Ospreys away, Connacht away, Glasgow at home and finally Ulster away.
No fancy puns involved in this week’s writeup headline...the focus is squarely on Leinster’s task ahead in this season’s Guinness Pro12 challenge.
But when I say “Final Four”, I’m not referring to our reaching the end of season playoffs, because at this stage that should be a bare minimum achievement for us. What we need to be aiming for is a top two finish, and with Munster and Ospreys either side of us in the top three, we need to be mindful of our final four matches of the regular season, three of which are away from home and none of which will provide easy points.
What this means is that the matches we are playing now during the Six Nations are of crucial importance and we need every point we can get. So a match like this against Edinburgh, where we run in six tries and concede just the one, can only be summarized one way : “mission accomplished”.
That would make for a pretty boring writeup, however, and to be fair when taken in isolation this was by no means a routine victory for Leo Cullen’s men.
We received the kickoff in our own 22 and made extremely heavy weather of exiting, leading to the visitors gaining themselves a strong attacking position, only to then in turn cough the ball up back to us when we finally forced our way up the field. In many ways that first minute showed the pattern for the early stages - we struggle to do the basics, they struggle to capitalise, we do well with our second chance.
But those opening few minutes did lack one defining characteristic for the match - injuries. They at least had the “decency” to wait until the 8th minute to arrive and from there they never let up.
First to book a spot in the treatment room was poor Dominic Ryan, who has had a horrible run of injuries over the years which has seen him slip down our crowded back row pecking order. After a tough tackle seemed to already ring his bell, a stray boot from a teammate provided some afters...he never returned from his HIA and hopefully the long term prognosis isn’t too bad.
If there was a silver lining to his removal from the action, it was that it brought together two very similar players for Leinster in Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy. We had issues around the breakdown for those opening few minutes, and having two strong opensides was just what we needed, a situation not far from the Wallabies’ “Hooper/Pocock” dilemma. (DanDerFlier?)
So as Leavy packed down for a scrum as his first bit of action, I thought to myself this new configuration could reap some reward for us, though I didn’t realise just how immediately the pairing would work! The put in was actually for the visitors, yet we had them under pressure straight away before van der Flier was able to turn the ball over which had us on the attack.
And guess who it was taking the ball at pace deep into the Edinburgh 22? Yes, it was Leavy. Now we had a good chance to make some hay with them scrambling, and after a phase or two in a central position we got it out wide where Barry Daly applied a great winger’s finish in the corner. Conversion was missed but at least the try seal was broken, 5-0 to Leinster.
From there it looked as though our rampaging flankers were going to tear the Scots apart, when first Leavy and then van der Flier managed steals in the next few minutes. However as Josh was performing his, an opponent tried to clear him out and he got his shoulder twistedl he seems to have suffered an AC joint separation which depending on the grade of tear could have him out for quite a while; a shame for him, Leinster and Ireland as I had him in the frame to start against France.
So now with both starting flankers gone after just 13 minutes it was our sub lock Mick Kearney who came on. Mike McCarthy had started and has played 6 in his day but it made sense for him to stay there with Ross Molony (the two went on to post great lineout & tackle numbers). Any team would struggle to regroup from such early injuries and it took us a good twenty minutes to get back to scoring ways. Some poor positional kicking particularly from Luke McGrath didn’t help our cause much either.
In the meantime, we of course also had to keep our visitors out, and with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Duncan Weir pulling their strings, our defence needed to be strong and luckily it was despite the changes. Peter O’Reilly of the Sunday Times reported yesterday that there are rumours of Stuart Lancaster extending his stay at the RDS - I know his remit has been more than simply replacing Kurt McQuilkin but our linespeed & general D on Friday showed how valuable the former England head coach has been for us this season.
The key passage of play in the first half was around the 25 minute mark when still only 5 points behind, Edinburgh embarked on a monster series of 28 phases mostly on our line and we were able to hold out...we did ship a penalty but in the further phases that followed their kick to touch, Hidalgo-Clyne tried to nip through before being stopped in his tracks by Leavy, who then got up and jackled his way to a penalty that ended the seige without a score.
