Monday, September 17, 2018

Leinster-52 Dragons-10


REWARDING SUPPORT

What once was a shoe box is now a biscuit tin!!!  Some may choose to moan about what's included in the Leinster Season Ticket Holder's pack each season, but I'm certainly not one of them.  The scarf will do me; anything else is a bonus, and this year's container is especially nice.

I mean it's not as if the boys in blue don't reward their supporters more than enough on the pitch, and pretty much everything about this match did just that, even in the way they 'let us' have some dodgy lineouts...we all know we wouldn't be happy without something to worry about! 😜

But to start my theme for this week's writeup I'd like to point to a bugbear of mine at Leinster matches, namely those who head for the exits while the play is still going on.  

Sure, with 5 minutes left on the clock Leinster had a comfortable 45-10 lead, but for the umpteenth time, those who supported to the end were rewarded with a lineout taken by Ross Molony, a well set maul, some phases on the line, and finally Scott Fardy helped over by the great-to-see-back Josh van der Flier to secure the 'fifty burger'.

And the punishment was even more severe for those who left before the end of the first half.  Again I noticed streams of people prematurely vacating their seats and even if it was down to a call of nature or a desire to beat the queues for refreshments...I was still wondering if any of these people remembered how good both Leinster and Ireland are at milking scores after the clock goes red on 40 minutes?

Plus the win was far, far from secure at that stage.  We had started every bit as brightly as both the occasion and the calibre of our starting XV demanded, with the highlight feature of our opening attacks being some brilliantly timed offloading that somehow made the Dragons look more like part of some choreography than actual would-be tacklers.

Yet more often than not, the intricate moves would come to nothing.  A forward pass here, a neck roll there, a scrum penalty elsewhere.  After 9 minutes Sean Cronin ran a juggernaut of a line to avail of a missing Dragon pillar at a ruck to get our first home try of the season, but between then and those closing moments of the first period, we had only added a penalty to the score and our guests were unlucky to drop an intercept pass that would have probably resulted in a 7pts down the other end.

So if I told you that Leinster had an attacking lineout outside the Dragons 22 as the clock said 38:44 and got a try before the break, you'd probably think that was normal enough.  And even if I then told you that the lineout was stolen by Cory Hill, our third loss of the half, before the Dragons eventually cleared their lines with Rob Kearney collecting it 20m inside his own half with the clock now 39:20, and from there we would still score a try, you'd probably assume he jinked his way through defenders into space.  But he actually didn't make it out of his own half.

Which brings me to the Ross Moriarty sin-binning, arguably the turning point of the match.  Look - given this is a Leinster fan site, it won't surprise you that I felt the card was warranted.  But hopefully I can back up my opinion with more than just my blue goggles so here goes...

Johnny Sexton is more responsible for the four stars now adorning Leinster's jersey than any other, with Leo Cullen obviously a very close second.  He has also had a victory or two to savour with the Ireland test team.  In other words, his name jumps out of any lineup, which in turn makes him the one to target, and we have seen this several times before.

As referee Quinton Immelman (who I should mention had a good game after my slating of the ref last week) showed Moriarty the yellow card, the number 8 had a broad grin on his face as if to say "Who me?" like it was an extremely harsh call.  Surely it was incidental contact that knocked Sexton over...how could he have known who it was?

Well I would like to present to the jury Exhibit A.  He knew damn well who it was.  And yes, Johnny does totally milk the incident for all it's worth afterwards, staying down for a while, getting up gingerly, making like he might have a bad injury, as much as I hate to say it, a bit like the footballers do.  

But I like to think of it like an 'arms race' of sorts.  First, players like Sexton are awesome.  Then, opposition players do these phony 'accidental hits' on them to make them think twice about being awesome.  Now, we have the awesome players offering some phoniness of their own to help bring it to the attention of referees. 

It may not be pretty, but it's still fighting fire with fire, and IMO Moriarty can have no complaints about his punishment.  Plus, with his arm motion he literally showed us the precise moment when a push comes to a shove so he needs to work on his technique.

So given we went a total of 19 phases around the challenge in question, by the time play restarted the clock read 42:27, yet we still opted for a scrum.  Just earlier that same day I lambasted the All Blacks for arrogance in going for a try when an easy three points was available, so I suppose I should consider this to be the same.  Here's the thing though...you can only really mock a seemingly-unnecessary attempt at a try when it fails.

On this occasion, we seemed to have decent solidity in the scrum, so it was down to whether or not we could use the location just under the posts (the penalty was taken for a different offence to the shove) together with the extra man. 

After a reset, the scrum is won, JGP makes to go left with the ball, Conan instead takes it and goes wide right, van der Flier runs an inside line to receive the offload from the number 8, and bang.   Just like that, with the clock at 45:28, as the pre-halftime leavers are probably tucking into their burgers and pints, the now-recovered Sexton is popping over the extra two points for a 17-0 cushion at the break.

