Monday, September 10, 2018

Scarlets-23 Leinster-21


LLANELLI LESSONS LEARNED

I suppose you could blame the ref if you really, really wanted to.

Of course that's always the 'easy way out' for supporters of the losing team who are looking for a scapegoat, though there are times when the man in the middle's performance deserves a bit of scrutiny, and on this occasion Mike Adamson's does.

And while you'd think my biggest beef would be the decision right at the end, you'd be wrong.   Sure, after Cian Healy's heroic turnover at midfield, Leinster powered through a load of phases to get us into a position to snatch a narrow victory for the second week in succession only for Leigh Halfpenny to get a fingernail on the ball in the breakdown for a few seconds before being bizarrely awarded the match-winning turnover.  But I'm not bitter.  Well, at least not as much as I am about other things.

For me the biggest problem with his or any other referee's actions is when they display poor communication skills.  We won't always agree with their decisions but at least the likes of Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes can quote chapter and verse in real time what their ruling is so you know where you stand.

At one stage in this match, we had Adamson telling Andrew Porter to stay where he was on the deck at the breakdown only to ping him moments later for not rolling away.  Then as Jack Conan latched on to a breakdown under the posts, he stretched his arm out for a penalty to us before blowing his whistle and remembering an earlier offside and thus calling it the other way...that was the three points which put the Scarlets ahead for good.

But to be clear...I'm not harping on the ref to start the writeup because I see him to be completely responsible for this result.  For one thing, my moaning about him leaves me wide open to calls of "careful what you wish for" after all I've written about the need for this league to have 'neutral' refs in every match.  For another, his poor communication and lack of consistency was not confined to decisions against Leinster on the night.  I just wanted to get the topic out of the way, and now I have.

If the 2018/19 Leinster setup are going to learn anything from this 80 minutes, we have to ask ourselves a simple question..."We were short of victory by 3pts...was that completely down to the referee?", to which the answer would only be a resounding "no".  So what say we have a look at what we should have done differently.

My starting point has to be Ross Byrne's two missed penalties.  Yes, I know we can't assume that if he had gotten them the score wouldn't necessarily be different by six points on our side, but given that he popped over two conversions from close enough to the touchline, the ones he pushed wide of the post from either side were particularly disappointing.

Also we were guilty of some poor decision making.  Our defensive organisation has won us many a tight contest over the years and for Josh Murphy to be caught and sent to the bin at such an early stage helped the home side get on the road to their first try from skipper Ken Owens (more iffy reffing here, could have asked different question no clear evidence the ball was grounded...but wait, I've parked that topic haven't I).

Then having fought our way back to a four-point halftime lead, we created several opportunities to stretch it only to play a part in our own undoing...a Ross Byrne pass went a fraction forward, Henshaw and Larmour lost the ball in the tackle, and there was an attacking lineout at the 22 that reminded me of my school days before the Age Of Lifters when the ball would sail over a sea of outstretched hands if nobody thought to jump...talk about poor communication!

Standards at a double-winning club have to be such that chances like those must be turned into points, and when you fail that often against a team with quality players like Leigh Halfpenny, Hadleigh Parkes and Gareth Davies, you'll find yourself chasing the game in the closing stages every time.

For the transgressions that stood out the most, unfortunately I have to look at Ian Nagle.  There was many an eyebrow raised at his inclusion in such a star-studded Leinster lineup but to be fair we can't just base our views on what has happened in seasons gone by...it's very possible that he was being rewarded for a stellar preseason.

And it was also clear from the outset that we were employing a particular strategy on the Scarlet lineout throws, an area where the Welsh region had struggled the previous week against Ulster.  Liam Toland noted in commentary that we chose not to contest their first four darts, but from then on Nagle seemed to be going after each one so perhaps the plan was to lull them into a false sense of security.

