Thursday, December 29, 2016

Munster-29 Leinster-17



So....do I ignore the match selections of these two teams or not?  Well I guess I’ve already mentioned it haven’t I.  Yeah, let’s explore that.

Leinster fans are well within their rights to be disappointed by the fact that we didn’t field a full choice team against our biggest rivals.  It’s an occasion that stands out on its own and is more than just a regular season Pro12 fixture, which should mean it is treated as such by the selection.

But where I feel a lot of people make mistakes is where they target their blame.  The IRFU for their player protection policy?  Leinster Branch itself for being somehow disrespectful?  We saw much of those two viewpoints from fans and journalists alike since the team was announced last Friday, and I’m not really on board with either of them.

Sorry for harping on this yet again but to adapt a quote from Bill Clinton....it’s the calendar, stupid!!!!  

This particular two-game set of interprovincials saw us travel to Limerick on St Stephen’s Day before welcoming the Ulstermen to the RDS just 5 days later.   And say what you want about the importance of the individual rivalries but that can’t be the only factor taken into account.  Both the Rugby Champions Cup and Six Nations cast long shadows at this time of year, so decisions have to be made and in Leinster’s case, I can’t see how we had a choice but to keep back our best players for the home match.

Just look at what Northampton did with us in our very last outing, leaving about half a dozen household names back at home to get a tonking at the Aviva.  Just six days later, they went full strength before a near sellout crowd of home fans and put Sale to the sword for some valuable Premiership points.

Provided we do bring back the top names for New Year’s Eve and play like a side that wants to quickly erase this Thomond thumping from our memories, I for one can be forgiving, that’s for sure.

But back to the match itself...even if there is a disparity in selection, that doesn’t guarantee the players are going to perform, especially the day after Christmas.  And for the first half at least, it needs to be pointed out that these two sides were giving it everything they had and it was very much the fascinating contest the occasion demanded.

Leinster performed before half time like a good few of the players weren’t so keen on being referred to as “second string”.  There was intensity in the tackling and clearing out which were badly needed as Munster had clearly indulged more on Weetabix than leftover turkey themselves.

Unfortunately in some areas there was accuracy lacking, and for us once more this was in the lineout.  I hate mentioning this every match but when it continues to be a factor, I have to keep mentioning it.  In some ways on this evening it was cancelled out by Munster also having their own issues, but it is still something that needs to be dealt with.

But despite that regular failing, we were still first to strike, mostly because the other main set piece the scrum has been going very well for us.  The ball was well supplied by the forwards and then the backs all played their roles to perfection whether it was passing or decoy running and finally Zane Kirchner arrived on a perfect line to break through and his determination got him past CJ Stander and to the line.

Naturally as this was only the end of the first quarter you could be pretty sure the home side were going to come back and it wasn’t long before it was them pounding our line.  Like I said, our tackling was resilient but not enough to shake Munster’s own determination.  

One look at the tackling stats shows how many punishing phases Rassie’s men were able to recycle.  194 successful Leinster tackles to just 99 by Munster with only our starting back three failing to reach double figures.

A combination of Munster’s never say die attitude, some quick thinking from Simon Zebo in a clutch moment and an unnecessary break from the defensive line from Kirchner helped them to two tries before the break, and despite them both being right in the furthest corner, Tyler Bleyendaal’s boot was on song both times to add the extras.

So it was 14-10 at half time...a bit of a pain for Leinster to have given up the lead but if we could have continued in the same vein from the first half then we were still very much in this contest.  Thing is though...the tough tackling was taking its toll and on top of that (that’s a lot of t words!), it turned out that Munster had another gear to find, and boy did they find it in that third quarter.

