Monday, October 02, 2017

Leinster-21 Edinburgh-13



Many is a time we played poorly and gave our opposition chances to win yet they haven't been able to take it.

When I said the above in my writeup of our defeat to Cheetahs last week I was referring to matches from years gone by...I certainly didn't want to see a perfect example of it in the very next Leinster match, yet see it I did.

The bookies offered a whopping twenty-four point spread in our favour going into this one.  Given we were welcoming back enough Lions to chew lumps out of a whole host of reckless Osprey hookers, it's easy to see where the projected margin came from, and if you accept it then technically, or even morally, this was more like an Edinburgh win.

But thankfully they don't award points on the league table for anything like that so let's get down to the business of harping on what happened, and this week I have gone for a 'categories' format.

EDINBURGH'S SIEGE MENTALITY

Much like our display in Bloemfontein it really annoys me when people focus on our side of the ball, as if the only reason we could have lost is because we played poorly.  That wasn't the case against the Cheetahs, nor was it in this 'moral' defeat on Friday.

Literally from the kickoff, Edinburgh let it be known that they hadn't come to Dublin to see if we'd let them have a bonus point.  It was as though Richard 'Cockers' Cockerill had pinned a printout of the odds from PaddyPower.com to the dressing room wall, and from what I know of him, that's exactly the kind of thing he'd do.

For a club with a castle as its logo they not only had us under siege for the opening ten minutes, but also did extremely well holding us out countless times on their own line when we came back at them.  In the tackle charts from the match ALL of the top five were wearing red.  There were great outings from Jason Tovey, James Johnstone, Grant Gilchrist, Hamish Watson and more besides.

Having said that, I have a couple of points to make about the post-match perception on social media that somehow they were hard done by referee Ian Davies.  Maybe he wasn't perfect and he definitely should have let a last gasp lineout happen as the clock hadn't expired, but biased?  Nah.

First and foremost, part of that siege mentality I'm talking about was a clear desire to put a bit of needle into the match.  It's classic Cockerill treachery when you think about it, and I'm not one to complain about that - it's part of the game and teams like Leinster and Ireland who put a lot of work into set moves and plays see it done to them often. 

This means it's up to us to identify it, ignore it, and stick to our plan.  So when Darryl Marfo taps Scott Fardy on the head, the Wallaby shouldn't react in kind.  Or when Hamish Watson thwarts Jack McGrath's attempt to dive over a ruck for a try by grabbing his neck [screengrab moments after lead photo], Johnny Sexton shouldn't do likewise to the visiting scrum-half moments later.  
Believe me - I'm not saying Leinster were in any way victims on the night, but what I am saying is that if you choose to play with that level of physicality and that close to the edge of the Laws, that's fine but don't complain if the ref in turn chooses to look for it - maybe that's why he opted to show your flanker yellow for sliding into Luke McGrath or called back a try after your number 8 ran into Scott Fardy.

My second point is that for all the mistakes Leinster made on the night, Edinburgh's levels were similar.  Match points weren't so much taken away as left behind from where I was watching, but there was still plenty to suggest the former Leicester coach will have this squad on an upward curve while he's there.

LEINSTER'S GOOD

Also part of the post-match reaction was the usual nonsense [admittedly from a minority] which was something like 'I've been watching Leinster for fifty years and this was their worst display by a country mile' [perhaps not a direct quote but they were definitely exaggerating so why can't I?].

There was a lot of good in our performance, so much so that while I do think Sexton was one of our better performers, Reggie Corrigan got it badly wrong in naming him man of the match.  He wasn't even our best back the way I saw it; IMO that honour would have gone to Joey Carbery, not only for his try but for constantly rebooting our attacks with mazy runs after our determined visitors had driven us back.

If I had to give the gong to a boy in blue it would be Jordi Murphy, again not only for his try but for overall work around the park which put to rest any doubts about his role in our bountiful back row even after a long layoff...I just hope his withdrawal towards the end wasn't for anything too serious, he seemed to be limping at one point.

We should also get credit as a team for our try at the end of the first half...it took a lot of brave decision-making, passing up easy three pointers over and over with the clock ticking down, but once our patience yielded seven, however fortunate our lead at the break might have been, it made an immense difference to our team talk.

Then there was our defence...we definitely had some tackling issues and I'll get to them but the fact remains that 'Embra' only crossed legally once and that was from an interception in their own half.  We turned over a lot of their ball and even when breached made some fine scrambling tackles at key moments.

