Monday, April 03, 2017

Leinster-32 Wasps-17



Before I harp on this particular match, a quick recap on how 2017 has gone so far for Leinster Rugby, and more importantly, how some fans have felt about it (note - I am including myself in this group to an extent).

We put 70 points - SEVENTY - on Zebre > Meh, it was Zebre.

We put 50 on Montpellier in Europe > Meh, they had a man sent off and besides, it's a Top14 club away in Europe, n'est-ce pas?

We "only" drew at Castres, securing a home quarterfinal > Aha!!!  See - this is what's wrong.  Shocking performance.  Should have won. We've put our semifinal prospects in the blender.  Why can't we tackle?

We then proceeded to beat Treviso by 26, Edinburgh by 29, Dragons by 32 and Scarlets by 36 > Meh, that's just because, er, um, it's all during the Six Nations?

We then beat Cardiff Blues at home by a single point > Aha!  See - this is what's wrong.  We certainly can't do anything like that against Wasps or we'll look like April Fools in the Aviva.  Why can't we tackle?  

Now we've put away the Premiership leaders, who totally "pwned" us twice in this competition only last season, by 15 points.  

Meh, Wasps were disappointing and we were far from perfect - if we play like that against Clérmont we'll be turned into French onion soup in Lyon.

STOP!!!!!!!!!

At what stage are we going to put the self-doubt aside and believe we have a squad capable of winning this thing?  Or at the very least equally as capable as the other three remaining clubs??? 

Of course I'm not denying Wasps were disappointing - they totally were.  For me their problems started in the halfbacks - neither Robson nor Cipriani could get their heads in the game and Dai Young reacted way too late in replacing them with Simpson and Gopperth.

When it came to their approach, whatever homework they did on us was way, way wrong.  Kicked far too much ball our way, clearly unaware that despite not being at the top of his game last week, young Joey Carbery had a man of the match display in him at this level which he showed on Saturday.

And of course we were far from perfect ourselves.  We also had issues in the halfback department - Sexton's "kicking from the hand" radar was way off and Luke McGrath's wasn't much better.  As strange as it may seem, our 69% overall territory stat could have been much higher.

Then there were the Wasps tries - three in all, only two of which counted.  For each you can cite both brilliance by them and shortcomings by us.

First we had an amazing chase by Garry Ringrose of a clearance kick - sadly he had no team mate with him to deal with Gopperth's offload to Kurtley Beale, who was born to punish that kind of broken play situation and while we can definitely find fault in our own tackling, with Willie Le Roux in support there are few teams that can deal with them.  For me, I trace our problem back to the lack of support for Ringrose.

So all Le Roux had to do was coast over the line.  Oh, and apply downward pressure to the ball against the ground.  That damn fine print!  

Look - it was a howler for sure and we've all had a laugh as Leinster fans.  Hopefully it will serve as a reminder that those dives simply aren't needed.  But I think we were extra lucky that Johnny Sexton was bang wide to the knockon - at the time I thought he was "chancing his arm" gesturing to Nigel Owens but he was vindicated by the TMO. 

We definitely dodged a bullet there, no doubt about it.  Personally, I still think we would have won without the spill, but that's a debate that can go on forever.

By the time the visitors were crossing our line again, we had already built a 22-point lead.  And ironically, their first legal five-pointer came from kicking to Joey Carbery and probably illustrated just why they were persisting with it.

I reckon they pinpointed that he almost exclusively runs back with the ball when he collects it in the backfield - out of ten goes, he'd perhaps put up two garryowens himself and will run the rest.  He rightly has great faith in his fancy footwork to beat at least the first tackler and he did on several occasions.  

This time he was stopped, Wasps turned it over, and quickly (if a tad fortunately) got it out wide to Christian Wade, who, as Leinster fans know well, is another who can turn an inch of space into a mile.

So that was 25-10.  It still seemed an unassailable lead; that try had the look of a "once off" about it, and all we needed to do was keep it into the third quarter and we should be comfortable.  Then came the 59th minute.

Luke McGrath missed the first key tackle on Gopperth and from there the former Leinster man was able to dance his way to the line showing amazing determination to get the ball down (at the risk of labouring a point it was a grounding infinitely tougher than Le Roux's!)

Right then.  The lead is now eight and there's plenty of time for Wasps to get two scores.  Now we'll see what this Leinster team is made of.  But first, what say we go back and look at our own three tries up to that point, all of which did count on the scoreboard.

