Monday, May 21, 2018

Leinster-16 Munster-15

One of my sons is obsessed with a video game called 'Fortnite' these days.  To be fair, if I had the time I might well become even more obsessed with it myself, but for now I enjoy watching him play it when I can.

In one of the versions of the game, known as 'Battle Royale', you are one of 100 players who jump out of a flying bus onto an island where there are weapons and materials scattered all over - once you land you have to gather as much as you can, keep your wits about you, and destroy your opponents to be the past person standing.

You might say the game is a bit like the Pro14, in that the clubs have to navigate their way from September to May, making use of the materials they have for each game depending on injuries and test commitments, before reaching the business end of the campaign when there are six, four and now two remaining before a victor is found.

On Saturday at the RDS, the two biggest rivals in the competition locked horns and for the second week in a row, Leinster found a way to be ahead, first when the new-to-this-league hooter sounded [I approve and hope it stays FWIW], and also when the final whistle eventually sounded.  But what a contest it was, and Munster will certainly feel they had plenty of opportunities to win.

Given seven days earlier saw the biggest match of our season, it is hard not to compare it to this one, and curious results emerge when you do.  In some ways, they were very similar, like how Leinster were unable to dominate thanks to cleverly-targeted pressure from their opponents.   But in other ways it was very different, like how Leinster were in the lead from the 7th minute through to the end after taking 78 minutes to get ahead the week before.

The template for Munster's afternoon was set by a sequence that began in the opening ten minutes.  Leinster rely heavily on clean set piece ball but you can always count on Peter O'Mahony to make sure that doesn't happen for you...his early denial got them on the front foot and they were primed and ready to move the ball quickly, making great progress towards the Leinster 22.

But when they got there, their lock Jean Kleyn threw a shocking pass behind the intended receiver, thus negating all the momentum and eventually forcing Scannell to stab one through which Leinster could easily retrieve.

Then after a bout of kick tennis it was Kleyn again involved in a turnover as he was positively mullered by James Ryan and with some good counter-rucking following behind the Leinster and Ireland lock, we won the ball back and proceeded to get into the opposition half for the first time.

James Lowe is the kind of player who wants to make something happen every time he gets the ball, and from what we have seen since he arrived, it doesn't really matter what the occasion is.  What we learned on Saturday is that this personality trait goes up another level again when he gets let loose on a rugby pitch after being held back for a major championship final just a week before.

In this series of phases he first gets us into their 22 courtesy of a strong run up the touchline, but after he took a sleek inside pass from Jack McGrath that looked like a YouTube worthy moment all on its own, the Kiwi had to go one better with an improbable offload to Jack Conan in the tackle who dove over to help give us an early seven-point cushion.

So to recap, after Munster put in some of their trademark graft to create a good position, what gains they made were quickly outdone by Leinster going the other way.  And even though Conan's was our one and only try on the day and the visitors were to get two before the end, it was just that kind of afternoon for them when it was never going to be enough.

The pattern continued after JJ Hanrahan finally put our southern cousins on the board before the end of the first quarter...Conan was pinged for not releasing the ball (despite some mitigation in that an opponent wasn't releasing his shorts!).  But the scoreboard had barely settled with a four-point advantage before Ross Byrne was able to restore it to seven.

Then towards the end of the half we had a 12-phase set from Munster which definitely looked as though a try was on the the end Leinster's strong D managed to hold it up over the line but the officials spotted an insane clear out on Ross Byrne by Kleyn who, in my admittedly-biased opinion anyway, was very lucky to see yellow not red.  Given the supposed 'zero-tolerance' guidelines, the 'head-on-head' nature of the challenge could have mattered more but the ref chose to focus on the reckless nature of him leaving his feet instead. 

A word on Stuart Berry - there was much complaint about the South African, and for Leinster fans in particular it was hard to adjust to his 'laissez-faire' attitude after the oft-talking, tough-on-high-tackles approach from Wayne Barnes the week before.  But I'm starting to wonder if 'the ref was brutal' is in danger of becoming a standard comment on any official no matter what they do?  Like I say above, I thought Kleyn deserved more but that doesn't mean Berry's whole day was a write off.

So anyway...again Munster had gone from reward to punishment in a short space of time, but that said, Leinster fans know all too well that getting an extra man in an RDS semifinal against a team wearing red does not guarantee victory, and at the start of the second half before Kleyn's return, our line was finally crossed.

