Monday, September 03, 2018

Cardiff Blues-32 Leinster-33


If all you heard about this match was that Leinster picked up maximum points in a tricky away match to start the new season, you'd be forgiven for thinking "No surprises there, reigning double winners and all that" but the actual 80 minutes tell a different story altogether.

Put in simplest terms, we fell fifteen points behind when we shouldn't have before clawing our way back to victory when we shouldn't have.  

The Blues' record against us is worse than most so this defeat could sting quite a bit.  And I'm sure it won't serve as any consolation to them that with this performance they seem to have shown the rest of the league a fairly decent set of blueprints (pun intended as always) for how to beat us.  So for this opening Pro14 writeup of the new campaign, I'm going to attempt to show exactly how the home side appeared to set about this match.

1) Hit us quickly and accurately when there's even half a chance

This has often been a method used against us over the years, with the Scarlets in their 2017 championship year being arguably the most proficient at it.  Our defensive organisation is somewhat legendary throughout Europe and what's more the standards never dropped as we switched from McQuilkin to Lancaster in the back room.

However, no team can maintain their defensive focus for an entire 80 minutes, and the best times when there would be anything resembling a window to strike would be at set-pieces and in transition, and it was from these that Cardiff got all four of their tries on the night.

For the first, they had won a scrum penalty which gave them an attacking lineout in our half.  Barry Daly had just received an unfortunate knock just ten minutes into the new season which meant he had to be replaced by Fergus McFadden, but the way our defence was breached up the middle had nothing to do with that.

It definitely was not an ideal first competitive outing in Leinster colours (which now include an olivy green apparently, though I don't think it looks as bad as many suggest) for Joe Tomane, and on this occasion his eyes were drawn to the dummy run of Nick Williams enough to allow Ray Lee-Lo to sail past him over the line.  

Both of their early tries in the second half were also off their own lineout throws and while the technical approach was different, they were still manoeuvres that were made to look way too easy.  On 44m they shipped it quickly out to new recruit Jason Harries and this time it was Rory O'Loughlin deceived by a dummy runner.

Then just a few minutes later they went for a similar move and although James Tracy got to Harries short of the line (hitting him a tad high IMO though it was never sanctioned), the Blues were just as ready, willing and able to move it rapidly in the other direction and with the help of a clever hesitation from outhalf Jarrod Evans that bamboozled Caelan Doris, it eventually got to Lee-Lo for his second of the night.

As for the second Cardiff try, while that was also off a lineout, this time it was one of our own which we botched so this was a situation where they had a limited amount of time to make the most of our players' thoughts switching from "what part do I play in a kick chase?" to "which player should I be tackling?".

I have to give a major hat-tip to Big Joe Shep, who used to write for HarpinOnRugby and now hosts his own weekly online rugby chat show Three Blokes A Ball And BOD, for coining the phrase "brain dart" to describe Scott Fardy's unnecessary quick throw in at that point.  You're three points ahead away from home, it's close to halftime, you have a lineout in your own half.  There's absolutely no need to chuck it at your backs from several feet behind the touchline.

Catching the opposition unawares is one thing but not when it does the same to your own players, though credit has to go to the Blues for making the most out of the situation - once again, it was shipped quickly out wide and while the final pass to Harries looked forward, he still beat Luke McGrath a bit too easily (to be fair to him, he should have been taking a box kick at that moment).

Things could have gotten even worse for us had a penalty try been given in the first half...thankfully the officials spotted an illegal grab by Nick Williams earlier in the sequence...this was an absolutely critical call.

So a try bonus point in the bag for the Challenge Cup winners after just 48m, though for that to translate into a three-score cushion over your illustrious opposition, you also have to keep them from getting too many points down the other end, and they seemed to have a strategy for that as well...

2) Don't let us settle with the ball for too many phases

"Do you know how many offences there have been?"


"Just two.  Do you know how many offences you've given?  Four."

Mathematically, Nigel Owens had a valid point when our skipper Rhys Ruddock made an enquiry about a Cardiff penalty that possibly deserved more of a sanction.  But he was still being disingenuous when you consider the type of penalties they were.

It's like saying one criminal who has been imprisoned four times for petty theft must be worse than one who has been sentenced twice for aggravated assault.  Sure, we shipped a lot of penalties in the early stages but they were more in defensive areas of the field.  The point Ruddock tried to make to the ref on 23m was that the penalty just called was the second in quick succession that had been shipped by the home side early on in a set of Leinster phases deep in the Cardiff half of the pitch.

And although Rhys was only officially named Leinster vice captain this season, his first time wearing the armband for us was all the way back in February 2011 (a night when Nigel was also the ref as it happens, plus Nick Williams was involved) so he has a fair amount of experience dealing with referees.

I reckon the Blues knew what they were doing in slowing us down and that wasn't the last time on the night they were to do it...maybe a yellow card would have been a tad harsh especially at the time the question was being asked, but he still had a legitimate point and a warning at some stage wouldn't have been amiss.