Fast forward to the second half and once more we have good attacking ball in the 22 thwarted, this time in fairness down to the pesky James Davies burrowing his way to a breakdown penalty...his only such call of the night, oddly enough.  So the ball is dispatched to touch at halfway and this time Nagle is a fraction out with his jump and gets pinged for taking the player out in the air...all of a sudden it's the Scarlets with the attacking lineout.

On the following set of phases our defence is doing extremely well keeping them pinned at the gainline so Dan Jones stabs one into our 22 and in a situation where we are generally good at performing a "safe exit", it was Nagle who lost it in the tackle, which presented the Scarlets with the kind of opportunity they relish, particularly against us...a period of transition.

As Parkes broke clear to put Gareth Davies through to the tryline and put the home side two scores ahead, many would fault the tackling as first Ruddock and then Porter were wrong-footed, but in those particular situations I tend to credit the attacking side for quick thinking, as well as faulting the original turnover.

But it certainly wasn't all bad on our side of things.  We did contribute three quality tries to this fixture which by now has surely surpassed our clashes with the Ospreys as the leading Welsh/Irish rivalry, so let's have a look at how they developed.

Our first try was the best of the night, a fine team effort that seem to involve all fifteen of boys in blue.  It began with a perfectly set up maul off a lineout which snaked its way well into the Scarlets half before a series of phases, snipes and barging carries, all accompanied by quality support, earned us the right to go wide before a looping pass from O'Loughlin found Fergus McFadden who had a bit work to do to reach the line yet made it look extremely easy.

Then we continued the recent Leinster & Ireland trend of milking an extra score from the end of a first half.  First it was another quality maul which ended up in Cronin getting close to dotting down; it was ruled no try but at least there was a penalty and yellow card to Samson Lee from the play...eventually after opting for a scrum from the penalty we shipped it wide to James Lowe who got it down in the corner.

In the midst of all of this we had the TMO's denial of Cronin despite his grounding being similar to that of his opposite number, several opportunities for Adamson to issue a second yellow that were ignored, plus the nasty knee planted by Gareth Davies in Lowe's back as he scored that went unchecked.  But I'm digressing about the officials again aren't I...I'd probably best move on to try number 3 (though it wouldn't hurt for the citing commissioner to have a look at the Davies incident).

The move was started by more solid defence resulting in a jackled penalty from Peter Dooley, and despite our success with the maul for most of the evening, this time we went for crash ball off the lineout, ably supplied by Joe Tomane who looked like a man keen to make an impression after a sub-par debut in Cardiff.

From there is was taken on by Rhys Ruddock, who might have challenged the ref more throughout yet still led well by example with 20 tackles and several strong carries like this one before he himself got the try after a series of goal line phases.

As it happened Dooley had blood coming from a head wound so Healy, my Leinster player of the night, had to return and as I said earlier, it was his powerful counter-rucking (not his first of the night either) that at least put us on the road to pinching the match points, even if we didn't quite get there.

So not a finish like the previous week, and plenty for Leinster to work on, but as I often say after disappointing results like this, if you can't find the positives, you don't really want to.

With a few exceptions, our set piece work has been top notch over the past two weeks, and when it comes to individuals, many have excelled and on occasions when some have had problems, they have shown at other times that they can contribute - like our starting halfbacks in this match who despite some shortcomings, both put in key try saving tackles in the early stages.

And when you look at our return of 6 match points out of 10 from the homes of both the Challenge Cup winners and last seasons Champions Cup semifinalists/Pro14 finalists, particularly when you factor in that 11 of our remaining 19 league fixtures are at home, the lesson learned from Llanelli can only have us going in one direction so I certainly won't be looking forward to next Saturday's home opener against the Dragons any less.  JLP

Later this week, we have a busy Harpin Points (Wednesday) including up to six 80-word reviews, the telly post is on Thursday as always, Friday sees our Dragons preview and fingers crossed we'll be doing a liveblog of Leinster A's Celtic Cup clash with Cardiff on Saturday.  Stay tuned!

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