Monday, January 23, 2017

Castres-24 Leinster-24



“Leinster for their part played like a team who wanted to do the bare minimum for fear of injuring any of their 6 Nations stars, and they succeeded in that.”

“...as Leinster fans we can focus on the negative if we really want to, but if we do, it will have to be done while ignoring a heap of positive.”

The above Harpin quotes both came after Leinster’s final European pool match finished in a draw away from home.  The first one was against London Irish in January 2010, the second against Wasps in January 2015.  We seem to be making quite a habit of this, don’t we?

Before I harp on Friday’s events at the Stade Pierre Antoine, here’s a point I have made time and time again, and one I know will never be addressed, but anyway...I still think it’s crazy to have the most important round of pool matches in European domestic rugby take place right before the Six Nations (even if there is a week off in between - not enough IMO and the French clubs don’t even get that).  

The only thing crazier is the fact that having gotten their squads through to the quarterfinals, the coaches now have to sweat on their key players making it through the test window unscathed.  Mini-rant over.

As amazing as it was to watch us demolish both Zebre and Montpellier in successive weeks, the maulings came with a pair of caveats - the quality of our opposition wasn’t always top notch and on both occasions we were at home.  This was always going to be a test of where we really stood, provided of course that Castres were willing to “play ball”.

The way I saw it, the home side’s interest in this fixture could have gone either way.  Of course they want to do well in front of their home crowd but sitting as they were on the edge of the Top14 playoff places, you couldn’t blame them for having one eye on the visit of Montpellier next week.

But we of course had no say in that side of things; what we needed to manage was how we travelled ourselves.  If anyone believes it’s easy to focus away exactly as you do at home then they really don’t understand how sport works, particularly rugby union with its intricate tactics and the demand for accuracy at the highest level.

You can prepare all you like in training sessions but the amount of extra distractions involved in physically getting to your destination can prove a lot.  Naturally this being a professional game it is something we must expect the coaching & playing staff to handle, but it is still an issue.

I put the amount of basic errors we were making in this match partly down to the home team’s tenacity, but also to our own inability to adapt to the different surroundings, and if we are to crack on from here and make a serious bid to add a fourth star to our jersey, this is something we will have to address because even though the quarterfinal will be at home, should we get past it, the semifinal won’t be.

Now it certainly looked in the early stages that we weren’t rattled by the journey to France...we had a 10-0 lead after just 10 minutes.  But even then we knew we were in for a battle, as Castres were well set up defensively and it took our capitalising on an error to get our opening try.  

Garry Ringrose is only in his second full season with Leinster yet his skill levels are so well known already that his scoop and offload after Castres winger Julien Caminati left the ball behind were all but ignored by the commentary.  The long run to the line by his fellow centre Robbie Henshaw took much of the attention away...he ran an extremely intelligent line and only just made it.

This early advantage wasn’t much of a surprise and when Adam Byrne charged his way back into the Castres half off the restart it, looked like we could be in for another pasting.  But like I said, the home side weren’t exactly all that keen on being humiliated like Montpellier a week earlier and it is definitely to their credit that they were willing to match us for tempo.

So with both sides aiming to keep the ball moving, it was always going to be a matter of who blinked to see when scores would come, and it was Johnny Sexton shooting out and missing a tackle that got the home side close to our line before Ross Molony left his pillar position allowing the nippy scrum half Dupont to jink his way over and then we knew we had a contest on our hands.

Basically that was our biggest failing on the night...individual errors at costly moments.  Making a move a fraction too early.  Grabbing for the ball a fraction too late.  Naturally losing both Sexton and Nacewa so early didn’t help either, but pretty much all of Castres’ points can be put down to simple technical “no-nos” on our side of things, and even Ringrose wasn’t immune when his attempted tackle on Vialelle didn’t stop him shipping it to David Smith who went over to make it 17-10 with time running out in the first half.

Still though, despite our conceding more points in 40 minutes than we had in the previous 160 back at the RDS, you couldn’t say we were out of contention by any means.  The home side were well set defensively but we never lost the ability to create chances of our own, like just before the break when it took a strong defensive effort to hold us out on the Castres line.

And one big positive for us in the first half was our scrum, which posed the home side quite a challenge, so much so that even in what would have been strong attacking positions they spurned the set piece for even the tiniest bit of advantage.  Credit to Tadhg Furlong here for being our tight head anchor, but also to Messrs Healy & Strauss for keeping the standards up despite not starting last week.

So we needed to regroup during the break and striking early in the second half was essential if our goal of a home quarterfinal was to be achieved.  Enter Garry Ringrose again.

Oftentimes when the ball goes to ground during a set backline move, that can really go against you as Castres had already discovered in this match to their cost.  But when you have someone like Ringrose around, it can actually be a blessing if the ball winds up in his hands.  