All that said, quick penalties weren't the only reason we struggled to trouble the scorers early on.  We often ran down blind alleys and into choke tackles and got ourselves pinged for finicky little things.  The one try we did get in the first half was thanks to the Blues botching a lineout in their own 22 and James Tracy gratefully took full advantage by disturbing enough white blades of grass to earn us five points.

As Nick Williams was being substituted there was an air of 'job done' about the way he acknowledged the fans' appreciation, but as it turned out it was when our own bench took to the field that things started to change, which meant that if I'm right about the Blues' plan, they fell at its final hurdle...

3) When you've established a lead, be sure to see it home!

To be fair to Leinster, even in the time we fell 15 points behind, not everything was going badly for us.  We were having a lot of success under the high ball, especially through Adam Byrne and our forwards looked a bit lively offloading up the was just the little niggly things that went awry each time, things that weren't a factor at the business end of last season.

But when we got an attacking lineout close to their line on 52m, the maul which led to our second try was a thing of was well set, it dodged the decent attempt by the Blues to disrupt, it maintained all the binds, and finally it got a good secondary shove to the line for sub hooker Bryan Byrne to get it down.

For the next try I have to make a point I don't like making...for the life of me I can't understand why Ross Byrne was named man of the match.  That's not to say he was bad...he put in some nice touchline kicks and marshalled us down the field reasonably well on occasion...but there were a couple of bad conversion misses and what's more I thought his opposite number Jarrod Evans had a better night of it all things considered.

As far as I'm concerned we mostly had our bench to thank for our comeback and from an offensive standpoint, while Luke McGrath did ok apart from that missed tackle, Jamison Gibson-Park was exactly the kind of scrum-half we needed in that final quarter.  He has a keen eye for a half chance and on our next attacking maul with a penalty advantage coming, he lofted a high ball towards the posts which was well taken by Rory O'Loughlin before the Kiwi himself took responsibility for selling a dummy and crashing over.

Then he was instrumental in the whopping 24-phase series that got us back in the lead for good.  Though it was a team effort, with more reserves heavily involved.  Andrew Porter and Mick Kearney had already helped keep the Blues from adding even more scores and in this spell the accuracy in carrying and clearing out was nigh on perfect before Bryan Byrne spotted a chance to get the ball against the base of the post for his second on the night.

If I had to give man of the match to a Leinster starter I might go for Rory O'Loughlin who looked very comfortable with the ball and certainly played well enough to earn more September starts at the very least, although the missed tackle counts can't be ignored and his 3 along with Tomane's 4 stand out on the stat sheet.

Fardy also chipped in with a steal or three in the second half to atone for the earlier facepalmery and Ruddock got about his business with his usual efficiency when he wasn't being patronised by the ref.  Dave Kearney had a couple of strong runs from deep while Ferg put in a good shift given it was way longer than he would have expected...he even had to knock over one of our first half penalties as Ross Byrne got some attention.

As if our narrow one-point lead didn't offer enough drama for the closing stages, there was also a time issue thrown into the mix.  As Ross Byrne was preparing to convert that fourth try, the TMO alerted Nigel Owens that he was having a look at Bryan Byrne's grounding of the ball so the clock was kept running when it should have been stopped.

This meant that Owens had to arbitrarily put time back which made for a bit of confusion watching what was now the final two minutes unfold.  I think he should have taken a moment before the restart to inform both captains that the clock had been reset - instead he was chatting to the officials as the play continued and as you can see the Premier Sports graphics people took a while to adjust.

Meanwhile the Blues were doing a decent job moving the ball to a position where Jarrod Evans could steal the lead back again, but when an Andrew Porter tackle jarred the ball from the grasp of Rhys Gill, Gibson-Park wasted no time in putting the ball out of play.  Technically there were still a few seconds left on the clock shown by the TV, but although JGP didn't seem to ask Nigel if time was up, he was satisfied to call full time.    

This issue isn't so much controversial to me as ironic in that had the scrum actually taken place, it would have been Leinster's first put-in of the night and in turn the season...instead we'll have to wait until next week in Llanelli for that.  If I were the Blues I'd be more worried about how they let such a big lead evaporate in the final half hour.

So with 5 points on the board yet plenty to work on, you could say it's an ideal situation for our coaches as they prepare for the week ahead.  From a selection standpoint I'd like to see a good few from the bench in Cardiff Arms Park rewarded with starts next time out, but as we all know there's a lot more to consider this time of year.

We certainly won't want to leave it so late to show up against the Scarlets but with the right amount of tweaks, particularly in the central channels, we can make the Welsh regions sick of the sight of us more so than I'm sure they already are!  JLP

Later this week we'll have Keego's take on Leinster's start to the season (Tuesday), our Harpin Points including 80-word reviews of the other provinces (Wednesday) and our popular listing of upcoming rugby on Irish TV (Thursday).  Stay tuned!

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