Monday, September 24, 2018

Leinster-31 Edinburgh-7

Image result for lowe leinster edinburgh

OPTIONAL EXTRAS

The clock is ticking into the 39th minute as James Tracy is about to throw the dart.  

Given this is a period of the match when we've been known to score quite often of late, expectations are so high around the RDS that the crowd practically bullies referee Dan Jones into checking the TMO to overturn the original decision to award the lineout to the visitors after James Lowe had cleverly pinged it off an Edinburgh head at the last possible moment.

So Leinster's throw it is.  Not a set piece where we had excelled the week before despite the big winning margin, and one had already gone awry this time around; though by the end of the match, we will have actually gone a decent 14 from 15 with the vast majority being 'clean', and this one was squeakily so.

Devin Toner is standing at the 4 position at first, but just before it's released, he steps towards the 2.  His decoy move works perfectly - the Edinburgh forwards, probably expecting us to maul our way into the 22, are rooted to the spot as instead it's Max Deegan who soars into the Ballsbridge sky to take it at a perfect height for 'one off the top' down to Luke McGrath, who had been standing at the front of the lineout.

When the scrum-half is ready to pass, he has about five options.  He chooses one of the more difficult ones, a sizzler that bypasses a few Leinster players on one side and about four Embra ones on the other before being taken on the run by Robbie Henshaw who uses that momentum plus his strong leg drive to crash into the visitors' 22.

He has more than enough support for the recycle, and again it is McGrath who is there ready to distribute.  Again he has multiple options outside him.  Again he has no intention of going the 'one out runner' route and instead sends it long, again as about four Embra defenders look on almost helplessly.

Already plenty of involvement for Luke, but he ain't done yet.  As his pass heads towards Devin Toner, he's on the run to receive it back in the trademark 'wraparound' move.  Of course Toner himself has options like Mick Kearney feinting to run inside him but it was always going back to his scrum half.

Only now does the ball arrive at Johnny Sexton from his 9.  As if the defenders weren't bamboozled enough already, now it's in the hands of a master at the art of body movement deception.  He casually drags the ball one way as if to pass to a runner inside him, but instead it goes to Jordan Larmour on the outside.

Yes, you guessed it, the young full back also has several options when he gets on the ball. As Edinburgh winger Duhan van der Merwe goes to tackle him, he could have easily passed it on in traditional fashion, but he wasn't happy drawing just the one defender.  He pauses an extra second before his opposite number Dougie Fife tries to take him out as well, and at just the right moment, he slips a sweet, sly little backhanded offload to James Lowe.

Lowe also has options, like Ferg on his shoulder, but by this stage, so much space had been created by the excellent decision-making and execution beforehand that the only one he needs now is to get the ball over the line and touch it down.

I don't want all of these writeups to be 'Leinster love-ins' and I'll do my best to be critical when I think it's warranted, but once in a while I'd like to start one off by recounting a masterpiece move from the ‘training paddock’ (which put me in mind of a Brian O'Driscoll try against Cardiff at the Aviva) as best as I can, and many thanks to regular Harpin reader & commenter Richard Mifsud for the inspiration.

That try made it 12-0 to Leinster, so before we go to the second half let's look at what went before.  We all knew Edinburgh were a significant upgrade on the Dragons from the previous week, based on last season’s visit to the RDS plus their subsequent march to the Pro14 playoffs.

Yet while the rebranded side from the Scottish capital were clearly prepared to resist our advances in the early stages (29 phases in their 22 getting nowhere) ironically it was shortly after a dysfunctional Leinster lineout that we took the lead for good in the 16th minute.

When we see Devin Toner blocking a box-kick clearance by a scrum-half, the obvious question is “Why don’t we see that happen more often when he’s on the pitch?”, but for me that leads to another, seemingly more obvious one : “Why do 9s even bother trying to box kick when he’s on the pitch?”  Whatever the answers...this time his height advantage over Sean Kennedy meant the clearance attempt was now heading back towards the try line; the Leinster & Ireland lock followed it up and while he was tackled just short, he had plenty of support and Fergus McFadden was able to bring the recycled ball the rest of the way.

But while Dev & Ferg were the headline names from the story of this particular try, I’d like to draw attention to my man of the match Josh van der Flier.  When that lineout went wrong, he was the first to react and make the tackle behind the gain line. When Toner was stopped short of the line, Josh was the first there to make the vital clearout that allowed Ferg to get on the scoresheet.

And most importantly for his overall contribution to the match, when Edinburgh won a penalty shortly after our first try and proceeded to spend the next 13 minutes camped in our 22 with series of 16, 36 and finally 8 phases respectively to no avail, it was Josh to the fore throughout, causing as much breakdown mischief as he could.  His 23 tackles with 0 missed are as distinctive on the stat sheet as is his red scrum cap among the pile of bodies over the ball.

But of course that try line stand couldn’t have happened without a 15-man team effort and while it was clear that Edinburgh’s plan was to wear us both down and out, we were ready, willing and able to stop them and perhaps passages of play like those rarely make the highlight reels, but still I would consider that one to be as valuable to the result as any of the five tries.

