Monday, October 03, 2016

Cardiff Blues-13 Leinster-16

Putting Things Right

logo post blueWe live in an age when only extreme opinions seem to get the attention of the wider public...just look at Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  Apparently America is terrible and only he can make it great again; and churning out this message actually has him tied in many polls with his opponent.

Maybe I should adopt that policy when I harp on Leinster’s matches?  Everything is either miserable or smelling of roses, nothing in between.  Or maybe I should stick to the boring old method of spelling out what I felt actually happened whether it be good or bad?  Yeah, I reckon I’ll go for that, apologies if you’re looking for something else!

An away win against a team that had won their first four matches?  Brilliant.  Best start to a season in the professional era for Leinster?  Brilliant.  No complaints over either of those facts; you’d have to be Curmudgeon In Chief to have any.  Still, that doesn’t mean everything that happened to us from season kickoff to now has been perfect, and I have no problem spelling it out.

But the most satisfying thing about this particular win, while it did come with it’s own slice of luck along the way, was the manner in which we seemed to take care of what had been ailing us in the previous four matches as though they were on some sort of checklist.  And even if we had lost, which looked very possible in the closing stages, I’d like to think I’d still make the improvements a feature of this writeup.  So what say we deal with the checklist first.

POOR SECOND HALF DISPLAY - check!  We were 10 points down at the interval and held the Blues scoreless in the second half.  Not only that, we came out of the break with a positive attitude and as we dragged ourselves in front we were playing at times like we were the home side.  Leo has mentioned the second half thing in pressers and it is clear they have worked on this area.

DIFFICULTY IN WINNING OUR OWN LINEOUT - check!  Even before Devin Toner took to the field you could see there was time spent on this failing as well.  Our problem had been most prevalent in strong attacking situations...we’d win a penalty around halfway and kick deep in the 22 only to throw a high risk dart which sailed over everyone thus deflating our chances of points.  This time we seemed to opt for simpler options and it certainly helped on the way to our lone try.

NOEL REID - check!  As much as I love Leinster Rugby and everything about it and thus wouldn’t want to single out individuals I have repeatedly mentioned Noel Reid both this season and last as a defensive liability.  Had you read my scribblings and then watched him for the first time on Saturday, you’d have thought I was mad.   Had a solid attacking outing with new centre partner Rory O’Loughlin including a combination that lead to the try, but also between them they made over 20 tackles which included Reid slowing down a rampaging Nick Williams more than once, most importantly right at the end.

So three areas of concern, all pretty much taken care of at once on the way to a very handy four away match points to kick off what is to be an extremely busy and challenging month of October.  Let’s have a closer look at how the actual scoring came about; unfortunately we have to examine the officiating yet again.

Giving opinions on the referee is another area that tends to get polarized, especially on social media.  Either he hasn’t a clue and is being totally biased towards one team or you’re a one-eyed observer who only wants to moan about the man in the middle.

Dunphy PhillipWell on the bias thing, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for Dudley Phillips, who I only realised on Saturday bears a resemblance to his almost-reverse-namesake, the fictional Phillip Dunphy.  This comes up several times each season - the league won’t find a ref from a neutral union and instead appoints one from the visitor’s.

This leads to a condition I call “bias-phobia” where a ref is torn between not wanting to look like he’s favouring the away team and over-compensating in the opposite direction, a crisis which more often than not leads to 80 minutes of inconsistency.  Unfortunately I feel this is what happened to Dudley in this match, and it doesn’t help that he’s is actually from Leinster as well!

Of course that’s not to say that Leinster didn’t benefit from some of his decisions on the night, but to suggest the questionable calls were merely going in one direction is almost always absurd.  Take the Dan Leavy try that wasn’t.  First of all, what incredible strength from the youngster.  When it reached him in the widest channel he had several defenders bearing down on him and it looked like he hadn’t a hope of getting it to the line.

As it turned out he did get the ball down but only a fraction of a second after his fingernail grazed the artificial turf over the touchline.  What followed was a bizarre exchange between ref and TMO.  He clearly asked the man in the booth for help, and he is clearly told “You may award the try”, yet he still asks for more looks until he eventually reaches the right answer.

But overall we were doing just about enough to deserve a lead, and we did get the opening score thanks to a Sexton penalty.  He later missed a chance to put us further ahead, and shortly afterwards Gareth Anscombe levelled the scores down the other end.

