Monday, May 28, 2018

LEINSTER-40 SCARLETS-32


#PERFECTSEASON

I couldn't have asked for a more perfect start to the 2017/18 campaign.

Travelling anywhere to watch Leinster and Ireland play rugby is a privilege so I seldom complain, but on a bright August evening I was lucky enough to be able to take a mere 20-minute walk from my front door to watch the boys in blue take on Gloucester in the first home preseason fixture.

Naturally as a fan you go into every new season hoping for silverware, but on this particular occasion my focus was on more specific matters, like who did we have to cover the centre channels in Europe should either of the 'Henrose' pairing be injured, or what new crop of promising youngsters was Leo Cullen ready to unleash on the senior game.

Starting at 12 was club captain Isa Nacewa - it's not that I had any doubts about his ability to play inside centre, but I was concerned that using him there might take from his strengths at other positions.  Turns out I needn't have worried...
I had assumed the Leinster skipper would be used more as a 'second five eighth' type of inside centre but on the contrary he wasn't averse to putting his head down and...there were soft shoulders for him to exploit. 
Then there was the youth, and catching my eye at Templeville Road that night was Jordan Larmour, who helped himself to a brace of impressive tries from the bench in the closing stages...
What we saw for his first try was a glimpse of this positivity...he could easily have passed it on outside him for the score but he backed himself, had a bit to do, and did it.
Fast forward to last Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.   Yes, I know that skipping a whole lot of incidents in between but for now I want to highlight these two players in particular.  First, there's Isa.  Though we did see some of Robbie Henshaw's brilliance throughout the season, when he was injured, our captain stood up to the task every time.

Sadly having picked up an early knock, with the scores locked at 6 apiece, he was forced to bid a premature farewell to pro rugby in a Celtic League final much like BOD had done four years before [also the last time Isa was retiring!].  

The thing is though...with players like himself who have earned 'legendary' status, the fact that he is no longer on the pitch doesn't mean his influence can't be felt among the squad.  I couldn't let this writeup go without mentioning him first.

But on we must go, and I'd like to skip forward in the match even further, to the end of the third quarter.  Since those tries at St Mary's RFC, Jordan Larmour went from strength to strength.  Getting a phenomenal bonus point score at Thomond Park was just one of the highlights in his meteoric rise which saw him included in the Grand Slam winning matchday 23.  However, in recent weeks, there were a few grumblings in the ruggersphere that he was already overdue a repeat showing of his abilities.

Scott Williams sent a tentative cross field kick towards Larmour's wing, and it bounced in such a way that he had to turn his back to the chasing Scarlets...gathering wasn't easy, but he just about managed it.  He still had his wits about him to realise there was an acre of space in their 22 and while he had to improvise a kicking technique, he managed to exploit that too.

All of a sudden he was breezing by a couple of forwards as the ball stopped perfectly not far from the try line.  With his pace, he was always going to get there first.  The only question was, would he be able to gather?

That few seconds reminded me of the week leading up to Twickenham.  They also reminded me about the week leading up to Bilbao.  And of course the feelings were the same again for the week leading up to this match.  

It was like time stood still...you had done much of the hard work, and what you wanted most of all was there waiting for you - all you had to do was retain your composure and finish the job.  And that is exactly what Ireland did against England, exactly what Leinster did against both Racing and the Scarlets, and exactly what Jordan did as he scooped the ball up one handed to bring it to the line and put this final to bed for good.

While that try had the most obvious 'wow' factor on the day, there were actually quite a few impressive five-pointers throughout the match, although the ones from the Scarlets in the final quarter to reduce the winning margin to 8 came with asterisks [though credit is due to Johnny McNichol for his hat-trick no mean feat in a major final].  Not even the most critical Leinster fan can complain too much about our defending at that stage given all that had gone before.

And on that note, it's time to finally mention the true architect of this momentous victory - one Johnny Sexton.  This season will always be remembered for 'that' drop goal in Paris, but for tactical nerds like me I'll always be harping on the way he manages to get all around him dancing to his tune with such precision.

The classic example of this was the try just before halftime, something both Leinster and Ireland have done on many occasions this season.  The move began with a Leinster scrum 20m inside our own half, with the clock reading 39:03 as the ball was being put in.  Most teams in a major final would look to run out the clock from here, especially if they had a three-point lead.

But that kind of thinking is just not on Sexton's radar.  Already he had used to good effect the high kicking towards the edge of the opposition 22 which featured in other big matches this season, and both Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny were generally the targets, with the latter knocking on this time.

