Monday, December 18, 2017

Leinster-22 Exeter Chiefs-17



I know we're a Leinster-centric site, but it'd hard to start an article about this match without a bit of writing from Exeter's point of view.  What a tough few days it must have been for them heading into the weekend.

After years of steady improvement from reaching the Premiership, reaching the top six, then the top four and eventually last May, the title itself, they had made it perfectly clear this season so far they have no intention of stopping there.  A good lead atop the domestic table plus two wins out of two in Europe made this 'back-to-back' series every bit as 'mouth-watering' as the rematch of recent finals between Clérmont and Saracens.

Then, just like that, they get out-played and out-thought in pretty much every area of the pitch, and on their own stomping ground to boot.  Even the most 'till I die' Chiefs fans would have to admit they were lucky not to have lost by more than a ten point margin.  It was the kind of setback that would have made the 6-day turnaround between matches look that much shorter, the 40k attendance at the Aviva Stadium seem that much larger, and the three stars on Leinster's jersey shine that much brighter.

In every sense, Rob Baxter's men were having their credentials as champions challenged to the max as they took to the field on Saturday afternoon.  And the game was barely three minutes old when they were making it clear to all of European rugby that they were up for it, winning a penalty 17 seconds after the kickoff, kicking for touch, securing the lineout, executing a slick passing move, and finally rumbling through eight phases on our tryline before Sam Skinner got the ball down.  We're back folks, and we're pissed off.

Though it's not like you need me to sing in the key of Exeter...you could instead have just watched back the BT Sport commentary.  Yes, I know they had Drico and Darce there to offer our side of the 'equation' but make no mistake - while these are meant to be broadcasts for all unions, this was PremiershipTV.  Dallaglio even slipped up towards the end and referred to Exeter as 'us' when berating the ref for the umpteenth time.

And as I mention the officials, it is probably best to get that nasty subject out of the way.  As well as all the one-sided griping from Messrs Mullins & Dallaglio throughout, on social media there was a strong narrative from non-Leinster fans [many Irish I might add] that somehow a gross injustice had been done to Exeter on account of Cian Healy not seeing red for his challenge and our match-winning try not being called back for a forward pass from Dan Leavy to the eventual scorer Luke McGrath.

I am happy to debate those two decisions with anyone and in both cases, I am well aware that Leinster could have gotten the rub of the green.  But to draw a line from those two incidents to the result without taking into account all that happened for the rest of the 80 minutes, not to mention a call or three from Romain Poite a week earlier, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Of course I could spend the whole writeup detailing infractions from the visitors that mirrored ones we were doing but I'd much rather harp on the rugby.  That said, a large part of their dodgy dealings were done by the same player - it really did look as though Mitch Lees decided he was simply going to do everything he could get away with until he was caught, and eventually he was, though it 'only' earned us a penalty.

If people want to know why Exeter lost this game, then sure - talk about the Healy charge and the Leavy pass.  But you must also talk about the fact that the penalty count was actually 12-11 in their favour with only Leinster players seeing yellow and in those twenty minutes with an extra man, they could only add three points to the scoreboard which were cancelled out by three from us.   Tack on a few lost lineouts, missed tackles [incl 5 from Steenson] and wasted overlaps and only then you'll have close to the full picture.

And once you ignore the commentary and accept that the poor calls [offside was another area btw] and mistakes were pretty much even, you can see this match for what it was - an absolutely absorbing tactical battle that laid out for all to see what quality coaching these two great squads have behind them.

For in that first half, Exeter had fixed all that was broken the week before, including the catching of box kicks.  Around the midfield areas, we were doing pretty well keeping them out - to get near our tryline they invariably needed us to gift them a penalty, and like I said earlier, we often obliged.  But once there, yes, they did add a second try in a manner they are well used to from the Premiership, namely a well-drilled maul, but other times they simply could not capitalise.

When we tried to respond, it was clear that the Devon-based club were also well prepared for us.   They were so hard to get through it was like our attack patterns had been handed to them before kickoff, though they were also giving us penalty opportunities, which thankfully our Captain Fantastic and man of the match Isa Nacewa was able to convert every time.