He’s one of those footballers who plays on his wits, a style that used to be fitting for this very French stage before the club presidents got richer and the players beefier.  If the player running doesn’t know his own plan for what he’s about to do, how can anyone on the other team?

So off he sets on a mazy run and from a position where it looked like an attack was breaking down all of a sudden he was clean through and attempting an offload to Luke McGrath….unfortunately showing good support he wasn’t ready for the pass but the break did eventually give us a scrum in their 22 and we certainly weren’t afraid to dip into our playbook.

Easily secured ball, great line by Adam Byrne easily breaks the gainline, then a pass off to Robbie Henshaw who has work to do but makes it look easy for his second try of the evening….in my preview I was wrong about the final score but I did say our summer arrival from Connacht would play a significant part.

The match was now well poised for a keenly contested final half hour and it certainly did not disappoint.  And once more, it was an error on our part that gave Castres the opportunity to regain the lead when first a James Tracy throw was crooked and our front row went early on the ensuing scrum.

From the tap of that free kick I counted 29 phases before David Smith planted the ball down at the post.  And it’s true, the try came after yet another Leinster mistake at the pillar position, this time from Jack McGrath.  But did I mention it was twenty-nine phases?

That has to earn credit for both sides...us for being so tough to break down so deep into a match and them for keeping the ball alive for that long.  One thing I will say about that though...there were several, shall we say, “interesting” angles of clearing out by their forwards in that sequence.  My concern at the time wasn’t so much that they were cheating rather that we may not take advantage of ref Greg Garner’s breakdown free-for-all ourselves.

For all the errors by different players around the park I wouldn’t want to draw too much attention to one player, but going into the final quarter I did feel we needed the red zone guile of Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum half instead of Luke McGrath who wasn’t having his best outing.

Almost instantly we were attacking in the opposition 22 with another good run by Adam Byrne and as Jack McGrath tried to bring it to the line he was illegally challenged by Castres fullback Berard who was well off his feet and was rightly shown a yellow card...could have even been a penalty try.

From the lineout we set up a few phases before James Tracy executed a clear out every bit as suspect as the earlier French ones but also every bit as “unseen” by the ref and this allowed Dan Leavy, himself just on the pitch, to power over and we were back within two of our hosts.  Credit here to Ross Byrne...it was a conversion in a position on the pitch where he’d feel very comfortable and it was very important that we at least drew level and he nailed it.

So there we were level at 24-24...no more scoring for the remaining 25 minutes but plenty of drama, not least of which was a series of penalties in our 22 right at the end which included a yellow for Mike McCarthy who was only on the pitch about a minute.  

It was a harrowing series but we dug really deep to hold out our hosts, culminating in a choke tackle right on our line which Garner seemed to take ages to call...back in Dublin a demented Leinster fan was getting curious looks from his 7-year son who wondered why Daddy was screaming “choke!!!!!” at the telly over and over!

There was a bit of confusion surrounding Gibson-Park’s decision to kick the ball dead when we had a lineout in our own half after the clock went dead.  Officially we needed three match points for a home quarterfinal, but with the two from the draw it would have taken a massive win for Connacht in Toulouse to deny us and with the lineout being a bit sloppy and us a man down I reckon he did the right thing.

Now after all my talk about our error count on the day I have to balance that out by pointing out the many occasions we were unlucky not to score tries.  Ross Byrne’s continuing telepathic link with Rory O’Loughlin was only denied by a sliding tackle by Berard any top soccer centre half would be proud of.  Jack Conan getting his own feet in each other’s way when it looked like he was clean through.  A final bounce of a ball denying Rob Kearney.  Just the tiniest shade of luck in each case and the result could have been very different.  

Like I said of the Wasps draw, you need to highlight the good and the bad and while this wasn’t the match nor the result we expected, there was still plenty there for us to feel good about our chances.  That said, I can’t help but feel that whatever about our deep squad in many positions, both Leinster and Ireland’s chances of success from now to the end of the season may rest on the combined fitness of Messrs Sexton, Hanshaw and Ringrose.

And speaking of Wasps, they are up next for us in this competition at the end of March.  After last season’s campaign, had we been offered this quarterfinal and location at the beginning of the season, we would have taken it without even blinking.  But is that how the Leinster coaching ticket is seeing it?  Any they happy simply to be in the final eight?  What say we ask Leo Cullen

"Reaching the last eight is fantastic but it is just another step towards the club's goal of replicating Toulouse's achievement of winning four European titles.  It's a challenge that we are all looking forward to hugely."

You heard the man!  Time to buckle up and get behind them.  JLP

PS - The lads from BluesTalkTV are recording their 250th show at the Horse Show House this weekend...click here for details

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