And you might think that would be the time to give up the kicking?  Think again.  Now after the scrum it's a crossfield kick pass to James Lowe who catches and charges into the Scarlets 22 before winning a penalty.  It's kickable, but why go for three points when you're in no doubt that seven are up for grabs?  Sexton goes for the corner.

Lineouts were definitely one area where the Welsh region could have looked to hurt us on the day, yet John Fogarty's pack managed a perfect 14/14.  Perhaps they weren't all 'clean', but they certainly were when it mattered, and this one led to another penalty which, of course, we also dispatched to touch and, of course, we won another clean lineout.

This is where the Sexton sorcery is there for all to admire.  The maul inches towards the line, and it looks like the plan is to send the ball to a more central position where Leinster could roll through the phases as they had done in the lead up to our first try from Devin Toner.

But that wasn't the call.  Watching it now, the intention was always to go blind side, yet the only ones that knew this for sure were Luke McGrath, who bought time with a disguised pass, Sexton, who took said pass and completely mesmerised the would-be tackler with his body language before shipping it on, and finally James Lowe, who took it and planted down in the corner.

And in one final twist of the knife before the break, having had a couple of issues from the kicking tee already that evening, Sexton pretty much had the man of the match gong sewn up after he knocked the conversion over from the touchline.

I was hoping a controversial call wouldn't end up deciding this match - South African ref Stuart Berry was every bit as 'laissez-faire' as he had been the previous weekend so all sorts of infractions were being ignored throughout...most notable for me was the Scarlets being offside. From their end of things I'm surprised they didn't complain about the high tackle called against Scott Williams on Johnny Sexton in the second half - that was a real momentum changer, though with the guidelines as they are it was probably the right decision.

This allowed our outhalf, who was also skipper at this stage, to plant a beauty of a touch finder into the corner and from there the lineout clicked yet again only this time the forwards were able to apply the finish themselves courtesy of a pumped up Sean Cronin.

I could describe so much more from this match in that kind of detail, but if I did, this writeup would have to be published in serial form.  I mention the contributions of Isa, Larmour, McGrath, Lowe and Sexton above but this was to all intents and purposes a team effort.

Scrums were even more perfect than the lineouts from our forwards, and when it came to the breakdown, although the Scarlets lost Shingler early, in James Davies and Tadhg Beirne they had loads of talent and guile to get at us when we had the ball but our levels of accuracy in clearing out and overall support were phenomenal.

Special mentions for the pack should go to Jack Conan, who had some excellent carries and got himself in the right place to finish a try into the bargain, and also both starting locks - Devin Toner got through some great work and as for James Ryan, well, '23 and counting' is all you need to say.

When it comes to the backs, there was Rob Kearney getting on the end of a load of the high bombs, Joey Carbery showing great footwork in the buildup to Conan's try and Rory O'Loughlin putting my early season fears over our centre channel to rest for the second week in a row.

No doubt I have missed a few names, but like I say, this was a team display, and one that was without the wobbles of the previous two weeks as well.  The Scarlets were far from an easy touch on the day, and they had a decent plan to get at us, like those short restarts down the middle.  But whenever they had a pass going to ground, or a tackle straying too high, or a high ball going uncaught, we were able to capitalise each and every time, and that is the stuff of which champions are made.

Which brings me to the name that is most deserving of note.  Of course we'll miss the likes of Isa and Jordi.  Of course we'll enjoy the rest of the journey Johnny Sexton plans to bring us on because he is surely far from finished winning.  Of course we'll have high expectations for the next batch of youngsters set to emulate the likes of Jordan Larmour and Max Deegan down the line.

But this needs to be said...Michael Cheika got us our first European honour, Joe Schmidt brought us to the next level, but this double represents even dizzier heights for this province, and the lion's share of the credit [pun intended] has to go to Leo Cullen.

We can talk about the tactical influence of Lancaster, Dempsey, Fogarty and Sexton all we want, but without the approval of the man at the top, none of that gets through to the players and time and time again from that Friday evening in August to this Saturday evening in May, fifteen boys in blue from a squad of over 50 have been able to come together week in week out and show they are easily the best team in Europe.

Technically, this trophy is the least important of those we have been celebrating here at Harpin Manor since St Patrick's Day, yet coming as it did at the end of a long Northern Hemisphere season, it is probably the most significant.  I have already thanked those involved with Leinster and Ireland Rugby for all the entertainment, excitement and success we have enjoyed over the past nine months, yet I have no problem doing it again.  I even have enough gratitude left over for the organisers of the Guinness Pro14 who did well despite the many challenges posed by the new format.

I couldn't have asked for a more perfect end to the 2017/18 campaign.  

What say we do it all again next year? 😜 JLP

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