Monday, April 16, 2018

Leinster-15 Benetton-17

Unless you're anything but a Leinster fan, I'm sure you'd like to avoid reading about this match every bit as much as I'd like to avoid harping on it, let alone watching it for a second time.

But as loyal fans we must accept the good, the bad, and in this case, the very ugly so why don't you stay with me for the duration so we can put this to bed before preparing for the big semifinal next weekend.

There can be only one way to start - offering immense congratulations to the deserved victors on the night.  In my preview I tried to show them some respect by finally starting to use their official name of Benetton Rugby - however that respect ended when it came to my prediction as I saw us running up a similar score to that we achieved the previous week against Zebre [good job I decided to bring the kids along to that one btw!], though I'm sure I wasn't the only one doing so.

But despite having history, form books, odds, and pretty much everything else against them,  they still played with exactly the kind of cohesion, particularly in the areas of defence and capitalising on mistakes from the opposition, that we have all come to expect from Leinster this season no matter what XV is on the park.

Whenever we had easy victories over Italian sides in the past, their participation in the Pro14 was called into question so hopefully displays like this can remind us that just because the game might not be progressing at the same rate there as it is here, it doesn't mean results like these are impossible. 

The only real downside of their display was discipline - specifically of course the actions of scrumhalf Tito Tebaldi on Max Deegan.  I was using my binoculars at the time and scared the bejaysus out of those around me in the press box with the roar I let out. It's probably my bias talking but I thought the double stamp was enough to warrant red, but I'd have to add that it would in no way have guaranteed a different result.

Right.  Time to crack on with our many woes on the night.  One moment sums it up for me...Jack McGrath's wayward pass that led to what turned out to be the winning score by Tommaso Allen [after some neat soccer skills the Italian team could have done with in the World Cup qualifiers I might add].

I don't mean to draw attention to it because I blame the whole result on him - far from it.  But it does serve as a perfect example of what was lacking on the night, namely leadership.  He was the designated captain, and for such a patchwork team we needed players like him to show the way; back in the day when I was a loose head prop I know I couldn't have thrown a better pass but in this professional age we expect more, particularly from the likes of himself and I'm sure he knows that.

And of course we can't let Fergus McFadden off the hook either - he was another experienced campaigner who, not four minutes before, was all at sea dealing with a bounce in the 22, setting up their second try courtesy of Federico Ruzzo.

But whatever about those errors, we can't focus too much on the 17 points earned by our visitors, because so far this season we have only scored less than 18 just the once, and even then we didn't lose.  For all the valiant effort by the Benetton defence on the night, the three points we were short of victory should have been within our reach.

For me it was the timing of the two tries we did get that made us too complacent.  The first, a relatively straightforward maul off a lineout in the 22 finished off by Richardt Strauss came just six minutes into the contest and while this was a strong indicator that more was to come, that should not have been an attitude shared by the Leinster players.

Yet instead of cracking on and putting a second try on the board soon afterwards, it was actually Luca Bigi scoring a very similar five-pointer down the other end, and this should have woken us up right away but in actual fact it wasn't until the end of the first half that we started to put some decent sets together, mostly off scrums, leading to Barry Daly touching down in the corner just before the break; this could have led us to assume that everything was 'back on track'.

This might surprise you but I do have something positive to write about Leinster from this match - Daly's try was his 11th of the league campaign and it puts him clear at the top of the charts with one game to go.  It has to be said he's not simply getting the scores thanks to work done by others - there have been some quality finishes along the way, whether  from close to the line like on Saturday, or from deep like one from his hat-trick in Bloemfontein.

Alas we must go back to the negative, and for the reason why we didn't get more scores on the night, we have to look at our half backs.

First, the Gibson-Park Paradox continues.  I don't believe he's a bad player by any means, it's just that he seems to find it difficult to adjust his style to that which is required at Leinster.  And ironically, for the period of this match that suited his game, namely the final quarter when we needed a 9 who can unlock a stubborn defence in their 22, we couldn't even manage to get out of our own half, even with an extra man.

A greater concern would be Joey Carbery, who presents his own dilemma.  Was his poor showing at 10 caused by our reluctance to give him game time there throughout the season, or does it prove we were right to play him at full back?  Well I guess I have to land on the former, since Joe Schmidt continues to have faith in him at test level. 

With Ross Byrne knocking on the door at higher levels, Cathal Marsh remaining on the fringes and the likes of Ciaran Frawley and Harry Byrne waiting in the wings, methinks our outhalf pecking order is something that needs to be crystallised sooner rather than later.

Of course I could continue throughout the team looking for more things wrong, going one way through the backline suggesting the likes of Reid and Larmour often made some poor decisions in attacking situations, or I could go back into the pack and bemoan the return of those cursed lineout yips at the worst possible moments.

But I'm going to leave the remaining analysis with the coaching staff in the DVD sessions during the week.  Not many from this matchday 23 will be involved at the Aviva next Saturday, but they will have opportunities against the Jersey Reds and Connacht to prove this performance to be a blip.

On the injury front, whatever way they try to spin Sean O'Brien's situation, his removal at halftime did not look good.  There has been a lot of online speculation about his future and I have to say my reluctance to join in is fading fast.  But there was some extremely good news to report on Saturday as Robbie Henshaw was seen training with the lads before kickoff.

As Leinster fans, all we can do now is be thankful that the one match point we did get on Saturday should be enough to ensure a home semifinal, we must put this disappointment behind us [even though a win would have meant two successive campaigns with 100% wins on the season ticket], and having done that we can start to get excited about the visit of the Scarlets. 

With the possible exception of Henshaw, I like the idea of naming the same matchday 23 that we had against Saracens, but we can look at that more closely later in the week. Whatever lineup we go for, hopefully this result will be a distant memory come fulltime on Saturday. 

Congratulations once more to Benetton Rugby...obviously I hope the Ulstermen pip them to the Champions Cup playoff slot but it's great to see an Italian team in the running at this stage of the season and the stronger teams like that get, the better it is for both the Pro14 and European Rugby in general.  JLP

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