and I know I’ll get into loads of trouble for saying this, we seemed to be reverting to the style of rugby that earned Matt O’Connor so much praise from the Leinster faithful (even though that was meant to be a joke it was really hard to type!).
Seriously though...after exploring an exciting new offloading style in recent weeks under the stewardship of the promising Joey Carbery, the return of Johnny Sexton there seemed to come with a return of one out runners and cheeky little territory kicks from the 12 and 13 channels.
And of the two approaches, it quickly became clear that ours was going to be more effective at breaching the defence it was facing, although our first trip into their 22 had me worried as Scott Baldwin won a turnover penalty right under his own posts making me wonder if it was to be a long evening for us. A missed chance on an early attacking lineout, something that has troubled us a lot this season so far, also gave me concerns.
But luckily the next chance we had, the lineout was cleanly taken, the phases were well run by the forwards, and eventually it was Josh van der Flier finding the perfect blend of line and leg power to get the ball to ground over the tryline. This added to an earlier penalty gave us a very handy 10-0 cushion at the end of the first quarter.
The Welsh region tried to come back at us but we were showing a knack of committing to big tackles behind the gainline and it was starting to show results. Our skipper Isa Nacewa struck the first blow this way when it looked to all intents and purposes that the Ospreys were going to go over the line...instead they were pushed right back to the 22 before we eventually won a clearing penalty.
As we worked our way back up the field, a high ball put up by Luke McGrath fell to Isa Nacewa who was faced by Osprey prop Dmitri Arhip...what followed drew a gasp from the Anglesea Stand but having seen it many times I have to assume it was accidental. In an attempt to grab Isa’s jersey he instead got him by the clump of hair at the back he had dyed for the recent fundraiser for Kurt McQuilkin. It certainly looked nasty and it was reckless but deserved no more than a yellow in my opinion.
Shortly afterwards we had yet more confusion. As the Ospreys bravely tried to run the ball out of their own 22 a brilliant strip move from van der Flier won it back and it was our turn to get the ball out wide quickly. It came to Sexton who was swamped by players and bundled into touch but as the assistant raised his flag, Luke McGrath spotted that his outhalf had dropped it so he recovered and easily dotted down.
Referee Marius Mitrea rightly consulted his TMO to make sure but proceeded to report that he could tell that Sexton knocked it on thus it was no try. You can tell that the man in the booth’s reply of “OK” can be loosely translated “Well, I don’t think so but it’s your call mate”.
Anyway it was all moot just moments later as a massive Leinster shove on the Osprey scrum won a penalty and we wisely went for another scrum and this was a chance for Jamie Heaslip to demonstrate a skill he rarely gets credit for, ie controlling the ball at the base of a scrum driving forward, before the ref ran under the posts for a thoroughly deserved penalty try.
So that was 17-0 and the first half scoring wasn’t over. The visitors had a go down the touchline again only for their centre Matavesi to throw an offload straight to Zane Kirchner who ran it back with interest. A few phases later it was Johnny Sexton’s turn to bring it powerfully over the line and those who defied the bus strike to make it to the RDS (although sadly this blogger was unable to defy a flat tyre and had to watch at home *sniff*) were well satisfied as the teams went into the break.
But...the chickens were yet to be hatched and thus could not be counted. Not only had we struggled in the second half of games this season, we were facing a team that we knew always had a score or two in them so nothing could be taken for granted.
After Scott Baldwin was pinged for at least the third time without a warning, Sexton tried to put us deep in their 22 but couldn’t find touch. The resulting clearance fell to Zane Kirchner who put up a kick of his own and we were soon back on the front foot again when it was taken by Jordi Murphy.
Then Sexton and Cronin combine to get back into the 22 where that lineout would have been and as the Ireland and Lions outhalf runs back into position from an ensuing ruck you can see him pointing to the forwards lined up behind demanding they get into a particular formation before he fizzes a perfect miss pass into the grateful arms of van der Flier who has momentum to spare as he coasts through a gap and over the line for his second and Leinster’s bonus-securing 4th.
