Monday, January 16, 2017

Leinster-57 Montpellier-3



Every so often we need to remind ourselves of the vast amount of work that needs to be done to stage these Leinster matches...it’s a credit to Marcus, Conor and all involved behind the scenes at the province.

It starts long before matchday...as well as the main job of marketing the contest by not only persuading folks to come along but also reminding season ticket holders who can’t make it to pass theirs on, there’s a massive amount of things to organize….sponsors, mascots, programmes, vendors, half-time minis, “The Blue Room”, accommodating the media (even the “social” variety like myself)...the list goes on and on.

And it should be added that the work to provide the best possible experience for spectators goes way beyond the matchday itself, with plans in place to finally complete the transformation of the RDS Arena from a Dublin Horse Show arena that also hosts rugby matches to the exact opposite of that.

But to continue the equine theme for a moment, despite all their best efforts to lead the horses to water, they can’t make them drink.  What is required to make these fans crave for more is what actually happens out on the pitch.  If you build a decent culture of rugby, they will come.

Here’s some harping on a portion of the action from Friday evening…

Garry Ringrose receives the ball inside his own 22 - he could put in a clearing kick, but instead opts to run.  Six phases which include more impressive carries later we lose our way a bit just inside the Montpellier half and they recover.  Francois Steyn puts up a high kick which Isa tries to take but instead knocks it forward.  

But the visitors aren’t interested in the scrum...they charge ahead with some strong running and neat offloading of their own which threatens our try line before a pass goes straight to Jack Conan, who turns and sets up some exit phases.  At one of the breakdowns we earn a penalty, a great chance to clear but we instead opt to tap and go despite being in our own 22.  We get the ball quickly out wide to Adam Byrne who finds a bit of space before being bundled into touch.

All of the above took place between the kickoff and the clock registering just TWO minutes gone!!!

Not for the first time in this European campaign, I feel the most important part of my writeup is to get across the point that despite the awarding of a red card to a key player in the contest, that is absolutely not the reason that Leinster finished on top.  It was our planning & delivery that decided who won this match, though I will concede that Steyn’s challenge on Sexton helped decide by how much.

When Dylan Hartley saw red at Franklin’s Gardens, we had a ten-point lead.  This time around, it was eleven, thanks to a pair of tries that were a direct result of not only our eagerness to put the ball through the hands quickly, but also our excellent organisation in doing just that.

There have been many comments about social media comparing this display to that we were used to in the days of Drico, Darce, Dr Phil, Shaggy, Luke etc...and those are definitely valid.  But there is an important difference between the game then and the game now that has to be considered...the vast improvements in defensive coaching over the past decade.  

Nowadays once a tackling cordon is set, it can be extremely difficult to break down for any professional outfit, let alone one as beefy as Jake White’s lineup was on Friday night.  All of which means that it’s up to the team with the ball to find creative ways through these seemingly insurmountable walls, and the way Johnny Sexton & co went about doing it was an absolute joy to watch.

Yes, we needed to keep a fast pace going, and yes, once or twice things didn’t exactly go to plan, like in those opening minutes.  But more often than not our star outhalf found himself with perfect front foot ball from his forwards, a perfect pass from his scrumhalf Luke McGrath, a perfect dummy line on his inside shoulder from a wing forward or a centre, and a host of perfectly-positioned options outside him to choose from.

And when it came to bringing the ball into contact, it really did look as though time stopped for our players, enough to see exactly what way the Montpellier tacklers were going to hit them, in such a way as that we were holding the ball ideally for an offload each time...and what’s more, the supporting player was pretty much always in position to receive it.

Everything I have described above isn’t exactly ground-breaking.  It’s what teams try to do week in week out anyway.  But what we saw on Friday was all of that being done with just a little bit more skill. A little bit more awareness.  A little bit more belief.  And not only is that “little bit” what helped Leinster register two great tries before Francois Steyn did what he did, you could also argue that it’s what helped cause it.

Try number one came after a lineout - an area where Leinster have had issues this season but on this evening we went 11 for 11.  Devin Toner and Hayden Triggs combined to secure the ball for Luke McGrath who found his winger Rory O’Loughlin on a scything line down the only gap available...with him was Robbie Henshaw who looked like he could finish before being stopped just short.

Not to worry...there were plenty of blue jerseys in support.  We recycle, regroup, and as Montpellier are still trying to come out of scrambling mode, Sexton pulls off an exquisite looping pass over multiple defenders to find his skipper Isa Nacewa who goes over.  This move was made to look incredibly easy...it was anything but.  Conversion good, 7-0.

Again, not all of our moves were working out for us.  A penalty for not releasing allows Steyn to pull back three points, and later after a neat series of 12 phases which get us into their 22, the ball pops free and visiting scrum half Nic White is able to clear.  But we’re still not letting up.

Once more we find an opportunity to ship it into the wider channels, but this time the margins are as tight as they can possibly be.  When it comes to Jack Conan, he has but one option to get the ball to Isa outside him and that’s batting it on with his hands; he does so perfectly.  Isa now has it and kicks a tentative ball up the touchline...is Conan going to sit back and admire his latest handiwork?  Of course not.

Nacewa gets to the ball at pretty much the same time as an opponent and finds himself in a similar position, with a split second to keep the ball in Leinster’s possession, and with an even faster movements of his hands he gets it to Conan who hadn’t stopped running.  His canter to the line again made this sequence look easy, again, it very much was not.  Conversion good, 14-3.

