Monday, April 10, 2017

Ospreys-18 Leinster-20

I’m finding it hard to decide whether or not this was a good match to watch for the "neutral".

That may sound strange, given it was a low-scoring contest riddled with mistakes up to and including the last kick, but having watched the entire 80 minutes a second time I am seriously torn on the matter and probably always will be.

Several times during Super Rugby season we see social media mentions of “the best rugby match ever” when the final score is 76-75 or clips of the “best try ever” when there’s a series of offloads through the legs and behind the back until the scorer does a triple somersault (with pike) before dotting down.

Don’t get me wrong - that’s exciting stuff and I love following the competition when I can. But in many ways the entertainment value seems tainted by the gaps in the defence of the conceding team which are almost as big as the gaps in the crowd.  And this failing has been pretty much proven by SANZAAR’s decision yesterday to axe as many as three teams before next season.

It might be the result of chronic nerdery on my part, but I tend to appreciate matches more when the defences are holding sway.  And while this one at the Liberty Stadium did have a lot of errors, many of them were forced by the opposition’s organization, solid tackling, quick line speed and most importantly in my view, world class back row play.

What’s more, tight defending also meant that any tries would have to come from a team making the very most of even the smallest opportunity...and we had four of them to savour, so what say we begin there.

The Ospreys had a lot more to lose on the day and they played like it from the kickoff - we certainly wouldn’t have expected anything less.  And when it came to making mistakes, Leinster were the principal culprits in that first quarter.  There were barely 2 minutes on the clock when Devin Toner went for a ball at the breakdown best left alone and it gave Dan Biggar a chance to give the home side an early lead.

While this was Dan’s 200th appearance for the Swansea-based outfit, it wasn't to be his day especially with the boot; his first placekick never made it over the bar and we were able to clear.  From the resulting lineout however, his team found an even better way to open the scoring.

Joe Schmidt would have been impressed with the “powerplay” move off the lineout which led to a try in the corner by Sam Davies.  You could fault the Leinster tackling but I’d be more inclined to see the positives in that the home side knew every aspect of the move had to be perfect from the moment it left Scott Baldwin’s fingers, and they were rightly rewarded when it was.  Bigger missed the conversion so it was 5-0.

The errors kept coming for Leinster, and oddly enough it was skipper Nacewa making most of them - beaten to the jump by Biggar one minute, throwing a pass into touch another, and even letting a high ball drop before knocking on.  I might even call his tackle on Keelan Giles a bad decision as it was a tad high.

When Biggar finally landed a placekick to make the score 8-0, it was very important for us to settle down and play our way back into the match, something that would be expected of a team sitting atop the league.  And that we did.  Jack McGrath jackled his way to a penalty, then later Carbery launched a superb territory kick into their 22 before some concerted pressure forced Biggar to clear from behind his own line.

Eventually our first try came, and once more it can be traced back to a poor decision.  When Biggar saw his opposition's hooker running at him, he clearly thought he only had to worry about how to bring him down.  Actually catching him in the first place was apparently a formality.  Eh, meet Sean Cronin!!!  Outstanding pace.

And let’s not forget the two quality offloads that got it to him; first a standard yet still time-sensitive ship from O’Loughlin and then a brilliantly-disguised one from Henshaw.  That Cronin had any space at all was thanks to them..he did the rest with a blend of arrogance and acceleration.

It was our turn at the start of the second half to work an early powerplay off a lineout...Nacewa was on the receiving end of a high tackle and we put the resulting kick into the Ospreys 22.  Zane Kirchner made a strong carry breaking the gainline and forcing the home defence back before it was man-of-the-match Cronin again storming through a gap.

He couldn’t quite take it to the line this time but by this stage Dan Leavy had been introduced from the bench and he seems to have a knack for finishing in these situations...never taking “no try” for an answer.  

Finally we had another Ospreys score that came from a Devin Toner penalty.  We had the game well in control at that stage and getting pinged at midfield seemed to be the only way they’d get into our 22.  Once there they again showed a great ability to strike quickly...Justin Tipuric both started the move by clutching the lineout and ended it by dotting down, with a sizeable carry from skipper Rhys Webb along the way.