But as I said in my halftime tweet, it wasn't enough for us to go on and win, even with a try bonus point.  The hype around this match was based around the star-studded starting lineup and the pressure was on them to deliver...so given they were mostly due to be hauled ashore around the sixty-minute mark, the challenge was for them to have the five match points wrapped up by then.

And although Dragons 10 Josh Lewis pulled three points back on 42m, when his fellow halfback Rhodri Williams failed to find touch with a clearance shortly afterwards, we finally made more hay from the extra man when a strong run by James Ryan was capped by a neat offload to Gibson Park along side him and the good support was rewarded by the Kiwi scrum half nabbing our third try.

But fittingly, we saved the best for the bonus point score.  Again it took a neat exchange between Ryan and JGP to provide the space, but this time it was a lot further back so there was more work to do.  As Gibson-Park approached the retreating Dragons defenders he spotted the pacy Jordan Larmour outside him (see main pic) so having clearly recalled the winger's try from the Pro 14 final, he chose to reward the support by kicking one aimed to sit up ahead of the tryline for him to chase.

To be clear these were no Dragon slouches in pursuit with Larmour...outhalf Lewis and winger Hallam Amos (later to be stretchered off, here's to a speedier recovery than the 4-5 projected weeks) no less, yet the Leinster youngster still got there first and there was no need for a dramatic 'scoop while running' motion as it popped up for him to retrieve and dive over to bring the home fans out of their seats in a good way.  To cap it off Sexton nailed his toughest conversion (he went on to match Carbery's 6/6 from the night before I might add) from the touchline in front of the Grandstand.

And the starters provided some icing for the cake on 57m - first Scott Fardy was denied a try after sub scrumhalf Tavis Knoyle made up for his clearance being blocked by getting his boot to the ball at the line...perhaps the ref was showing mercy by choosing to go for a 5m scrum instead of a stronger sanction but from the set piece we went through some phases on the line before Gibson Park got his second of the day.

So in case you hadn't noticed...it was JGP with the pass to Cronin for try #1, the dummy run to help free up Conan and JVDF for #2, scoring numbers 3 and 5 as well as a well thought out assist for #4.  And he wasn't quite finished, but first a word on the Dragons' contribution to the evening.

Had this been the only 80 minutes I had seen from Bernard Jackman's charges I wouldn't be too concerned as they were outplayed by a champion squad.  But having also watched their opening two matches against Treviso and the Southern Kings, both at home, I'm thinking it could be another long season for them.  The most glaring stats against them were missed tackles...42 in all and 5 starters with 3 or more.

(While I'm harping on missed tackles, Garry Ringrose won't be happy with his three, particularly one in the first half which gave the visitors their first prolonged spell in our half.)

But there was one bright spark for the Dragons; we weren't the only team on the pitch with a pacy Jordan in our back three...in my preview I pointed out that Mr Williams was a dangerous prospect from deep and he proved it with a superb combination of sprinting and stepping to help get his side into double digits.

'Normal service' was restored a couple of minutes later when Gibson-Park manoeuvred himself around his tackler near the line, saw Tadhg Furlong in support, and rewarded him this time with an offload that had to be lofted high into the air to make it to the Grand Slam winning prop who finished the move well.

So while there were some fine displays from James Ryan and Josh van der Flier, Gibson-Park an easy choice for man of the match, even if the eir Sport camera folks wouldn't give him quite the celebratory moment he would have liked!  His displays so far this season have mostly made our 'ANZAC selection dilemma' between himself, Fardy and James Lowe all the more difficult.

Furlong was part of our third week in a row of good value from the bench, with Dooley, Molony, Tomane, Doris, and probably the most inexperienced halfback pairing ever seen at senior level for Leinster of Hugh O'Sullivan and Noel Reid doing well in the latter stages.  Even after try #7 the fifteen remaining on the park weren't done pushing for an eighth.

And it was overall a great day to be wearing blue as the A side also put a fifty-burger on a Welsh region with just 10pts in reply, with the ladies eclipsing the men by actually lifting silverware in the form of the Interprovincial crown despite a 14-14 draw with Munster.  Congrats to all.

So 5 match points in the bag, the bookies' ambitious 36-point spread well beaten, and seemingly not much to worry about on the injury front.  The opposition gets tougher from here on...Embra and Connacht, then Munster, then Europe. 

I won't deny the lineout thing is a worry, but it was also thus at the same time last season, so overall I have to say there was plenty of evidence on display at the RDS there could be more rewards to come for loyal Leinster supporters down the line.  Here's to that biscuit tin being crammed full of match-winning programmes come the end of May.  JLP

Later this week on HarpinOnRugby.net, a slight change to the schedule...the 80-word reviews will now move to a post of their own on the Tuesday, while among the latest Harpin Points on Wednesday I'll have a rant about the arrogant All Blacks.  Then it's back to regular programming with the TV post on Thursday, and the Leinster team to face Embra announcement plus preview on Friday.  Do stay tuned.

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