One thing I failed to mention in describing Lowe's involvement in the Jack Conan try was that in the build up he blew by Simon Zebo not once but twice.  It wasn't the best day for the Racing-bound full back all round, but after Joey Carbery was turned over in his own 22, Munster again tried to work the ball wide quickly and this time he was able to work the final pass perfectly to Earls to finish.

But yet again, faced with an opportunity to pull level with their arch-nemesis, JJ Hanrahan's attempted conversion failed to find the target [albeit from the touchline] and a few minutes later they coughed up yet another penalty, this time courtesy of Ian Keatley.

To be fair, I think Keats was a bit hard done by here, though only a bit.  As Munster were exiting from the 22 after the restart, he was ahead of the kicker, but it was the assistant who spotted it and it took a few seconds for his message to reach Berry's earpiece.  By the time he was able to give a warning, Ian was likely too far beyond him to be able to hear properly, which could mean he felt entitled to keep going.  But whatever his thinking, the result was another knock back for his team as they tried to stay in the contest.  

As for Leinster, we were having similar problems capitalising on advances down the field, like when Lowe was superbly tackled by Sam Oliver while in sight of the line or when Garry Ringrose chased his own kick to hammer Zebo in his own 22 before O'Loughlin won a penalty, only for our maul to be turned over after the subsequent lineout.  Having a lead to defend, however, meant that these failures weren't quite so costly.
...Healy, Porter, Fardy and Deegan are just the kind of names you want to bring a lead home in the final 20 so if we can get that, we should prevail.
As you can see, in my preview I felt that our bench, particularly in the forwards, was what would swing a close contest our way on the day, and as it turned out, all of the above played their part (though to be fair to the Backs' Union, there were a couple of key turnovers from Rory O'Loughlin as well.)

I believed Scott Fardy would be the most important of all, since the forwards battle was very physical throughout and he would have been itching to get on, but by his standards, apart from one big hit, his contribution wasn't as key as, say, that of our reserve front row of Healy, Tracy and Porter which won three key penalties at scrum time.

The third of these, which led to a Carbery kick that put Leinster a crucial eight points clear with just four minutes remaining, was judged a bit dubious by the commentary teams from both RTÉ Radio and Sky Sports, as Andrew Porter's body position wasn't great.  But his opposite prop's elbow hitting the ground first together with the prior two decisions are probably what swayed the officials.

So this meant Munster were down and out, right?  Of course not.  A Fardy knockon in his own half gave them half a chance and they all pulled together to bear down on our tryline before Grobler reached out and clipped the base of the post despite the best efforts of Leinster defenders.  As I watched I thought he had been thwarted, but now it seems more likely he got it.

Once we put the restart deep, which we did, they'd have to get all the way into our half and hope to win a penalty.  Well as if to provide a perfect finish to the narrative I have been spinning throughout this writeup, thanks to another neat exchange between Zebo and Earls which got them out of the 22 and a touch of good fortune around midfield, they did get most of the job done before Max Deegan, barely on the pitch himself, was able to latch on and tempt the ref's whistle to end the match.

I can definitely understand Munster's frustration.  They had a good plan to beat us, they never gave up, but each time they got close they just couldn't find the final piece of the puzzle.  

And James Lowe was very much deserving of his man of the match award, not just for his part in the try, but also for his efforts in areas where he may have previously come in for criticism like tackling and catching.  Actually on the subject of box-kicking, I thought we had the better of those exchanges throughout, which is not something you often get to say when Conor Murray is on the other side.

Much was said about the atmosphere at the RDS and I definitely concur - it was nice to see the mix of blue and red throughout the ground and as always there was a pleasant rapport among the supporters.  But when it comes to suggesting that these matches should never be played at the Aviva again???  Really???  Would anyone really opt for 18,000 paying customers when they knew they could get more than double that amount?  I really don't think so.  More money is good for the game, as  are more pairs of eyes taking in what's going on, in my humble opinion anyway.

And so we have reached another final and with it, another chance to complete that elusive double.  Standing in our way are Those Pesky Scarlets, whom we must face for the fourth time in fourteen weeks. 

I think we might need to rely on more than our wits to stay ahead this time because at this level, you don't often get away with that three weeks in a row, especially against the reigning champions.  If it's half the 'Battle Royale' we saw last Saturday, it's going to be a classic.  JLP

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