And on Isa's kicking...I haven't even gotten to the bit where I explain my title yet!  Well, I guess you could say both teams played much heads up rugby throughout, but really it's all about a number of nasty knocks to the noggin coupled with the complete inconsistency in the handling of each incident.

Sexton with his renowned tackling style was gone in the build up to that early Exeter try, then his replacement Ross Byrne had his own bell rung, and it wasn't confined to our side either - Nic White got himself an early HIA as well.  But it was the injuries to Sean Cronin and Lachie Turner that seemed most bizarre - despite the former appearing dazed and the latter sporting a clear head wound, neither were sent straight to the protocols.

I made a similar point about 'going to the TMO' last week but this goes infinitely more for HIAs - you can't base any decision on ones that have gone before.  In the crazy imaginary scenario of all 46 players somehow banging their heads together and requiring assessment, then you just don't have a game, end of.  This subject has an importance that goes well beyond the stature of any trophy at stake, and I really shouldn't have to spell that out.

But anyway...going back to the rugby, Isa was put in one hell of a bind when both our out halves were forced off so early, and while Byrne did return [again you have to ask was that the right call] our captain retained the kicking duties, making the assistant refs raise their flags each and every time.

Arguably the most important of these was just before halftime, when despite starting from in our own half, we ignored the temptation to put the ball dead and instead rumbled through some phases towards their 22, eventually securing a kicking chance which, although taking a heart-stopping 'dead-duck' trajectory as I watched from behind the posts, put us within 8 points, a margin to be thankful for given how that half had gone.

We badly needed to make the right changes during the break.  Something had to be done differently because the English champions had our number.  And what the Cullen/Lamcaster brains trust pulled out the bag was not only just what we needed to take control of the match, it was once again very similar to what our opposition had been doing to us.

That passing move ahead of the Skinner try was a simple exchange involving support runners going in different directions while the passer pops it up to the intended receiver.  Much like the first half it took us a while to get some decent possession but once we did, the tweak started paying dividends. 

We had front-foot ball aplenty and while the Exeter defence were often good at jackling their way to turnovers, our own defence plus their own errors were enough to keep them at bay down the other end.  And although the tries seemed to be just out of our reach, we kept on getting kickable penalties which meant Isa kept converting...at one stage I thought it was very possible we could pinch it 18-17 without ever crossing their line.

But right after Chiefs hooker Cowan-Dickie wrestled the ball free for his side, sub lock Johnny Hill unforgivably got pinged for sealing off the next ruck which gave us an attacking lineout.  Our yips on darts from earlier in the season were back in force on the day, but not this time...the ball found its way to Dan Leavy, himself barely on the pitch.

He had a good shift overall but his best contribution happened here when he found a gap and got to the 22 before his, er, 'flat' offload put his scrum half through to send the home crowd into a frenzy.  Unlike last week when the officials seemed determined to look at enough replays to find a way to disallow, this time they chose to let it stand.  What can I say.

From there, having surged ahead by five points, it was a matter of bringing the win home.  Denying them the losing bonus point was inconsequential for us this time around, particularly given how this match had gone.  The Chiefs did get a sniff of the try line at one point but that was only after one of the more glaring misses by the assistants, ie Lachie Turner being in touch, was eventually spotted by the TMO.

Garry Ringrose didn't have his best day at the office I'm afraid to say.  He was coming good towards the end but the onlooking Joe Schmidt won't have needed the stat man to tell him about the centre's five missed tackles - hopefully this will fire him up for the trip to Thomond Park on St Stephens' Day.

For their part Exeter will be disappointed with seeing their early advantage evaporate, but I hope I sound sincere when I say how glad I was to see them help make this  the enjoyable spectacle it was.  After our semifinal disappointments earlier in the year, their Premiership title win was by far and away my highlight of the end of the last European season, and I have no doubt they have much more success in their future.

Back to us once last time...despite our 4 wins out of 4, Montpellier have squirrelled away enough bonus points along the way to mean we are far from guaranteed anything out of this Pool 3.  We really want to be home and hosed before we travel to the Altrad Stadium, so another good win over the Warriors is required.

All of that plus a punishing series of something like nine interpros in about four days means a lot more 'heads up' rugby will be required from Leinster Rugby over the weeks to come.  The good kind, I mean, of course.  JLP

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