Predicting what’s going to happen in a rugby match is tricky enough at the best of times; there are just so many things that can go against you and the crazy bounce of the oval ball is only one of them.
But once you’ve summoned enough courage to actually have a stab at nominating a final score before kickoff, you need to settle on a number of assumptions. In my previews each week when I try to use clairvoyance for Leinster & Ireland matches, I generally work on a premise whereby my team is playing a little below par, while the opponents are totally at the top of their game.
And to be fair, when Leinster last visited Franklin’s Gardens in 2013, also on the run-up to Christmas, very few would have foreseen a 40-7 mauling by the visitors. No doubt that result played a part in predictions for this match three years later at the same venue...OK, perhaps we’re slight favourites based on recent form, but surely we can’t win by that much again? That’s why the bookies had us by 3, while I was a bit more optimistic saying 4 to 6.
Well, we did win big again, which really makes it look like we have a decent read on the Saint’s home ground. But as fate would have it, the repeat of the extremely one-sided scoreline wasn’t to be the focus of the headlines on the following morning’s sports pages.
Predicting individual incidents in matches is also very difficult. Or at least it is in most cases. As I watched in a local drinking emporium (I still haven’t gotten round to changing providers after Virgin’s losing of BT Sport) I turned to the chap beside me at one point and said something like “Ah, here’s Dylan Hartley...I wonder if the bookies are taking bets on how soon he’d get a yellow card?” Technically I got that wrong but I’m still claiming it!!!
The incident itself has been repeated ad nauseam in the press so I’m not going to harp on it too much. Nobody seems to disagree that it was both stupid and red-worthy. The reason I’m mentioning it so early in my writeup is that I want to be sure and make something clear. Yes, Hartley’s actions are big news, but only because of implications for future bans and the 2017 Lions Tour.
In no way did Leinster win this match purely because the home side were down a man for the final quarter. I’d even go so far as to say we didn’t even need the extra man to get the bonus point, though I’d be willing to hear arguments on that one.
Just look at everything that led to that point. The match was barely two minutes old when Garry Ringrose was dotting the ball down under the posts. Even in this early stage we saw how the match was going to unfold.
Our guys were 10% up on their game, the home side were diappointingly the other way. The defensive coverage wasn’t ideal but still needed some work to be exploited, and with a strong fend from Rob Kearney followed by a pinpoint long pass, his young outside centre was over.
Meanwhile the Saints themselves were struggling to keep the ball in the early stages - their first possession was lost to a steal by man of the match Tadhg Furlong. We seem to be on course for another score when Luke McGrath possibly tries a bit too hard to keep the ball moving and his “behind the back” pass goes astray.
Still, it’s not long before we’re on the march once more as Rob Kearney surges forward from his own half deep into opposition territory creating another chance for front foot ball...this time it’s our young outhalf Joey Carbery taking a bit too much out of it and another chance goes a-begging. But this came with an even bigger price.
As Carbery tried to get the ball away, his fall to the ground saw his ankle get twisted underneath him. So to recap...with Sexton and Marsh unavailable, though Joey did try to play through the pain, eventually on the 15th minute he had to be replaced, at a time when we had stretched our lead to 10-0.
If I had to pick a major difference between the Leinster that won at Northampton in 2013 and the one this time around, I would say it’s our willingness to put youngsters into the “deep end” of top flight rugby. Take Friday night’s matchday 23 and go back three years (while keeping the players at their current ages) and I reckon Isa gets put to out half and quite possibly Ross Byrne doesn’t see his name in the squad at all.
But now, thanks to the likes of Leo Cullen, Graham Henry and Stu Lancaster, we are much more willing to give even our fourth string player in such a key position his chance. And no matter how well the Saints were playing on the night, protecting even a ten-point lead for over an hour is a serious ask for someone with no experience at this level, yet faith was shown in Byrne.
And it definitely took him a while to get our offence moving again. You can see it in the general play that not only were we finding our feet but also the Saints saw an opportunity to claw their way back. Carbery was barely off the park when a strong tackle by Tom Wood on Devin Toner forced the ball free.
It does need to be pointed out, however, that all ten of the points the Saints scored on the night came about with strong Irish involvement, namely that of JJ Hanrahan. First it was his high ball that was allowed to bounce and run behind Adam Byrne, who had some strong runs throughout the match though on this occasion he was pinged for not releasing in the tackle allowing Myler to open his team’s account.
Meanwhile down the other end we were managing to get into their 22 but now it seemed difficult to get over the line. With a massive 21-phases as the clock was winding down before the interval, we couldn’t find a way through the Saints’ tackles and eventually we knocked on and it was one of those series that can really motivate a team before halftime every bit as much as a try.
Then just a couple of minutes into the second half we suffered another blow as Rob Kearney couldn’t get over an earlier knock and had to be replaced by Rory O’Loughlin. Again, even with all the form he showed in preseason and in the Pro12, I’m not sure he’d have made this squad three years ago. But nowadays he gets a go and went to the wing as skipper Isa went to full back. Once more, our back line needed to readjust.
As we tried to tidy up an exit with a maul around our 22, Luke McGrath made an error and knocked on, giving the home side an extremely rare attacking setpiece. They really needed something to click soon if they were to have a chance, and again it was Hanrahan to help get them there.