Isa's opener was made look straightforward - we stretched their defence and made the most of the space.  Still, it took a phenomenal pass from Carbery to put his skipper into that try-scoring gap.  Only way to describe it would be as a "GPS-guided missile".  That was 8-0.

Then we did to Wasps exactly what Cardiff did to us last week, namely making the most out of a broken play situation...twice.

What I enjoyed most about this Leinster display was how it reminded me of what I saw at that opening preseason game in Navan RFC way back in August.  Not only could you see back then the style of play we are employing now, but also a host of youngsters who played that afternoon were more than just prospects for years down the line...they are ready to be champions now.

You could see it most of all in our support play when we have possession.  In the majority of cases when the ball was held by a blue jersey there was at least one more close by ready to either take a pass or clear out tacklers.

Wherever Matt O'Connor buried our offloading game at the UCD training base, Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster & co not only dug it up but they also traded it in for an upgrade.

Carbery, again running back a ball kicked to him, barely had to think about what to do when he saw half a chance in the wide channels.  He flips it to McFadden, gets it back, all while running forward, then he chucks one out towards the wing where he knew Jack Conan would be and the big number 8, who could easily start for any team in this competition, provided the finish.

Our third try was also down to our being switched on, but for me it was Wasps' biggest single "fail" of the day; yes, even worse than Le Roux's.

You're already down 15-3 and you win a penalty in your own 22 with the clock having ticked past the 39-minute mark.  I don't care what happens...you should never concede a try from that situation, especially not at this level.

Instead Wasps were sloppy at the resulting lineout and Dan Leavy, who had left the field earlier for a spell after receiving a nasty gash on his head, was able to scoop the ball back for his side and from there we were switched on ready to strike.  Furlong to Seanie, on to Sexton who charges into the 22; he has Henshaw in support and just like that our lead was a whopping nineteen at halftime.

Fast forward again to Wasps dragging themselves back within 8.  No doubt about it - as Gopperth converted his own try I was nervous.  Looking back over that final quarter however, I'm happy to say the boys in blue were anything but.

Sure, we made a few more mistakes in that time.  But in each case, the culprit came back to make up for it.  First Ringrose ends a good move with a forward pass...moments later he's surging into the 22.  

Next our progress gets halted by our props as first Bent knocks it on then Healy drives early at the ensuing scrum giving Wasps a chance to clear.  Thing is though, our visitors appear pretty much spent at this stage.  Christian Wade takes a mark which he can barely tap let alone kick.  Even if the Premiership outfit offered their BT Sport money they couldn't buy their way out of their own half from minutes 60-75.

With that we proceeded to pound away in and around their 22, with both Healy and Bent among the prominent carriers.  Finally the chance came...a strong setup by Devin Toner got close to the line and then Fergus McFadden brought it the rest of the way.   As you can see by the lead photo, it meant a lot to him, partly because the contest was done and dusted, but also because it has been a long road back to this level for him after injuries.

Like I said earlier, Joey Carbery was man of the match, though honourable mention must go to our centres Henshaw and Ringrose.  Every second they spend on the pitch together means success down the road for Leinster and Ireland, and here we saw more of what they can offer with the ball than without.

In the pack, we lost a couple of key lineouts, but we were also strong on Wasps' darts - Toner seemed to have their jumping timed to the millisecond and caused some havoc.  We didn't have a whole lot of tackles to make but when we did it was Leavy and O'Brien leading the way.  Our scrum feed was perfect yet again, and I'm still afraid to jinx it with too many superlatives.

But I'd particularly like to tip my hat to Hayden Triggs.  We started the season with a gagillion locks all capable of playing in Europe but it's clear our coaches flagged the Maori All Black early and their faith has been truly rewarded.  Excellent work rate about the park  - an unsung hero in our march to the final four.

A tricky spell ahead for Leinster to say the very least...all the talk right now is about the renewal of our Clérmont rivalry but in the meantime we have tough Guinness Pro 12 road trips to Swansea and Galway before we head to Lyon.

For now though, I feel we have seen enough of this 2016/17 Leinster squad to know that despite a few failings at times, we have an excellent mix of coaching, talent, experience and youth on our side to see out this campaign.

There are four quality sides left and of course it's great to see two Irish provinces in there, particularly with all the turmoil and changes the competition has seen over the years.  The bookies have Leinster as "outsiders" among the remaining clubs (probaby based on the semifnal draw) but everyone in European rugby will know we've as good a chance as anyone of lifting that trophy.

All we need to do as fans is bring our passion up to those levels shown by Ferg there - or to put it another way thanks to the Leinster Rugby marketing department, "join the roar".  JLP

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