Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Leinster-30 Saracens-19

It was a Saturday afternoon towards the end of January.  I was sitting in the Horse Show House, savouring my pint of J Arthur's finest after watching Leinster complete an amazing sixth win out of six in a pool where all three opponents topped their domestic leagues.

Apart from actually being in Montpellier, it was pretty much the ideal atmosphere in which to watch your team play a big European match.  Not only did I have a prime seat in front of the 'big screen' but the room was full of fellow Leinster fans, including frequent Harpin contributor Keego.

When the match was over they switched the coverage to another final-round pool match, Saracens v Northampton.  We were only half paying attention to what was going on as we were still buzzing from watching our heroes' triumph on French soil.

Somebody asked who Leinster would now be facing in the quarterfinals.  I was staring at my phone looking for Twitter reactions at the time but I still offered a reply stating the conventional wisdom was that it would be the very same Saracens that we were watching dismantle the Saints.
"Ah no bother - sure all that means is that Johnny Sexton will beat Owen Farrell at the Aviva just a couple of weeks after doing the same at Twickenham on Paddy's Day to complete the Grand Slam!"
To this day I have no idea who said this as he was behind me, but while I'm paraphrasing, I assure you the gist of this quote is accurate and not a belated April Fools gag.  At the time I was cursing him for shamelessly tempting the rugby gods' wrath...now I'm hoping he put money on it!

Obviously it gives me great pleasure to recall that prediction because the only way I would do so is if it came true.  The quote also does a good job of summarising what an amazing time it is to be an Irish rugby fan right now, and naturally when you factor in that Munster also reached the last four, it looks even better.

Anyone who regularly reads my previews will know I would never be so bold as to make such a confident prediction, at least not out loud.  I did think Leinster would have enough to finish ahead on the day, but much like the win at Twickers, I never thought it would look as comfortable as it did, at least on the second watch.

For me, the first clues to this fine display from the boys in blue were there to be seen at Energia Park, formerly Donnybrook Stadium, on Good Friday.  That was also a day when a Leinster team won a home quarterfinal against the reigning champions by 11 points, but those aren't the similarities I'm talking about.

Munster A failed to register a try throughout the British & Irish Cup encounter, yet it certainly wasn't for the want of trying.  For 'defensive nerds' like myself, it was a joy to watch the blue wall hold them out again and again, even right up to the final few minutes when the win was pretty much certain.

And it wasn't as though the visitors' D was shabby in itself, but thanks to contributions from yet more talent coming through the Leinster ranks like Ciarán Frawley and Conor O'Brien, we were able to take our chances when they came.   As I took my seat at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon, all I could think was that we'd have every chance if we could replicate the A team's form, and that's exactly what we did.

I'm going to put aside our own trio of five-pointers for a moment and first focus on what we did to thwart the two-time reigning European champions, especially in the first half when they enjoyed two-thirds advantages in both territory and possession.

When you look at Leinster's tackling stats, two numbers stand out.  Before this match I said that the more minutes Isa Nacewa and Garry Ringrose can play together between now and the end of the season, the better are Leinster's chances for silverware.  You might think otherwise when you learn that between them our centres missed 15 tackles on Sunday.

But this is where you need to be careful about such numbers.  If you're making the opposition 12 and 13 miss so often, you should be able to create quality scoring chances...however, while they weren't stopping the Saracens attackers completely, both Isa and Garry were finding their point of attack again and again, at least hitting the runners to slow their progress, with more often than not at least two in support to finish the job.

And that was just half of it.  Once the tackle was made, we were committing very few numbers to the breakdown.  There was the tackler and maybe one would have a sniff to see if the jackle was on, but everyone else held back anticipating a fast recycle.

This level of organisation meant that time and time again in the first period Saracens ploughed through over a dozen phases at a time, with three points from the boot of Owen Farrell the best they could hope for.

In the end it took a high tackle by Rob Kearney on Liam Williams to force another penalty in the corner and at least a dozen Sarries piling into the maul resulting from the penalty to get them over our line, but by that time, namely the 64th minute, the match was essentially over.

When I had been expecting a specific gameplan that involved us breaking them down, we instead went a different way, concentrating on keeping them out with a view to making the most of any chances we might have.  And it certainly didn't hurt that the second part paid off with not even five minutes on the clock.

Our seats in the Aviva were in the South Stand and this offered a brilliant view of the first try as it happened.  A Sarries kick ahead went a little too far and was caught by Rob Kearney, who he got it a decent distance but what happened next was a thing of beauty.

First Luke McGrath arrives at the breakdown and ships a long pass to Garry Ringrose who in turn sends it on to Nacewa before eventually it gets to James Lowe on the wing...the ball then went back from whence it came to Isa and then Garry, both providing perfect support, and as Ringrose saunters over the line, he even has his scrum half with him if he chose to make the move perfectly symmetrical.

Just like that, before we even had a chance to see what the visitors had planned to stop us, we had broken the ice brilliantly and brought the massive home crowd into the game in the process.  

I'd love to harp for a few paragraphs on how well Mark McCall's men responded, but as often is the case in these contests against Premiership opposition, BT Sport's commentary team gave them enough credit for the both of us.  Honestly - to hear them talk you'd think the match was to be decided on amount of phases per series, not points on the scoreboard!

