Monday, February 19, 2018

Leinster-20 Scarlets-13


If you click the link attached to our 'Import-ance' title above it should bring you to the ESPN website report from Leinster v Scarlets - I find it's generally a good source for quality 'at a glance' facts and figures to help compare different matches over the years.

However one complaint I have had with the service for some time now is that while they often seem to have tackle numbers updated as the match is in progress, when it comes to broader things like tournament standings they are woefully slow at keeping up.

And this shortcoming is extra prevalent right now because as you can see from the screengrab below, they only show the Pro14 tables as they stood after Round 9, ie way back at the end of November after we completed the double over the Dragons.

There is, however, a silver lining to their number-crunching at least offers a reminder to Leinster fans just how far we have come since then...after being seven points behind the champions, we are three points ahead with just six matches left to play.

Of course we still have to travel to Llanelli.  And of course we shouldn't have let them get away with a bonus point with the last kick of the game.  And of course the defeat in Edinburgh was a disappointing start to a crucial series of matches missing our internationals.  But whatever keeps knocking us back, the overall momentum is still forward in this campaign for Leinster and that is definitely what needs to be highlighted.

You can't start talking about this match without first mentioning the Man [-Bun] of the Match himself, James Lowe.  There were just 21 seconds on the clock when he was leaping to grab an exit box kick putting us on the front foot.  He made his part in all three Leinster tries look remarkably easy when they were anything but.  He firmly believes that he's going to make something happen each and every time he touches the ball and who are we to doubt him.  

But he and I aren't the only 'JLs' featuring in this writeup.

John Lacey.  The very mention of the name brings instant eye-rolls to many fans, and there was a lot of giving out about his performance from all sides surrounding this match.  I don't know so much that I want to defend him, but I do believe the talking point we should be focusing on is not about how he did with the whistle, rather why he had it in the first place.

For my part I have been harping on the need to import refs since this was a league that just involved three nations, though then I understood it wasn't easy.  Now it involves five, it should be much, much easier.  And for a match of this importance, having a ref from the home union and thus creating even a crumb of uncertainty over impartiality does nothing but devalue the competition IMO.

If I must appraise Lacey's actual style, I do admit he can be frustrating, though despite what I said above, in his case over the years I really haven't see any kind of bias, certainly not for nor against Leinster.  I tend to think he's finicky when he should let the play flow and vice versa, and this always leads to negative attention.   

Just to finish off the little 'JL' theme I have going, some words on Jordan Larmour...he didn't show the 'twinkletoes' quality that has brought him into the spotlight this season, though it certainly wasn't for the want of trying.  As often with prospects like him, the more he plays the more the opposition will be ready for such things.  However, in this match I think he did well in more traditional 'full back' roles like tidying up awkward situations close to our line and that is definitely a positive - no doubt more broken play YouTube moments will come.

Now to go back to the main theme of the writeup...Lowe certainly got the most attention among the Leinster backs, but it was another import who led from the front in the forwards, and not for the first time this season.  Can I possibly say anything new about what Scott Fardy brings to this team?

His immeasurable value was summed up by two lineout had incidents after it, the other just before.   First after a booming low-trajectory punt from Lowe found a great touch in the Scarlet 22, a perfectly timed leap from Fardy won the ball and although Luke McGrath has it stripped moments later, the Wallaby wasn't done and not only did he block the clearance but he had the wherewithal to recover which allowed Lowe to finish.

Then in the second half he went in on a clear out that got flagged by the TMO Olly Hodges who pretty much compelled Lacey to call it a penalty.  I'd tend to be sympathetic to the officials here as they do appear to be under pressure to enforce 'zero tolerance' for anything deemed to be in the head area but my point is that after the resulting penalty was put to touch, there was Fardy again righting the wrong by snaffling another dart.

And those are just the tangible examples of what Lowe and Fardy can do for your team...tack on the effect their mere presence in the dressing room can have on the whole squad and you couldn't put a price on it.

I have gone back and forth describing incidents in the match up to this point so it's probably time to get more chronological about it...for most of the opening stages, the two areas where I highlighted in my preview that Leinster could struggle proved to be problems...we had trouble protecting the ball in Edinburgh and the mercurial Tadhg Beirne [another import being relied on heavily during the Six Nations] was well able to take full advantage at the RDS as it continued.

Then came our general as a squad it has been good this season yet looking across this particular backline it seemed that every player about whom I'd give a 'meh' rating for defensive coverage was on the park and when the Scarlets got their first good bout of possession, even without so many marquee players, they had no problem clicking into the kind of rugby that won them the title in May.  The McNichol try, although it ended his own afternoon as he was injured in the process, did not augur well for Leinster.

But as often has been the case this season, we were able to regroup.  Those defensive issues evaporated and for all our complaints about shipping that late bonus point, let us also remember how we were able to keep them away from our tryline for seventy minutes.

And here is a good time to mention young Ciarán Frawley.  I've watched him do well for the 'A' side this season and I knew he has a good boot on him from the tee as he showed converting Luke McGrath's try, but his sixty-five minute shift holding down a key defensive channel would have been far from his radar at kickoff time and he did an excellent job of it.

When we eventually found an area where we seemed to have an edge, namely mauls after a lineout, we were able to quickly turn that into a score and with notable contributions throughout by the likes of Max Deegan, Ed Byrne and the 100-cap sadly-soon-to-be-leaving Jordi Murphy, it has to be said that once we got the lead we never looked like giving it back.

Ultimately what did for us in that final quarter to turn what could have been a 5-0 split of match points into a 4-1 was the sudden dominance of the Scarlet pack at scrum time.  It's hard to get too worried about this because this is a set piece we have come to take for granted this season so we can assume John Fogarty & co will sort it out quickly.   It also offers a simple enough explanation as to how the visitors managed to stay competitive despite being unable to replace an injured back in the closing stages.

And then we have our own injuries...Rory O'Loughlin has had bad luck stringing matches together it's true but he certainly won't mind if Leinster fans focus on the loss of Luke McGrath for what could be a long term spell on the sidelines...bad for Ireland as well, but worse for us, with all due respect to the likes of Gibson-Park and McCarthy.  This has been a costly couple of weeks for us on the casualty front.

Finally with regard to the match itself I have to give credit to the visitors - after shipping that third try with fans yet to resume their seats after halftime, they showed themselves to be the worthy champions they are and knuckled down to the very end to bring something home to Llanelli.

So how do things actually stand in Conference B?  Well, Edinburgh's win in Belfast seems to have set up a straight fight between ourselves and the Scarlets for top spot and the home semifinal that comes with it.

Naturally our meeting in two weeks stands out from the remaining fixtures, yet given they have still to host Glasgow and go to Munster and Edinburgh, the overall run in does appear to be in our favour.

Let's just say that despite a setback or two over the past couple of weeks, I have seen more than enough to have me believe we can get back to the way we were playing earlier in the season.

One thing is for sure...with quality like Lowe and Fardy around, that belief is justified, and a swift return of our club captain and most legendary import of all time certainly wouldn't hurt either.  JLP

PS - please do also check out our regular contributor Ciarán Duffy's personal take on Saturday afternoon at the RDS, well worth a read

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