Before we look at their third and fourth tries, a word on how we were struggling to get our side of the scoreboard moving.  For me this match was down to the disparity in performance between the two sets of halfbacks.  At 10, Bleyendaal kept the ship steady while for us, Ross Byrne couldn’t quite replicate what led to that opening try.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that Ross shouldn’t go to his boot as often as he does, since he has to develop his own style and if crossfield kicks and what-not are what he feels confident doing then so be it.  It’s just on this occasion it wasn’t happening for him.  But the difference in the starting 10s wasn’t anywhere near as stark as that at 9.

Up to now I have been very impressed with the sporadic appearances of Jamison Gibson-Park and this was a perfect opportunity for him to show a wider audience what he can do.  What was apparent in this match was that for all the positives he brings, he doesn’t seem to be fully on board with the technique required for a box-kicking game, and that is something he’ll surely have to remedy if he is to catch Joe Schmidt’s attention after 3 years.

Opposite him was Conor Murray, with whom Schmidt has worked to create a near perfect template for how the box kick should be executed.  For them, it’s not a case of “just put the ball up and let’s hope for a lucky break when it comes down”.  Instead the philosophy is more “I’m going to put up a kick that’s going to hang in the air for so long and land so perfectly that if we don’t win it back, it’s not my fault.”

Time and time again JGP was attempting them but from his body language it looked as though it was going against everything he had been taught on his way to the professional ranks and they were going way too far handing easy opportunities to Munster.  If he can fix this aspect of his game soon he’ll be doing very well.

And so Munster were pounding our line over and over and we were shipping penalty advantages galore though often they weren’t needed.  Murray was controlling things as though he were a second out half and his kick into the corner should have been Barry Daly’s to catch but instead Tommy O'Donnell got the better of him to get try number three.

So that's two tries from the backs and one from the forwards - with this being Munster, their pack, bolstered these days by the impressive Jaco Taute, was bound to be keen to even up that score.  On a day when Leinster produced their red Axel Foley t-shirts for their warmup, it was also fitting that number 8 on the day CJ Stander was both man-of-the-match and scorer of the bonus point try after mauling over the line.

At that stage, we were clearly broken, much as the Saints had been at the Aviva (they also had a first half lead that night) and it really did look as though a similar scoreline could have resulted.  But much like Leinster fans were disappointed, I’d say their Munster counterparts were equally so that the margin of victory couldn’t be extended even further.

Once again, I’d have to point to the fixture schedule for Munster failing to score in the final quarter.  The five match points in the bag, it’s now time to think about the trip to Galway where they’d surely be keen to cement their lead atop the Pro12 table.  Like I said earlier, rivalry is a thing, but it’s not the only thing.

With that we had the Leinster bench being emptied and we actually got some possession towards the end which saw Richardt Strauss break away from a maul to pull back a score.  This meant that one more try would have earned us what would have been a very handy losing bonus point, but despite getting a fair distance up the field as the clock went red, it wasn’t to be.

I saw many comments disparaging Nigel Owens’ decision making on the night.  What I like about his style, as well as that of Alain Rolland’s before he retired, is that they tend to not only make their decision but give you a concise explanation for how they see a particular contentious call.  You may not agree, but more often than not you are fully aware in real time of how the ref saw things, and I really don’t think we can ask for more.

One Leinster player worthy of mention is Jack Conan - he has been immense since returning from injury and despite our abundance of back row talent already this season he has definitely played his way into our selection headache.  Especially with all of our crocked out halves at the moment it may be worth our while going 6/2 on our bench every week for the time being! Honourable mention goes to Dan Leavy for a team-leading 22 tackles.

So well done to Munster, worthy winners on the night as well as worthy leaders of the Pro12 table at the halfway point of the “regular season”.  For Leinster fans, yes, it’s a disappointing result but it’s a hard one to dwell on too much without first waiting to see how we do against Ulster on the Saturday.

That said, right now a "rematch" Pro12 final at the Aviva Stadium to end the season between Leinster and Munster is looking about as good a completion to the European season as we’re likely to get.  Provided both teams will be allowed to field their Lions, of course! JLP

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