This is a real body blow for Montpellier, who were still in with a shout of reaching the quarterfinals at kickoff.  So after falling this far behind, a good restart was needed for the team lying currently 3rd in the ultra-competitive Top14 to find a way back.  Steyn’s drop kick goes straight to Adam Byrne who has other ideas.

As I pointed out in my preview, selection policies from years gone by would have probably dictated that we'd go for a back three of Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa and Zane Kirchener on account of their combined experience at the highest levels, whatever our younger players were achieving in the Pro12.  Now that is no longer the case.

In Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin we seem to have wingers with just the right amount of varying strengths as to complement each other...right now I wouldn’t dream of dropping either one no matter who came back from injury.  On this particular occasion, Byrne kept our momentum going by skipping, stepping and sprinting from his own 22 deep into the Montpellier half and who was right there with him to keep the move going?  Only Jamie Heaslip.

From there we recycle and we have every intention to go for the jugular.  Once more it goes out wide to the other wing where we set up well into the 22, with a penalty advantage coming for offside, before Sexton appears to set up another try with a well timed pass before the play breaks down and we’ve to go back for the penalty.  Or have we?

With the frantic tempo not many in the crowd saw Steyn’s hit on Sexton as it happened, but when the TMO was instructed to have a look and it was replayed on the big screens, you could say we noticed alright.

I’m going to try to be fair and make two points in the South African’s defence.  As he was shown the red he tried to tell the referee that Sexton was “bending”...in other words the hit was aimed for the ball and our 10 went a bit lower at the last second...this is in actual fact true.  Plus, I have a suspicion that perhaps Johnny might have tried to “sell it” a bit by staying down, a spot of gamesmanship perhaps.  I only say that because he was able to quickly return to the field after a very brief HIA, and it is only a working theory at best on my part.

But whatever about those points, possibly even without the “new interpretations” of the high tackle, Steyn’s nasty challenge was well into red card territory.  When you factor in the position of the game at that point, you can’t help but assume that there was more than a hint of frustration involved and given he hit the chief architect of our dominance to that point, a serious decision had to be made.

So Isa slotted the penalty to go up 17-3 and having gone to all that trouble to find space in the Montpellier D, now we had even more to work with, and we weren’t for letting up, even before Sexton returned to the action.

Once again it was Adam Byrne setting things in motion, not letting up on a Luke McGrath box kick that looked like it was heading for touch, instead catching and using his keeping his feet perfectly in play (any NFL wide receiver would have been well impressed) and once again providing support up a touchline was Jack Conan...with a little help from a deflection off a defender they passed it back and forth until Byrne dotted down for try number 3.

Isa could have kept the kicking duties but instead Ross Byrne was trusted with the conversion and duly nailed it from a tricky angle...24 to 3 was the be the score at halftime.  An unbelievable forty minutes for the home crowd to enjoy...my only concern was that perhaps the ref might be keen to have an opportunity to even the red card count so we needed to be careful with our own challenges.

To our visitors’ credit, they had a go after the break and it took us a while to re-assert our man advantage.  That said, on the few occasions our line was threatened, our defence was also in good nick (you almost need reminding that the likes of Nagusa & Nadolo were even on the park), not least when Johnny Sexton thwarted a series of phases under our posts by hauling down MHR skipper Ouedraogo and winning a penalty.

Eventually it was our forwards who took the reins of our attack by mauling from a lineout deep into the visitors’ 22 before Furlong brought it close leading to man-of-the-match Jack Conan getting it down to wrap up the bonus point.

And just to make sure the South Stand crowd got their money’s worth, there followed an incredible four further tries from Luke McGrath, Conan completing his hat-trick (after a ridiculously desperate chip in his own 22 by Pierre Spies), Cian Healy and finally Garry Ringrose applying the powdered sugar to the cherries which sat atop the many layers of icing already on the cake.

You only have to watch the post match interview with Joe Tomane (which should have been cut short long before it was) to see that this wasn’t your stereo-typical case of a French team thinking about the journey home as the match is kicking off.  They got played off the park, they knew it, and they and they weren't happy about it.

So I’ve gone over my word limit, but I don’t really care.  An evening like this at the RDS needs to be savoured.  And having been critical of the overall Leinster support in the past, it has to be said that it was absolutely superb this time.  Loud cheering and singing from start to finish and once the fourth try was secure there was even some ironic cheering for things that went right for us and wrong for our opponents before the night was out. Basically, if you were at this match and the first thing you remember was the cold, then maybe top-flight rugby isn’t for you.  

That said, there's no "chicken and egg" argument here...the atmoshpere was a direct result of the quality rugby on show, Congrats to all involved in producing an occasion like this and in the words of Leinster fan and Harpin contributor Chris McDonnell :

“We need to tie down Lancaster for a few years at least….There will be job offers flying for him real soon”

Naturally there is still some work to be done in pool four.  Yes, we’re in the quarterfinals but we’ve been through enough of these campaigns before to know just how crucial a home quarterfinal is, and any kind of victory in Castres next week will guarantee that.

Putting it simply, if we continue to play as we did on Friday, we may not see more final scores like 70-6 or 57-3 between now and the end of the season, but we can definitely put more on the scoreboard than anyone else I have seen in this competition, that’s for sure.  You never know - Sean O’Brien might even get a look in.  JLP
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