What a scoreline. 31-0 after 45 minutes. Surely the only question was whether or not we’d reach 50? Eh, no. Those birds may not have been as pesky as we’ve gotten used to over the years, but they were never going to give up and I remember the time we handed them a Heineken Cup hiding they were still going full throttle in the 80th minute.
Van der Flier deservedly won the man-of the match award not just for his overall play but his general contribution around the pitch, including a team-leading 18 tackles. His opposite number Tipuric, however, had 23 and soon after that 4th try he forced a steal that had his side on the attack before Matavesi dummied and breezed by Noel Reid like he wasn’t there, getting right into our 22 before shipping it to his scrum half who only had to take it and he was over...he didn’t take it, though.
Still though a bit like it was at Murrayfield last week all of a sudden we were finding it hard to get out of our own half and soon they were back on our line again. Our defence was pretty strong and after several phases 5m out it took an innovative behind the back pass from the (previously anonymous) Dan Biggar to exploit and overlap out wide before Ben John went over. 31-5.
John was to be involved shortly afterwards as he hauled down both Ringrose and Nacewa trying to run onto a kick into space. A yellow card all day long yet not seen by the officials. We applied some pressure in their 22 but couldn’t quite get properly organised before a couple of breakdown penalties marched the Ospreys back down the field and Nacewa was given a warning.
When they were soon back attacking our line, Sexton was pinged for offside and although this wasn’t at the breakdown, the ref still brandished yellow so he evening was done at 70 minutes...though there’s every possibility he was going to be hauled ashore anyway,
In the final ten minutes, the Ospreys crossed for two more tries courtesy of Howells and King and while an away win was never on the cards, they did have the incentive of two league points for another try (something else that can’t really happen with the French bonus system) but in the closing stages some more tough tackling by Leinster behind the gainline kept them in their own half long enough for the clock to fizzle out and the scoreline looking about right.
Should we be concerned with the late unanswered points? Of course we should, to a point, but it can’t be considered a crisis. I’d be concerned about Noel Reid being caught flat-footed again - it happened last week against Blair Kinghorn and we saw it last season as well against the likes of Jimmy Gopperth in the Ricoh.
I’ve nothing against the lad, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t want to get to a stage whereby simply seeing his name on the team sheet has me assuming at least one try for our opposition. I do like the idea of selecting the same centres week in week out though and he did well to stand up to Matavesi in a bour of handbags in the closing stages.
I’d also have concerns about our lineouts yet again. You’re never going to win them all in a season but our percentage success is very low, particularly for a side that includes someone like Devin Toner.
But those concerns can’t be allowed to dampen the many, many positives arising from this match - I already mentioned van der Flier and Sexton plus the tough tackling behind the gainline. I thought Dave Kearney had a textbook Schmidt-style winger outing...that might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I’m sure the Ireland coach would have been impressed, as was I.
Another to quietly go about his work with aplomb was Mick Kearney. I like the combination of himself and Toner and I reckon it should be allowed to continue. In a squad full to bursting with locks I think more displays like this could cement him in the top three of our pecking order, which for me right now would also include Ross Molony.
Finally at scrum half I have to say I’m liking what I have seen so far from Jamison Gibson-Park, even off the bench in this match. He somehow managed to haul down Bradley Davies as the Ospreys threatened to sneak a fourth try with the clock gone red and he is definitely putting a good challenge in the way of Luke McGrath.
Anyway I’m about to hit my 2000 word threshold so I’ll leave you with my current ideal Leinster matchday 23 (assuming everyone fit), right after saying how satisfied I am overall with our first four matches...it has been, after all, our best start to a season since 2004/05. Here’s hoping we can keep it going in Cardiff next weekend. JLP
R Kearney, Isa, Ringrose, Henshaw, D Kearney, Sexton, JGP.
J McGrath, Cronin, Ross, Toner, M Kearney, O’Brien, JVDF, Heaslip.
Bench : Strauss, Healy, Furlong, Molony, Ruddock, L McGrath, Carbery, Kirchner.
PS – with regard to this week’s title, yes, I know Josh pronounces it “Fleer”!