Honourable mentions go to Max Deegan for a strong presence in the closing stages [on the ground and in the air!] and also Jamison Gibson-Park of whom I have been very critical...the third try may have been fortuitous but in a second half where we struggled to finish our chances, he generally shines in these situations and didn't disappoint here.

Finally in this category I rarely harp on placekicks but Sexton's conversion before halftime and Ross Byrne's before the end were high pressure moments brilliantly executed and without them the Scots' confidence would have been infinitely greater.

LEINSTER'S BAD

In my preview I highlighted our soft centre for the umpteenth time.  Both Noel Reid and Rory O'Loughlin did some good things in this match but each time they did, it seemed to get cancelled out by something potentially costly moments before or after.

For example, that match-winning try finally came for Leinster when Edinburgh sub Blair Kinghorn badly miscued a clearance kick which landed a couple of metres from his own tryline...this had a lot to do with O'Loughlin putting him under immense pressure.  However, our young centre had been bamboozled by a run from the Soct moments earlier which went on to get him deep into our half, thus providing unwanted motivation.

This all happened towards the end but we can't put it down to tiredness as both our centres were being outdone by their opposite numbers in that opening ten minute spell, particularly Johnstone.  Between them they missed seven tackles throughout, not the first time that has happened.

What's the answer for us?  Well I wouldn't necessarily drop the pair of them, but I would definitely make sure that they don't start together in the centre for us going forward...if one does, there should be someone more experienced with them in that key role until we can get our 'Ringshaw' pairing back up and running.

One more for the 'bad' heading...while I have already spoken about us taking the bait that Edinburgh left for us, to come at it from another angle...in general I'm not a fan of an out half being captain and in particular I don't like it with Johnny Sexton.  Of course he's a leader in our team, there's no doubting that, I just don't think he needs an armband to prove it.  I say let him be his grumpy brilliant self and leave the captaincy and dealing with the ref to others [like on this occasion perhaps Cronin or O'Brien].

LEINSTER'S UGLY

Time to devote a string of paragraphs to our lineout because it's an issue which seems to be going from bad to worse to downright catastrophic.

Our problem with this set piece isn't that it never works.  Our problem is that we need them to always work, and they continue to fail us in key situations.  For the second week running, our opening try illustrated just how lucrative they can be when we simply manage to transfer the ball from hooker to catcher the way we want.

Throw, catch, maul, try for Jordi.  Simple as.  And in the second half we had a similar series right after Edinburgh saw yellow, going from a penalty in our own half to within a whisker of a try in no time at all.

And ugly and all as the stats look [15 won from 20 throws] even they don't tell the full story.  Of those 15 I doubt if even half of them went to plan, and considering we had arguably the easiest target in professional rugby on the park [whose head coach was one of the finest proponents of the art himself in his day], we really shouldn't have to keep revisiting this issue week in week out.

I get the whole 'it's not always the hooker' argument.  Really I do.  But wherever the buck may stop, that is definitely where it starts, and hitting the mark is continuously a problem.  On this occasion it was sub Bryan Byrne who was the biggest culprit but there was been plenty of blame to go around among Leinster hookers [though at least they don't go around petting predatory animals - sorry to bring it up again but I'm still dumbfounded by that story].

You could say much of this has to do with our eagerness to avoid the simpler option to the 'two' position as subsequent phases are more productive with a deeper dart.  Be that as it may, there's no point in putting so many eggs into that basket if you're going to break more than half of them.  This is an issue that needs sorting now, and for the reason why, just look at my final category.

SCARY OCTOBER

We won on Friday.  Maybe not with the bonus point we were expecting, nay demanding, but still a win nonetheless.  And it's a win which gives us four out of five to start our campaign, something we Leinster fans still find unusual.

Yet while the scary part of October is meant to come right at the end, for Leinster it features non-stop confrontations with teams who have similar if not better records.  I keep listing them in my scribblings but this time I'll add their league record - next week it's Munster [W4 L1] then it's Montpellier [5-1], followed by Glasgow [5-0], Ulster [4-1] then Glasgow again, this time in the Pro14.

It happens every season that we must feed our elite players into the squad just in time for Europe and we have to hope that as they prepare for such hectic schedule they can both identify the recent shortcomings and rectify them.  Meanwhile as Leinster fans we can't really avoid being a bit apprehensive about the weeks ahead but that's when we remember that nobody really fancies playing us either.  So bring the big matches on, I say.  

For now, many thanks again to 'Cockers' and Edinburgh for putting up such a battle on Friday...I very much doubt you'll see a predicted margin a victory that big next time you come to Dublin.  JLP



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