Monday, May 14, 2018

LEINSTER-15 RACING 92-12


MEANT TO BE

Ben Kay on the BT Sport commentary team remarked during the second half that the longer the match went on with the scores close, the more confident Racing 92, eleven point underdogs before kickoff, would become.

That observation provided me with the inspiration for the theme of this writeup, because although it makes perfect sense, as he said the words I realised it was the exact opposite to what I was feeling as I watched.  To me, the fact that the Top14 outfit had clearly put so much time and effort into trying to thwart us meant that we were the ones who should be happiest about never falling more then three points behind on the scoreboard.

Given the way most of the previous eight European matches had gone for Leinster, the expectation was for us to have at least a try or two on the board by the 60th minute but I guess it was just something in my subconscious that made me a lot less anxious than I usually am watching my favourite teams do battle in big matches like this.

That probably sounds like I was being cocky, and with Leinster being so heavily favoured I had reason to be, but let's not confuse confidence with complacency.  It was just a case of my having gotten used to both Ireland and Leinster somehow managing to find a score when they needed to no matter what the circumstances, a feeling that probably spawned at the dramatic conclusion to the Six Nations opener in Paris.

And this match had several points when I could have thrown up my arms and conceded it just wasn't to be our day.  Sexton opting to quick tap only for us to ship a penalty at the next breakdown.   Nakarawa escaping what was very clearly a yellow card offence.  Isa kicking out on the full twice.  Sexton missing the posts twice.  A key attacking lineout getting lost towards the end.  Even Racing retrieving their own restart after falling behind for the first time in the 78th minute could be seen as ominous.

Yet despair was simply never an option for me.  Somehow I believed the boys in [the darker] blue would find a way, and it was far from blind faith.  And it was't just belief in our own side of things that played a part...Racing's halfbacks dropping like ninepins also made it seem like the rugby gods were being kind to Irish rugby for some reason.

To be fair to the French side, they certainly didn't let those squad setbacks shake them from their plan.  And when so many bemoan the depth of talent at Leinster, to be able to lose both Dan Carter and Pat Lambie and still be able to call on someone like Remi Tales is something most clubs in Europe would envy.

But first let's look at how Lambie dropped out of the equation.  In my preview I said that our biggest asset was the 'Henrose' centre axis for their ability to read the focal point of most opposition attacks.  Well that theory was shot down by the very first Racing set play as the Springbok outhalf blew by Henshaw like he wasn't there and shortly afterwards Ringrose was pinged for a high shot that gave Teddy Iribaren the chance to put his side ahead.

That certainly did not bode well for the rest of the match, but the reprieve was instantaneous as Lambie was forced off which had to be a major blow to their gameplan.  We'll never know if their starting backs would have found a gap so easily again but the fact remains the replacement setup wasn't able to for the rest of the match.

But let us go back to that first penalty for a moment, the high tackle by Garry Ringrose, which brings me to the subject of Wayne Barnes.  There was a lot of acrimony towards him from Leinster fans at full time, and I can understand that to a point, because every loyal supporter will only notice calls that went against ther team.  However, though my Leaving Cert French has all but left me, I dare say Racing's social media was just as strong in opposition to his performance.

For me, a strong narrative from this match was that most things that went right or wrong for one side were being 'cancelled out' by the other, often shortly afterwards.   And in the case of penalty decisions, while we were often getting pinged for high tackles as we were furiously defending our gainline, they were being found guilty of being offside.  We can argue the individual calls all we want, but the fact remains that both sides were taking risks defensively and it's up to you to fall in line with the ref's wishes, not vice versa.

As I said earlier, there was one decision I feel he did got badly wrong, when Leone Nakarawa swatted down a pass from Luke McGrath while we had good front foot ball in their 22.  Yes, I know I'm biased, but you could see it in the Fijian's body language that he knew himself that it should have been a card.

But if we're going to talk about wrong decisions, we can't just single out the referee.  What about Johnny Sexton's quick tap on 33m?  First he was shaping to go for the corner, and despite the fact we were 3 points down I was backing him in that particular plan, but although I get that he was trying to catch their forwards unawares, he didn't account for Camille Chat's ability to latch on to a ball.  And I'm not so sure his own pack was 100% ready for this move either.

Then in the second half we had Luke McGrath going quickly after we had won a free kick at a scrum in Racing territory.  Again, I'm all for having confidence in your own attack, but in a close final on a rainy day the safer option of another scrum trying to win a penalty seemed to be the way to go.

Finally we come to the worst decision on the day, made by Teddy Thomas.  Clock ticking down, scores level, Leinster have just had another attacking situation thwarted, this time by Nakarawa swatting down James Tracy's lineout dart at his own 22.

I suppose if anyone on the pitch could back himself to run it back for a match-winning try it was Thomas, but it was never, ever going to work  in this situation, especially when he came up against a relatively-fresh Jack Conan at the touchline. Unfortunately for the winger there's a direct line between that error and the cup-winning penalty.

So as you can see, it was a day with plenty of poor choices to go around.  And this together with the tendency of both sides to go for box kicking rather than linebreaks similar to Lambie's in the early stages meant that many were describing this as a dull contest afterwards.

Well, I respectfully disagree.  I thought this was actually one of the most absorbing finals in recent years.  Sure, I love an open match with offloading, support play and line breaks as much as the next person, but I can also appreciate when a team does all it can to prevent them happening, and this match was all about prevention from both sides.

