Monday, March 27, 2017

Leinster-22 Cardiff Blues-21



When I first saw those electronic noticeboards at bus stops I thought they were amazing.  Now you actually know exactly when your bus is going to arrive...who would have thought that could ever be possible?

I wasn’t so amazed on Saturday.  Having reached the 18 stop a good hour and a half before kickoff, it says the bus is due in 4 minutes - then it ticks down to “Due”, stays like that for about 5 minutes...then it goes back up to 5 minutes, down, up again, down again...eventually I give in and decide to get a taxi, waiting even longer for that, THEN the bus arrives.

At least I had another bit of technology to count on...though I ended up missing the first 15 minutes of the match, I did see Dan Leavy’s opening try courtesy of TG4 on my phone.  And quite the impressive finish it was too - we were throwing the ball around on a fine spring afternoon in Ballsbridge and a nice little dink by Noel Reid popped up for Leavy to take, spin and plant down in impressive fashion.

Hand on heart, I have to admit when I eventually got off the bus and made my way towards the ground, that score made me confident my prediction of a 20-point win for Leinster was pretty much spot on.  

What’s that? 7-7?  Is that a mistake with the scoreboard?

Complacency can be a terrible thing in sport.  And when you’ve had a string of results like Leinster has lately, particularly as much of it was down to our promising “next generation” of talent, it’s not easy to avoid.  When I eventually got a chance to look back over that first 15 minutes of action, you could definitely see a bit of it creeping into our play.

On our first possession exiting our 22 after Leavy’s score, we tried a crossfield kick.  There’s no doubt that Ross Byrne seems to have some kind of GPS guidance system working with his boot most of the time, but I wonder if that was the best time to utilise it?  But it’s definitely not all about just him - this was a team-wide issue.

Basically I think Leinster approached Saturday’s match a bit like I did my bus stop.  Just because something has worked perfectly over and over recently doesn’t mean you can afford to be unprepared for when it doesn’t.  And one thing is for sure...Cardiff were ready, willing and (three times anyway) able to take full advantage when we weren’t firing on all cylinders.

Our biggest problem was in transition, and this is why I think we were complacent.  No matter how well we’re doing with the ball, all 15 players have to keep in mind the possibility that they could easily have a crucial tackle to make in the blink of an eye.  

Right after an attack of ours broke down by way of a knock on, the Blues, who had already shown a willingness to test us in the wide channels, stacked up players out there and when it got to Lee-Lo he had a two on one facing Rhys Ruddock, who committed to the tackle.  Once he did, the pass went to Scully on the touchline and this meant Rory O’Loughlin, who had been inside Ruddock, needed to catch the pacy winger but was too slow to react.

Clearly the visitors had themselves well prepared for situations like this because after completing his pass Lee-Lo kept going to receive the ball back and inside him was their scrum half Tomos Williams.  We weren’t ready to scramble back and tackle...they were ready to charge forward and score.  

This meant the crowd was a bit subdued as I finally took my seat.  But even then, you had the general sense that this had to be a single blip?  The Blues maybe had a perfect storm in that instance and it couldn’t possibly happen again?  

Well shortly after that score a crossfield kick shaped to fall perfectly into the stride of Alex Cuthbert and if it had, he was gone for another try from long range.  But instead the ball took an extremely Irish bounce and we ended up threatening down the other end.

The remainder of the first half seemed to indicate that Leinster were getting into a position of domination.  We were destroying them at scrums.  When they did win a lineout in our 22, Ruddock got to their dart first.  And when a maul followed by some slick passing and strong phase play got us to their line, Luke McGrath nipped over the line for our second try.

Cardiff had another chance right before the halftime but our defence held them out...at that stage it looked to all intents and purposes that we were going to crack on possibly  score a rake of second half tries just like we had been getting used to of late.

We even appeared to start the third quarter with a few little tweaks to our gameplan.  Not only was Ross Byrne going to his boot on more convenient occasions, but having two former Clontarf out halves Noel Reid and Joey Carbery in his back line meant  creative options could be employed at any given time, and they were.

Had Carbery’s stud not grazed a blade of touchline grass on 43 minutes, Reid would have had a try for himself that could have put the result beyond doubt at that stage.  The only thing that would give the visitors some hope would be if we let them in for a score similar to their first.  No way would that happen, right?

Once more I could put their second try down to our complacency.  We were plucking box kicks out of the air and little grubbers forward were being retrieved and that was all well and good, but were we ready if it ever went wrong?  One of them got a little bit away from Isa Nacewa and fell to Gareth Anscombe...that’s when we found out.