With his side 0-17 down at the break, you wouldn't expect any less from Richard Cockerill than to demand a strong start to the second half and after a bout of kick tennis around midfield, van der Merwe wriggled free from the attempted tackles of both Henshaw and Ringrose and with Chris Dean in support they got it as far as the line where eventually Magnus Bradbury put them on the scoreboard to give us something to think about.

But right before the break isn't the only time Leinster are known to find a score. Over the years we have had a knack of responding in kind after conceding and this was no exception.

The move that led to the James Lowe ‘try’ right after the restart might have been worthy enough to open this writeup only it was called back for the final pass being forward but at the ensuing scrum our front row, that now included Tadhg Furlong, made mulch of their opposition to win a penalty and get us back on their line.

A more conventional lineout throw to Toner this time, followed by a bit of mauling to draw a penalty advantage, then it's sent to Henshaw for another crash ball run, only here he takes the option to pass at the last moment which removes a number of Embra defenders from the equation. When it gets to Larmour he doesn't need any teammates as options; his fancy footwork is more than enough to apply the finish.

So now the clock is heading towards the 60m mark and we win a very kickable penalty in front of the posts. With the score at 19-7, the conventional wisdom would be to take the points on offer to create a 15-point or “three score” lead to help secure the win but given our starting lineup was so strong, skipper Sexton was probably keen to have the 4th try in the bag before he was called ashore so into touch near the try line the ball was sent.

It took us a few goes amid stubborn and sometimes illegal Edinburgh resistance but after another Lowe try was denied, this time by being held up, from the resulting scrum Sexton took matters into his own hands by selling a perfect dummy before bringing it to the line.  Conversion from out wide to add the cherry on top? But of course. 65m gone, five match points in the bag, first place in Conference B guaranteed after round 4...not a bad night at the office.

Of course in naming JVDF as man of the match I don't want to take too much from the actual recipient Cian Healy; he also had a good night with the highlight being a rampaging run deep into the Edinburgh 22 where he somehow stayed focused on which way was forward despite several pirouettes in either direction along the way.

There were also decent outings from Sexton, Larmour, Lowe among others but one I'd like to be sure and highlight is Mick Kearney.  When James Ryan was forced off for an HIA on 20m from which he wouldn't return, it meant an extended shift from the former Connacht lock and it looked like they ran the same playbook as if Ryan was still there and we didn't miss a beat. While James, Devin and Scott are definitely at the top of our second row pecking order, it's great to know we've such solid options in reserve.

The final fifteen minutes were not without their own drama. To their credit Edinburgh didn't stop going for another score and they looked like one was on the way when they got from one 22 to another and had us on the back foot, but when the play stopped the ref wanted to look at one collision in particular.

I have seen all of their matches this season so far and Pierre Schoeman has been one of their more influential players, particularly in the loose. But cite my blue goggles all you want, under the current guidelines there was no option but red for his forearm to Dan Leavy.

Last Wednesday in our new feature to this season called 'Harpin Points' I wrote about the 'zero tolerance' issue surrounding high tackles and this whole business of leading with the forearm is another thing that needs to be taken from the game.

Of course the other player could be 'ducking into' the challenge but that's not the point. Leading with the forearm is dangerous and players need to know that if they do so, they run the risk of seeing red, because apparently running the risk of seriously injuring an opponent to the head isn't deterrent enough. Hopefully both Dan and James get through their head injury protocols quickly.

So down to 14 men went the visitors and while that still didn't stop them from coming at us, when they knocked on in the midst of an attack in our 22 as the clock neared 80 (and once again many fans were gone from their seats, something I harped on last week) the extra space was enough for us to ship it quickly wide to Ferg who sprinted up the touchline into the opponents' half, and even then he had options, this time going for a pass on the run to Ringrose who added fifth try to our haul.

Once again, a night at the RDS for Leinster fans to remember, with loads to look forward to into the future. Our abundance of options, in both personnel and attacking approaches, seems to be every bit as good now as it was towards the end of last season. And while I'd be careful to take anything away from Girvan Dempsey's achievements as backs coach, you can definitely see the influence of Senor Contepomi in our play - it's clear he and Sexton work well together, and come to think of it, would anyone have doubted that would be the case?

As Europe draws near, the challenges quite rightly begin to get tougher. The last team to beat us was the Scarlets. Before that it was Connacht. Last Saturday, Connacht comfortably beat the Scarlets at the Sportsground, and that's where we go next. I have a feeling that a few 'elite players' might be rested for that trip so we'll have to rely on a selection based on our optional extras. If the evidence of recent weeks is anything to go by, it should make for a classic interprovincial battle, I can't wait. Though I suppose I'll have to. JLP

PS - Later this week we'll have a guest post from Keego on Tuesday and some 80-word reviews from last weekend's action including the other provinces and some of Leinster's opposition in Europe; then on Wednesday it's time for some more Harpin Points with the telly post on Thursday and the Leinster team announcement and preview on Friday. Plus of course Front5 every morning with quotes & links from around the ruggersphere. Do join us!

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