For all I said about the Saints' defence before the break, it has to be said that our own organization without the ball throughout the night was excellent, with the one exception of this scrum after which JJ found a gap in our tackling getting all the way to our 5m line under the posts. A few phases later he was the one supplying the killer final pass to the wide channel where Tuala (himself a sub) was able to go over. Tack on a wonderful conversion from the touchline by Myler and all of a sudden we’re level again.
We have seen this situation many times before as fans of both Leinster and Ireland. Establish an early lead against what should be tough opposition only to see it pegged back to parity. In the past, we have been unable to regroup a second time. We seem to be much, much better at it now.
Not long after the restart Tom Wood was pinged at the breakdown and Isa had a chance to put us ahead again. This was an extremely difficult kick in normal circumstances but as skipper he took the responsibility in his stride and stroked it over the bar.
We now needed our defence to shore up again and this time it was the Saints with a chance for phases on our line - their starting hooker Mike Haywood threw a wayward pass giving us a scrum and a chance to clear - this was to be his final effort on the night as he was replaced by a certain Mr Hartley prompting my prediction in the pub.
If anything gave our offence the kickstart it needed to put this game to bed, it wasn’t what the England skipper did, rather it was our scrum. We had the nudge on the Saints pretty much every time no matter who had the put-in, and penalties won at this one under our posts plus another further up the pitch put us right back in an attacking position again.
I’m thinking the coaching staff left Furlong out of the traditional Leinster “3 for 3 front row swap on 55 minutes” as testimony to his set-piece work (though he had many steals and carries as well throughout).
While our scrums have been doing well, our lineouts have been a serious issue for us this season yet while a couple did go astray on the night, after these penalties our mauling was sound and the Saints had to infringe to stop them. A warning from Jerome Garces made the home side held back enough for us to get it to the line where Sean O’Brien got over with some help from Toner and Heaslip.
The conversion restored our 10-point advantage, and with a dominant scrum and our defence back as it had been forcing mistakes from Saints attackers, this was very much a winning position for Leinster. And even without Hartley’s no-no (still won’t dwell on it though I’ll be annoyed if it denies us O’Brien again) their penalty count was far enough ahead of ours to get the ref looking towards sanctions anyway. I really don’t think they’d have closed the gap whatever the numbers.
One strange move by the Saints on the night was nominating their best defensive player Tom Wood to come off so they could get their hooker back on to replace Hartley. Whatever the reason, the move smacked of a team acknowledging they were beaten and protecting key assets for further games down the line.
But still, even with the advantage, try number 3 was exceptional. Go back in time to preseason and tell Leinster fans Ross Byrne will send an inch perfect crossfield kick to Rory O’Loughlin who using perfect technique will catch and score on an English ground, they’d assume it was somewhere like Nottingham or Cornish Pirates in the British & Irish Cup. Yet here they were working some magic and putting a try bonus point very much on the table.
Time to reveal another mostly-right prediction of mine (unfortunately I’ve conveniently forgotten all the ones that were wrong). I totally understand why we need Luke McGrath to be starting these matches. Ireland are badly in need of strong backup at certain positions and scrum half is one of them and he needs all the game time he can get to put himself in the frame.
It’s just that if we could select a Leinster team without any test squad agendas in mind, I would definitely plump for Jamison Gibson-Park for the time being. He needs to work on some aspects of his game too, but there is certainly more “polish” about his decision making, particularly when we’re attacking deep in the opposition 22. So on this occasion, I turned once more to the chap beside me (who almost certainly rolled his eyes when I turned back again) and said : “We’ll need Gibson-Park on if we’re to get the bonus point.”
Now to be fair, what I meant by that was that he could be the provider of a telling final ball for someone else to score. Still - the manner in which he got our fourth try really shows what a decent talent we’ve brought up from the southern hemisphere.
This one actually started with a now-well-defeated Saints outfit still trying to work some phases together at midfield, while our defensive monster was at the height of its powers gobbling up all before it. On this occasion Heaslip was able to strip the ball in the tackle and it was quickly shipped out wide.
What Gibson Park did when he received it was so cheeky yet he made it look unbelievably easy...sure, the extra man afforded him some space but the stopping, starting and change of direction seemed to be done without even a moment’s thought. Just like that, we’re in bonus point heaven.
A high tackle on Isa Nacewa then put George Pisi in the bin. The ref let him off with yellow because he’d already shown a red Nacewa had changed direction but the result was pretty much the same...we had some time with an extra two men and ironically it was our skipper getting the fifth try although he had to shrug off yet another high shot before dotting down.
So a wonderful result and you have to be happiest for the incredible numbers of Leinster fans that made the journey over...I really wish I could have joined them. For the rest of the weekend it looked as though the other provinces were engaging with us in a game of “Anything you can do…” as Ulster held off mighty Clérmont at home before Munster annihilated the Tigers. Had Connacht a decent lineout at the Ricoh Arena they could have done similar to Wasps but it wasn’t to be.
Now, on to the next prediction...back in 2013, the Saints turned themselves around between the two “back-to-back” games and did us over at the Aviva...can they do it once more? Well, the simple answer is, of course they can, though it naturally has nothing to do with what happened way back when. It’d surely be more down to professional pride.
If we can maintain the confidence levels we showed on Friday, then even with the mounting injuries we should be able to secure a vital third win which will put the pool very much in our hands what with Montpellier due in Ballsbridge in round 5.
Wow I’ve harped on for way longer than I expected. I guess the words come that much easier when the boys in blue do so well on Premiership soil. JLP