Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Leinster-41 Zebre-6

photos by Cristina Marconcini

Whatever happens between now and the end of the 2017/18 rugby season, it will be remembered in Ireland first and foremost as one when the Grand Slam was won at Twickenham on St Patricks Day.

Of course we Leinster fans are hoping for even more fond memories in the weeks to come, but one thing is an absolute certainty - this win over Zebre won't be among them.  But I'm not saying that to be negative...in fact, it's the exact opposite.  I want to use this writeup to point out that days like these can be memorable for all kinds of reasons.

The fact that you're reading a Leinster rugby fansite right now probably means you're a 'hardcore' egg-chasing supporter like myself.  For us, the eighty minutes of on-pitch action provided most weekends is never enough - we hunger for more to fill the gaps in between...whether it's poring over articles, watching other matches, listening to podcasts or following Twitter timelines, there are several different ways of doing this.

Once in a while, however, I think it's important to take a step back from the deep analysis, to forget the soft shoulders, hard yards, exit sets and all the other terms we use, let's be honest, mostly to show off how much we understand what's going on in this wonderfully-complex sport we love so much.

For rugby fandom isn't really about how much jargon you know; it's more of a spectrum, with those of us who would gladly tell you the name of the sub hooker for Leinster in a Celtic League match played in Donnybrook way back in the day at one end, and those who just love donning the blue and shouting 'LEIN-STER! LEIN-STER!' at the RDS every chance they get at the other.  And the important thing to remember is the game needs all of them equally.

Last Saturday at the RDS, rather than sit with my laptop analysing every pass, tackle and clear out as I normally do, I brought three of my kids to the match - the fourth is a month short of three years old and thus isn't quite ready...besides, as anyone who follows my personal Instagram accout knows, she is so often the centre of attention that this was a good chance for the rest of us to spend some time together.

As much as I'd love to say Harpin Manor is a rugby-mad house, the truth is that I have more than enough madness for all of us.  Of course everyone was excited about the Grand Slam but when it comes to the week-in week-out of Leinster, that's more of a 'Dad thing', which is fine.  I certainly wouldn't want to feel as though I was making them watch, which is why we have reached the compromise of collectively going to one match per season.

This in turn reminds me why I began this blog in the first place back in 2008 [ten-year celebrations to come in August], namely to catalogue my experience as a Leinster Rugby season ticket holder.  As the years wore on my ramblings have strayed more towards those of a reporter than a fan so having the kids with me helped me once more view the occasion through a different lens.

It won't surprise you to learn that I wasn't disappointed...we had good craic en route Ballsbridge, getting a few 'come on Leinster!'s on the way to the stop and the kids were amazed at how full of blue-jersey-clad supporters the 18 became by the time we were getting off.

The original pre-match plan was for a bribe sit-down meal before kickoff but time was against us so we went straight into the ground and instead availed of one of the many food stalls before heading to our seats.  When the players took to the field, the only Leinster faces that my older kids recognized were those of Devin Toner and Cian Healy, though by the end they had gotten to know a good few more, like when James Lowe got the first of his brace moments after I had droned on about mentioned how he always goes out of his way to do something special.

All week I had been bragging about how good my seats were, and being close to the front right on the 22, I wasn't lying, except when the rain started teeming down in the latter stages of the first half, we were just a few centimetres outside the protection offered by the Grandstand roof.  Fair play to Leinster Rugby for offering those in the uncovered North & South stands to move into cover, and we did likewise shifting a couple of rows back into empty seats, though of course this virtually guaranteed that it would stop raining for the rest of the match!

Leo The Lion came close to us a couple of times...my 8-year-old was a bit shy about going over to him so I didn't push it but he did get a laugh as other kids got their pictures taken with him and heads 'bitten off' by him.

The moment that gave me most satisfaction was when all three kids cracked up laughing as Nick McCarthy scurried along the ground with the ball after not being held in the tackle.  The reason I was happy?  Because it was the 73rd minute and they were still paying attention to what was happening on the pitch!  No sign of them staring at their phones or in my 8-year old's case, asking me 'is this over yet?'.

Leinster scored a try shortly afterwards, and as the usual minority of early leavers started to head for the exits, I pointed this out to the kids and my eldest said 'I hope we get another try so they can miss it!'.  Where on earth could she have possibly gotten that from??? 🤔 Oh, and spoiler alert...courtesy of Brian Byrne we did get that extra try which got the biggest cheer of the day from the four of us.  As you can see by the lead photo, the players appreciate those who stay to the end.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you know people who tend not to go, one thing you can do to help the game grow even bigger in the province would be to convince them to tag along, even if it is just for the one match.  Not being 100% clear on the Laws of the game is far from a disqualifying reason and besides...you'll be there to help them.