So those were the tries and I reckon it’s important to list them first, but we haven't come close to listing all of the poor decisions made throughout the match.

The breakdown was always a difficult area with so many proven poachers (Tipuric, Leavy, Baker, van der Flier, Ruddock, the list goes on…), but neither team did much to course correct throughout the contest, instead seeming to prefer leaving numbers out of the rucks in case an opportunity presented itself.

Last week I criticised Wasps for not being able to see out the half without conceding an unnecessary score - this time it was our turn.  Our scrums have been rock solid this season, so much so that between Gibson-Park and Jack Conan they didn’t think they needed to heed ref John Lacey’s calls of “use it!” during a scrum at midfield.

In their defence, the scrum was moving forward.  But this ref in particular doesn’t like number 8s looking for penalties and we should have known this...besides, once the call is made, especially when you’re in the lead away from home just before the break, it’s better to err on the side of caution.  They didn’t, Lacey awarded a new scrum the other way, and not long after, Ospreys won a penalty which Biggar was able to convert to put them in front.

Another staple decision away from home when you have the lead is to take your three points when you can get them.  Having gone back ahead, this time by 6 points, both Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy combined to jackle a penalty for us in their 22.  It was a bit towards the touchline but still very kickable and had Isa nailed it we’d be ahead by more than a score.

Instead we went “all in” for the try and proceeded to make a “horlicks” of the move off the lineout - no power play for Kirchner this time, just a choke tackle.

Then as we were pressing outside their 22 with the clock ticking down and a point behind on the scoreboard, Robbie Henshaw saw it necessary to skip multiple players with a pass that sailed into touch, easy to say now I know, but through the hands would have been fine.

It wasn’t just the players making bad decisions...a vocal section of the home crowd went the “football route” by booing Isa Nacewa for that earlier tackle on Giles - that’s not a good look for any sport.  Also there was poor judgement from the Sky Sports TV director, but before I get to that I’ll point to arguably the one really good decision on the day.

With so much at stake in the hunt for a home semifinal it would have been understandable to leave our starting halfback combination on the park for 80 minutes but we saw the game out with the St Michaels pair Nick McCarthy and Ross Byrne - this proved to be match-winning...just!

Byrne of course deserves all the praise in the world for his composure in slotting that drop’s not something Irish players do often at this level and he actually made it look easy despite the situation.  But overall I was more impressed by the dozen or so phases which preceded it...maybe the Ospreys had to be careful not to ship a pen but still the ball needed to be kept moving and McCarthy did just that.

Now we have arrived at the 2nd worst decision of the afternoon.  As wonderful and all as Byrne’s drop goal was to watch, I reckon two looks at the replay would have been enough.  Instead Sky’s director went for a third and by the time we returned to the live action, the Ospreys had both taken the kickoff AND won it back.

This gave them the final chance they needed and on the 11th phase, Dan Biggar was in the pocket but again there was good pressure from the defence and he had to recycle.  On the next phase, however, a high tackle from Byrne came perilously close to undoing all his good work from the previous ten minutes.

Every time these two teams have met since 2012 I have found a reason to bring up Dan Biggar’s last-gasp conversion that won the Celtic League title at the RDS by a point.  That was from the touchline and he made look easy.  This time he had a chance to win from pretty much in front of the posts and the second it left his boot you could see it was wide.

Was he still under the influence of the earlier clash of heads with Rhys Ruddock?  He says he doesn’t remember the last ten minutes.  He’d probably prefer to forget the whole match, but the point is that the Ospreys themselves seem to have a different version of events.  We’ll probably never know the actual truth.

One final decision I didn’t like, again by Sky; we didn’t need cameras shoved in the faces of so many different Ospreys fans as it sunk in that Biggar had missed.  That said, it showed just how much it meant to them.  This is arguably the biggest cross-border rivalry in rugby, certainly bigger than anything Super Rugby has ever managed to cultivate.

Anyway, I think I have harped enough on this particular match - somehow Leinster came away with the match points which puts us nine clear in the hunt for a home semifinal. Who knows, we may well be meeting these pesky birds again before the season is out, but for now it's on to Galway we go. Nothing has been decided yet! JLP

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019