Then we had another unusual moment that led to the Blues try, which was scored by Anscombe but brought about by the actions of two Jenkins.  First of all we had Ellis Jenkins ripping the ball free off Mick Kearney in the tackle...this fell kindly for the Blues and gave them a split second to strike before the Leinster defence could adopt its trademark solidity.

When it came to Anscombe he spotted a gap between two Leinster forwards, namely Jack McGrath and Mick Kearney, so he set off towards it.  Meanwhile the ever-wily Blues skipper Gethin Jenkins proceeded to step into McGrath’s tackling lane, something which angered him enough to push the Welshman out of the way.  He proceeded to fall into the path of Kearney which meant neither could make the tackle.

Before I get an onslaught from Cardiff fans, I’m not saying what Gethin did was, well, let’s just say “totally illegal”.  It was one of those things you deserve credit for once you get away with it, but he clearly knew what he’s doing and it definitely creates the space for Anscombe to run though, making it less about the out-half’s ability or even Leinster’s defence.

Not long afterwards Rory O’Loughlin is wrongly pinged for getting up after being tackled...he was clearly never fully put down, but still it gave Anscombe a chance to put his side 10 points ahead which he duly took.  On the stroke of halftime Leinster went from one end of the pitch to within an unfortunate drop from Jamison Gibson-Park of what would have been an impressive score.

But behind we were and given all that had gone in previous weeks after the break it was definitely a big challenge for us like I said earlier.  Thankfully we hit the ground running and a combination of strong carrying and tough tackling kept the Blues in their own half long enough for us to earn a pen which Sexton converted to make it 13-6.

We kept the pressure on and forced our second “choke tackle” of the night to win a scrum at midfield.  From the set piece Johnny Sexton showed great faith in his untried centre combo by calling a play that ended up in Rory O’Loughlin bringing it from halfway deep into the Blues 22.  From here a couple of penalties for us followed and we were determined to make maximum hay from this visit by goes for touch.

The lineout worked, as did the carries that followed, and eventually Rhys Ruddock, aided by  strong work from both props McGrath and Ross, got the ball down.  Was there a double movement as every Welsh person who saw it claims?  Well, there’s definitely a case to be made for it and I thought it was.  But the ref was sure it wasn’t and we deserved a try every bit as much as the home side did theirs.  Now the scores were level and the final quarter promised to be a thriller.

Now when I said earlier our second half was better than it has been, I certainly wasn’t saying it was perfect.  Our scrum was in a bit of trouble after Matthew Rees came on, we took what I thought was a poor option when Sexton went short with a 22 after Anscombe missed a kickable chance to regain the lead, and Jamie Heaslip was lucky not to be pinged (or worse) for illegally scooping a ball out of a ruck.

But as the clock approached ten minutes to go, we were back on the attack and a superb fizzed pass from Sexton had Josh Navidi flailing in mid air, the ball going straight to Dan Leavy who surged into the 22 before being tackled.  Navidi, on for Warburton who suffered a suspected fractured cheekbone in the early stages, was very lazy in returning back to his position in the Blues defence, clearly getting in the way of Gibson-Park’s passing lane and the Kiwi definitely appears to know how to milk a penalty in those situations.

As both skippers had been warned about further blatant transgressions, ref Phillips felt he had no choice but to put Navidi in the bin as well as allowing Sexton to put his side back in the lead.  Of course the home fans weren’t wild about it, though to be fair the S4C English-speaking commentators didn’t find fault.

Despite the extra man, we made heavy weather of the closing stages when Jamie Heaslip dropped a catch he’d be expected to make.  To the credit of Danny Wilson’s men they proceeded to pile on the pressure from then on and in the end we needed a scrum reset killing some clock and some great last-gasp work from Noel Reid to keep them out to the final whistle.

On the balance of what happened over the 80 minutes, it’d be hard to say we didn’t deserve to get something from the match, it’s just a pity that the journey to that balance included so many head-scratching incidents along the way.  The home side do have a right to feel a little aggrieved but not without looking at their own side of things...not everything bad that happened to them was down to someone representing Ireland.

All in all it was it’s great to see us clearly working towards putting things right ahead of an extremely testing schedule.  I’m assuming we’ll see something very close to Leo Cullen’s preferred lineup of fit personnel at the Aviva next might be an odd kickoff time but it is certainly an occasion that never disappoints.  JLP

UPDATE : As John Molloy pointed out on our Facebook page : "Don't forget Nick Williams' shoulder tipped missile attack on Mike Ross. Things were very much not all one way on Saturday."
Hat-tip to Andy McGeady for tweeting the video...


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019