And as well as our tough tackling, the Scots were helping us out with a few favours, not least of which was courtesy of their left winger Tom Brown who had the line at his mercy just before halftime - all he had to do was take a pass right in his bread basket but it was too much for him and we went in 5 points ahead at the break.
But the injury count had already gone from the sublime to the ridiculous by the time the second half kicked off - you are allowed 8 substitutions overall and you normally don't want any made by this stage, yet we had four as centre Rory O’Loughlin and wing Dave Kearney had been replaced by two Byrnes Ross & Adam and this meant our formation was a long, long way from that which started, and there was STILL more to come.
For this we have to cut them some slack for finding it difficult to get the attack rolling, especially as the defensive structure was so sound. And once again we needed some help to register our second try as with nary a Leinster defender contesting a breakdown for once, Edinburgh lock Ben Toolis decides to seal off possession in his own 22, getting pinged by ref Ian Davies for his trouble.
This gave us the strong attacking platform we needed and from the lineout we mauled to the line before pounding out some phases (with Edinburgh repeatedly offside I might add) before eventually getting it out to our “makeshift” fullback Carbery who got over the line.
A word on Carbery...though he didn’t play a full 80 at outhalf like Leo & Joe would have liked, we did get glimpses of what he brings to the table. Naturally training with Sexton will have him up to speed on his full repertoire but when it comes to bringing the ball himself, he offers a very different option. Johnny S will barrel into a tackler like he has a 6 or 12 on his back, but Joey C is much more fleet of foot and has the ability to leave tacklers grasping at nothing. Great to see him back and well and all as Ross Byrne has done in his absence, we definitely need him for the weeks ahead.
When the clock hit 51m, Mick Kearney dropped a simple pass at midfield and I was convinced the score as it stood, 13-3, was to be the final one. Zane Kirchner going off to add to our injury woes didn’t help much either as Luke McGrath was forced out to the wing. But once again were to make the most of having two similar players on the pitch together, and once again it was off an Edinburgh scrum.
...an interesting sub-plot at Leinster this weather is at scrumhalf. Are you on #TeamLuke or #TeamJGP? I’m torn at the minute. We have seen good and bad from both over the course of the season, though mostly good. Right now, I’m thinking the way they line out tonight is best for us, but only if Gibson-Park is guaranteed at least 20 minutes.
I wrote the above in my preview and after Dan Leavy showed more heroics winning the ball back after that Edinburgh feed, a wonderful combination between those very two competing scrum-halves up the touchline helped Joey Carbery to score what was easily the try of the night. Now the bonus point was within our reach, and it wasn’t long in coming as our visitors’ heads dropped and this time it was Barry Daly helping himself to his second after a quality miss pass from JGP.
Was the scoring done there? Of course not - Dan Leavy was yet to have his say and he duly finished off a strong maul to the line to provide us with our fifth. Already he was our man of the match, and he literally played right to the final whistle. I may be very early in saying it but while ability-wise he is very similar to van der Flier, in “on-pitch-personality” Leavy strikes me as a player who could well have captaincy in his future, at provincial level if not even higher.
Another player who made a good cameo was Adam Byrne. I know he didn’t find the scoresheet and that’s rare for him this season, but I reckon his display would have caught Joe Schmidt’s eye as he is very strong in the tackle following up on a box kick.
Edinburgh struck back immediately after Leavy’s try when a neat offload from Turner found Weir who went over, but right from the kickoff we returned the favour as our 3rd Byrne off the bench, Bryan this time, powered over to complete our six-pack.
So as you can see, although the job was done, there was much to talk about, and that late three-tries-in-5-minutes burst was particularly satisfying as anyone who left early would have missed them!
But like I said, now those points are in the bag, we have to go in search of more with those final four matches in mind. Scarlets and Cardiff will be visiting the RDS but not before we travel to Rodney Parade to face the Dragons, a visit we have had problems with in recent seasons but the way I see it we’ll need a minimum of 13 of the 15 points on offer against those Welsh regions if we are to stay in touch with the top two on the "ladder".
And of course in between those matches and the final four I mentioned back at the start, there’s the small matter of Wasps coming to the Aviva Stadium on April Fool’s Day. With all of that to look forward to plus Ireland being very much still in the Six Nations hunt, there’s a lot to be excited about these days and here’s hoping I have nothing but happy harping ahead!!! JLP