Having said that, they were able to register points and keep it close, without ever inching ahead.  By far the most eventful three points the visitors got was the one Bosch made from the halfway line after Sexton did something that was somehow both ill-advised yet perfectly understandable at the same time.

I can see how the mainstream media would want to be a bit diplomatic about this issue, but as this is a Leinster fan site, I choose not to beat around the bush.  Yes, Saracens had a plan to 'target' Sexton; yes, Wigglesworth's challenge was definitely the worst of a few attempts and should have seen at very least a yellow card, and yes, it did work to an extent in that our grand slam winning 10 was showing clear frustration in preventing the restart after he had restored our four-point advantage.

Yet the question still has to be asked...is it ever really worth it to go after him with the cheap shots?  He has proven time and time again that physically he's as tough as nails and if you don't manage to get him off the pitch you're only making him more determined to make up for it in kind.  Besides...does anyone really think he's the only talented player Leinster have???

Anyway...as well as not carding Wigglesworth, a couple more decisions didn't go our way in that first half, but even after conceding that unnecessary Bosch three points, our defence managed to hold out another wave of Saracens phases before the break so it was all about how we responded in the second half - would the visitors eventually break us down or could we raise our own game a gear or two?

Not for the first time this season, Leinster seemed to easily win the battle of the halftime tweaking by the two coaching tickets.  We came out raring to go and suddenly we were the ones putting strings of phases together, until eventually a high tackle on Cian Healy by Mako Vunipola gave Sexton the chance to restore the lead to four.  

It was time to turn the screw, and again it was Garry Ringrose heavily involved - he caught the restart after the penalty and tidied it nicely before his team-mates proceeded to march it up the field once more until our outside centre planted a perfectly weighted kick that bounced in their 22 and found touch just short of the try line.

We then put so much pressure on their lineout that Wigglesworth's clearance was nowhere near enough and it fell to McFadden who ran it back before setting up some central...it looked to all intents and purposes that we had another gargantuan battle in the 22 on our hands before suddenly there was a parting of the waves and there was Dan Leavy planting it down under the posts!!!???

Dan won man-of-the-match and it was richly deserved...while Saracens were trying something similar with their D keeping numbers away from the breakdown, he would frequently take the initiative to 'pick and go' to take full advantage by stealing some extra yards...add to this his try, 13 tackles plus a shiner that provided perfect effect when his award was announced on the big screen and few could argue with the award.

But it has to be said a very close second was James Ryan...17 tackles, none missed, a big part of our perfect 8 for 8 in lineouts and most of all, exceptional ability in the loose; for Leavy's try, his deft little 'one two' that opened up the gap was something you'd expect from a 9 and 10 not a 5 and 7!!!

And the pair were heavily involved in more positive things for Leinster in the ten-minute phase that followed where we set out to consolidate our advantage.  Next time we were in their 22 we got it all the way to the line where it was finished in such a way that it could only have been James Lowe.

Irish rugby in general has become very rigid and formulaic in the Schmidt era and you certainly won't hear me complaining about that especially with the success we have enjoyed.  That said, I still firmly believe that every team needs a James Lowe in their ranks.    'Give me the ball and I'll make something happen - not sure exactly what yet, but I'll know when I get there' is an attitude many have yet few can make work, and he is definitely one of them.

His day didn't start great as his booming left boot let him down in the first minute sending it out on the full and putting us under pressure, but he certainly knows how to come back and make up for it and already he had shown in his carrying, passing and even tackling [a perceived weakness according to this author] he was out to make himself undroppable for the remainder of the campaign.

Then when this chance came along he ran his line with such focused determination to get it over the line that he wasn't even deterred by the fact that he had been stopped short - as you see from the pic, he simply found another way to get it down and his expression [not to mention subsequent celebrations] said it all.  So what if he's giving us selection headaches...they're always the good kind.

And while that was it for our scoring before the end of the third quarter, it was essentially the end of the contest.  Maybe the Cowan try and Toner yellow card gave Leinster fans a touch of the wobbles as the clock was ticking down, but then again so did the English team in the closing stages at Twickenham.  In reality, there was only ever to be one winner in both matches.

I want to end this writeup on a positive note, so while I must mention the ridiculous narratives going around all types of media since the fulltime whistle about the need to change the competition's rules and whether or not it's fair where the semifinal is to be played, I won't delve too deeply into them here as I'll only get angry.  I'm always willing to debate changes but to do it right after a result like this is downright evil IMO.  We won because we were better over eighty minutes, it's as simple as that.

What I will do for now is say thanks once again to Leinster Rugby for being 100% match ready for Europe for the seventh time in a row this season, and on a day when we also had the chance to show our appreciation for the career of the legend that is Jamie Heaslip no less.

Here's to the boys in blue continuing to roar forward towards the end of May - hopefully the reports on the bumps and scrapes from Sunday aren't too bad particularly in Luke McGrath's case.  In the meantime I'll see if I can track down Mr Mystic Man from the Horse Show House I'll be sure and pass on what he says!  JLP

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