Because as this match clearly showed, as fans are getting used to names like Garry Ringrose and James Ryan and Dan Leavy, there are loads more coming through the ranks like Max Deegan, Conor O'Brien and Vakh Abdeledze, and even more coming behind them still.  Hopefully by the time they're all household names it will be my kids tempting their own friends to come along and sample what RDS matchdays have to offer.

Anyway I can't leave this go without a bit of 'red meat' for regular readers...below is a summary of our seven tries, plus where it leaves our Pro14 campaign, and scattered throughout, some photos taken by Zebre photographer Cristina Marconcini.   They don't directly relate to the scores in question but they are good ones nonetheless.

Seems like it was Mick Kearney's turn to resemble Scott Fardy even though Josh Murphy was on the pitch...

James Lowe (13')

Let the records show that despite the fact this was a comfortable win for Leinster, the visiting Italian outfit coached by Michael Bradley started very brightly.  In fact not for the first time this season it was Leinster's defence that impressed me most.

Zebre spent a big chunk of the first ten minutes close to our line to no avail and after their first big mistake, namely a crooked lineout, Gibson-Park and Lowe combined well after the scrum to get us deep into opposition territory and after winning a penalty in their 22, Lowe was rewarded for keeping the momentum going via a quick tap by crashing over for our opening try a few phases later.

Zebre coach Michael Bradley overseeing training at the RDS

Rory O'Loughlin (35')

Zebre's early pressure, which often revolved around crash ball provided by centre Faialaga Afamasaga, had just been rewarded with a three-pointer but shortly after the restart Barry Daly, who had an impressive outing at full-back,  spotted a gap between a hooker and lock and surged deep into their territory...we got a bit of good fortune in the phases that followed but eventually it was O'Loughlin exploiting an overlap to go over.

Proud but quiet day for first-time skipper Devin Toner

Max Deegan (41')

While for Ireland this season it has been about tries scored just before the break, for Leinster it has been just after and this was no exception.  For a deep explanation of what happened for this unusual and opportunistic score I give you this article by Murray Kinsella but safe to say it was one of many contributions that led to Max Deegan deservedly getting man of the match.

Unique lineout shot

Max Deegan (60')

Again the skilful number 8 was heavily involved, taking a quick tap from a free kick off the base of a scrum...and again, we had a spot of luck as Lowe's pass to O'Loughlin got a deflection which helped the centre break through, but once it got to Deegan, even though he had an option outside him, he was never going to do anything but get it over the line.  Purists might say we should have had the bonus point wrapped up a whole lot sooner, but IMO the priority was THAT the job was done, not how.

I don't want JGP to miss out on Europe but I would select SF & JL ahead of him  

James Lowe (69')

Yet more Deegan influence...Afamasaga lost one over his shoulder as he was tackled so it was all about who got to the loose ball and not only was it Max but he had presence of mind to scoop it to Adam Byrne who immediately got us on the attack before Ross Byrne brushed past his test-playing opposite number Carlo Canna and laid it off [with yet another lucky deflection it must be said] to Lowe who happily accepted the gift.

Ross Byrne will be disappointed with converting 3 from 6 [Frawley missed the 7th]

Vakh Abdaladze (72')

After a good touch finder off a penalty by Ross Byrne, this was where sub scrum half crawled for a few yards after being hit before eventually it was the powerful young tighthead dragging it over the line.

Bryan Byrne (77')

Very similar in set up to the previous try only with our sub hooker this time applying the finishing touches to both the move and the scoring.

How things stand for Leinster now

The Scarlets also won over the weekend, however it was without the try bonus point so this stretches our lead at the top to four points, though it's more like five with our advantage in the 'points difference' stakes now a whopping 90.

Basically if the reigning champions don't win with four tries in Edinburgh on Saturday afternoon, we could virtually sew up the home semifinal against Treviso that same evening.  All the more reason to head to D4 eh?

To summarize

The only major injury worry for Leinster right now [based on those who started against Sarries that is] seems to be Luke McGrath - if there's even a doubt over him I'd want him rested before the Scarlets come to town.  But when it comes to Saturday's match, I was happy with the five points, I was happy with the seven tries, and as you can tell by my extra-long preamble, I was more than happy with the occasion.

Many thanks for staying with me through this unusual writeup - we had a bit of a scare here at Harpin Manor on Monday morning but thankfully everything worked out...makes me appreciate days like these with family and friends all the more.  JLP

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