For Racing we had Nakarawa who was named European Player of the Year for this season, an honour he certainly deserves, yet for this match on its own, his standout involvements were few and far between.  There was that lineout steal towards the end, that suspect knockon, and as for his trademark offloading, he did get some away but for the most part our pack was able to shut him down.

Then on our side of the ball we had our setpieces...most of them ended up with us having the ball but the possession being 'clean' enough for the subsequent play to be executed was very rare.  The lineout might be juggled before being controlled, the maul might go on longer than intended, or the ball might come out of the scrum down the wrong channel.

All of this meant that with the opposition line speed so quick for both sides as well, there was often no option left but to put boot to ball.  But here is where I disagree with some observers...for me, the use of the 'box kick' or indeed any high ball has evolved over the years into a much more attacking option than before.  Much of the progress of this match hinged on some excellent contests as the ball returned to ground.

Speaking of how the match progressed, from Iribaren's early penalty it was tit for tat in the scoring stakes all the way up to the closing stages.  Many times over the years I have harped on Leinster's uncanny ability to be able to respond positively to the concession of a score...the trouble was, we seemed to be up against a side that was seeking to mirror our talents in pretty much every area.

And it was this nature of Laurent Labit‎ and Laurent Travers's plan that made this match so close.  Much has been said about the quality of opposition we overcame on the way to the final, but teams like that are often so confident they focus more on their own game and it was usually our tweaks that did for them...Racing's 'bespoke' approach on Saturday deserves a ton of credit and very nearly paid off.

Now it''s finally time to speak of individual performances in a more positive fashion...for Racing, had they prevailed, the man of the match award would clearly have gone to their scrum half Teddy Iribaren (in for the more recognised Machenaud) mostly thanks to some quality place kicking but there were solid contributions throughout in open play as well.

For our part Dan Leavy earned much praise for some heavy hits which saw him lead the tackle count with 20 and none missed, but for me he lost points for some costly penalties, particularly that which allowed Racing to get the first score of the second half.

Then there's Isa.  We all shared his frustration when those kicks forward went out on the full, but we also knew full well he'd more than make up for it before the match was out.  Maybe the winning kick was more or less a 'gimme', but the one before it certainly wasn't - it took serious 'cojones' to taks the reins from Sexton at that stage and smack it over to level the scores for the fourth time - what a way to complete an epic European career at Leinster for the legend.

When it came to awarding the gong for best player on the day, who else but James Ryan to receive it.  Solid in the lineout, powerful in the loose, tough in the tackle, and never forget the part locks play at scrum time.

The word 'mercurial' doesn't come close to describing his rise.  Players have gone full distinguished careers without achieving any of what he has in, what has it been, five minutes?   And the fact that he played for Ireland before Leinster says it all - he arrived to this level of the game fully ready to play a key role...so have the Leavys, Ringroses and Porters it has to be said, but Ryan has that extra star quality about him.

And speaking of 'extra star'...what say I step away the analysis for now so I can take a broader view of what this win means to Leinster?  For as much as we're all enjoying the addition to the embroidery above our logo, to put this victory in context I don't believe we need to compare it to the finals of 2009, 2011 or 2012.

To fully understand what Leinster accomplished this season we need to go back to a unpleasant memory...Sunday, November 15, 2015, when Wasps came to the RDS and completely destroyed us.  Many Leinster fans had serious reservations about Leo Cullen's appointment and that defeat appeared to vindicate them.

But while our pool campaign was a washout that season, we did see a glimmer of the future against Bath in round 5 when the coach first showed a willingness to give multiple prospects their opportunity at that level.

Many will say it was the addition of Stuart Lancaster to the coaching ticket that got us from bottom of our pool one year to the semifinals the next and on to where we are now, but it was always clear that Leo was the man at the top, so the oft-perfect rugby we have seen from Leinster this season has been the result of his ability to get the most out of those around him, something that Bernard Jackman predicted at the time of his appointment, I might add.

No doubt the coaches have already turned their minds to the Pro14, and while of course I'm as greedy as any other Leinster fan in that I wish us to add that to the cabinet as well, if it's all the same to you I'd like to take another day or two to let this achievement sink in.

Six Nations : five wins out of five for Ireland.  Champions Cup : nine wins out of nine for Leinster.

This is my tenth season harping on these pages...never have I enjoyed typing a paragraph more than that last one.  But to finish I'd like to return to those closing moments of the final, after Racing took a perfect restart* and won some great front foot possession.

Like I was saying back at the start, I should have been absolutely shattered watching those phases develop as they got closer and closer to drop goal range.  I should have been anxious about every Leinster tackle, every Leinster engagement after the tackle...screw that...every Leinster intake of breath for fear of Wayne Barnes giving Racing a shot at taking us into extra time.

And when Remi Tales stepped back into the pocket, I later joked that I had my eyes shut but that was actually fake news...in reality I was as calm as if the lead was 33 not 3.

It's almost like I knew.  It's almost like it was meant to be.

Thank you so much Leinster Rugby for this perfect European season.  JLP

[EDIT - as pointed out by Niall O'Leary on Facebook, it wasn't quite a perfect restart because a chaser or six was ahead of the kicker!  But the outcome was still perfect for them, at least at that moment...]

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