The idea was for Isa to dribble the ball up the touchline, retrieve it himself and he’d have two team-mates inside him.  Instead it went to Anscombe, and this made Strauss & Carbery into tacklers...neither was able to react in time to get the NZ-born Welsh international down.  He caught a bit of a break as he ran into his scrum half before shipping it to his hooker Dacey who smoked Michael Bent and charged up the line.

Once into our backfield, you could see the try was inevitable.  Tomos Williams again put himself in a position to receive the final pass and hey presto the scores were level.  Surely this was enough of a wakeup call for Leinster?

Well, in a way it was.  We knuckled down and got ourselves down the other end pretty much straight away, and when we won a penalty under the posts, we put aside our ambitions for a try bonus point and took a three-point lead instead.

Meanwhile our overall domination continued.  The stats for this game make incredible reading seeing how the final margin was just one point.  Leinster had two-thirds in overall possession and territory, we won all our scrums, all but one of our lineouts, pinched four of theirs, and only shipped five penalties throughout.  

But the red circle on the page can only be drawn in one column.  26 missed tackles is bad enough any time, but when you only had 74 to make altogether, that’s borderline criminal.  And having already been bitten twice from deep, we fell foul again on a third occasion.

This was the most disappointing of the three scores, given we were on a strong attack ourselves around their 22 when Ross Byrne dropped it forward in the tackle.  At that moment, while Cardiff had impressive levels of belief on the day, I doubt even they thought a score was on.  Then as they passed it wide the ball went to ground a couple of times (without going forward) before reaching Lee-Lo.

In the sequence that followed, Adam Byrne definitely looked to be the biggest culprit as his attempted tackle on the big Samoan centre barely slowed him down let alone prevent an offload.  But I have a feeling the Monday DVD session will show up a lot more than just that one system error.  

From the time the ball was spilled by a Leinster hand we needed to be ready for a counter-attack, particularly as it had hurt us twice already.  We simply weren’t and just like that Sion Bennett was coasting over for a try that looked all too easy.  The RDS crowd began booing...while it was for a suspected high tackle on Adam Byrne when we had the ball that was ignored by George Clancy (borderline, seen them given though), it could easily have been for our poor transition.

(Update - as suggested in the comment below, the booing could well have been for a possible forward pass in the build up. Either way, not good to see booing for anything, especially as the conversion is being taken)

But here’s the thing...you can only be so negative about a victory.  I’ve gone through our failures for the three tries in detail.  There was actually much to be positive about as well.  Like I said earlier, our scrum supremacy was very heartening, particularly as it didn’t diminish when we changed our front row, nor did it when the visitors introduced seasoned campaigners like Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins.

We weren’t having things all our own way at the breakdown, but we were winning turnovers at key times, like when Dan Leavy, who I might be tempted to start at 7 ahead of van der Flier right now, won a penalty on the Cardiff 22 which put us in a position to pinch back the lead.

This gave us a chance to use our lineout/maul and this setpiece had also gone well for us...we worked our way towards the touchline where Ross Molony got the ball down in the furthest corner, and thanks to a fortunate gap under the assistant ref’s armpit, the TMO could ensure it was a score.  Ross Byrne didn’t add the extras so we had the smallest possible margin to bring home.

Luckily for us Cardiff seemed to be willing to help us on that score.  Despite our overall dominance in territory and possession, I reckon they held sway in that department for the final ten minutes.  Yet for some reason, even though they had made so much hay earlier, all of a sudden on turnover ball they were kicking it back to us.

They did have one golden opportunity to nick a victory when Matthew Morgan had options outside him but couldn’t settle on one before letting go a blatant forward pass.  Our scrambling tackles had improved by that stage but still this was a gilt edged chance that was squandered.

So the match fizzled out and having gone into the contest looking for five match points, we ended up very happy with four.  It’s important for Leinster to be mindful of the mistakes they made as they prepare for the big European quarterfinal ahead, but it’s equally important that they are mindful of how the season has gone as a whole.  

Time was not my friend on Saturday.  Not only did I miss my bus but I also had an hour taken away from my hangover recovery Sunday morning for the sake of “saving daylight”.  

But if you went back in time and told me that Leinster would be going into a tricky series of fixtures in rounds 18-22 of the Guinness Pro12 in first place on the table with clear daylight between us and those chasing a home semifinal, I would've definitely been happy.  (Though maybe after thinking about it a little more I’d ask why you travelled back in time only to tell me about standings in a rugby competition - how about some lotto numbers and long-odds horse race winners next time?)

Here’s hoping a lot of the daylight we saw last Saturday gets saved for the visit of Wasps - though whatever the weather it promises to be a cracking day of rugby all round.  JLP

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