Monday, October 29, 2018

Benetton 3-31 Leinster


It was an odd feeling back in April of this year.  

Leinster had just lost to a team we are always expected to beat, especially at home.  It should have been an upset that rocked European rugby to its very core, but instead all I genuinely wanted to do is applaud our conquerors, and I certainly wasn't alone at the RDS in that wish.

Context was everything, of course.  Leinster's home Pro14 semifinal was all but secured at that stage, we had a Champions Cup one against the Scarlets to come the following weekend, and the Grand Slam was also fresh in everyone's minds. It certainly was not out of sour grapes nor begrudgery that the result against Benetton, disappointing though it was, didn't sting as much as it might have.

In fact it was forgotten so much that I originally didn't think to bring it up in my preview, and talk of ‘revenge’ was scarce elsewhere around the ruggersphere leading up to kickoff.  For us, the context was about keeping ahead of Conference B rivals Ulster and the Scarlets, both of whom had bonus point wins the night before, and also blowing away the cobwebs from Toulouse the week before.

“We have no reason to doubt that the coaching ticket can fix what is ailing us, and hopefully the lineout will be near the top of that list.  But also we need to be able to get our heads out of the play book when it's clear our opposition is on a mission to throw us off”

In the opening exchanges at a rainy Stadio Di Monigo, Leinster ticked a lot of the boxes I had in my mental notebook, some of which I laid out in last week's writeup.

There were just 33 seconds on the clock when we were awarded a penalty, almost the exact opposite of what happened at the same time last week, though this time it was for an unfortunate offside by a Treviso player after we batted back a box kick.  We put it to touch and just like that we had attacking lineout ball.

Here we were already faced with a scenario that was a potential stumbling block.  Expectations are such at Leinster that lineouts like these are meant to be as good as points on the board, yet the mechanics of securing possession from the setpiece have proven to be a challenge.  But the call was made, Tracy threw the dart, James Ryan was hoisted into the air, and the ball was ours.

Excellent…now to set about attacking the gainline. But the home side had a thing or two to say about that. Premier/eir Sport lost brownie points with stat nerds like me for not providing a “phase counter” graphic in this sequence but I made it 25 times we had to recycle. Clearly Kieran Crowley and his defensive coaches had their charges drilled into a mindset to thwart us with the ball, and it was working extremely well right from the start.  We briefly got into their 22 before getting driven back beyond where the original lineout had been.

One silver lining was that we were retaining the ball each time.  Jamison Gibson-Park looked like a scrum half well prepared for series like this one, getting to each breakdown ready to organise the pods around him trying to find the weakness in the defensive cordon.

But often in the past we have fallen into a trap whereby we had so much faith in our abilities that we'd keep on going and eventually something would go wrong.  This time, JGP knew exactly the right time to try something different.

It was the perfect execution of a clever percentage play.  Pop a little kick designed to hold up in the corner, giving their defence something to deal with. Maybe the chasers will tackle them directly into touch, but it's most likely that they'll clear and give us another chance to hit them with a different set play off a lineout.

Or, there was the least likely option when making this decision; that the ball will actually reach the chasing winger.  The levels of concentration required to keep shutting down channels were such that Benetton fullback Justin Hayward was completely wrong footed by JGP's kick and Adam Byrne, back in the starting lineup after a successful (and much needed IMO) spell in the A team, was able to retrieve and get it down.

Of course the job was far from done, but it certainly wasn't a bad start…we had a clean lineout, lateral thinking, try scored, Toulouse cobwebs all but gone.

But as if the rugby gods intervened to keep us focused, captain for the day Seán O'Brien dropped the restart to give the home side a chance to strike back.  I don't say that to bash him - he had a fine outing overall and besides, the knockon call was a tad harsh as it seemed to fall sideways at best - but I couldn't describe the next sequence without mentioning it.

What followed this scrum was a 20 minute spell which became the closest to what the Italians could call a ‘purple patch’.  But they weren't the only side that was primed and ready for long series without the ball…Leinster players have it hardwired into their DNA.

The final stats show that no Leinster player was required to make more than 8 tackles on the day, and only a handful were missed overall. Given we enjoyed over 70% in both territory and possession this is understandable, but for this particular twenty minutes it really did look as though a Benetton try was inevitable.

Some opportunities fell short because of them, with ironically botched lineouts normally the biggest culprit.  But also we had problems getting out of our own half, often drawing a penalty call before we could do so.

Just a quick side note on the ref...whatever about the general opinion of Ben Whitehouse, is it right that we had him for the second Pro 14 match in a row? I often harp on the need for officials from neutral nations so I guess we can't have everything, but I would have thought there was enough to ensure this wouldn't happen even considering the break for Champions Cup matches.

But anyway…after poking and prodding in our 22, when we were perhaps a bit fortunate not to receive so much as a warning let alone a card, Treviso were unable to even use their powerful wingers Ratuva and Ioane to break us down and to get their side of the scoreboard moving the had to eventually take three points on offer.  A 3-5 deficit certainly didn't look so bad at the time, but it wasn't long before we made it 3-12.

Again I'll hold my hand up and say we were fortunate here…the assistant ref called obstruction by the home side on a box kick that I nor the commentators could spot on several replays, but when the kick was put to touch in the corner, once again we were able to capitalise.

Lineout caught, maul formed, Tracy shears off, try.  I'm not entirely sure how legal Gibson-Park's accompaniment was (or how helpful it was for that matter) but the net result was that with seemingly minimal effort we had posted seven points after all their hard work before had earned just three.

Surely even the most blue-goggled Leinster fan wasn't convinced the win was in the bag at this point, although after watching a second time the signs were clearly there.  In fact, it could be argued that the most significant thing that happened over the eighty minutes was the injury to Rob Kearney on 44 minutes.

He had already rebooted a few Leinster attacks with his probing run backs, but it looked nasty as he was halted this time…no malice meant by his tacklers, just a case of one grabbing and holding him first while another hit him towards the opposite direction…that's bound to jar something and hopefully he was only removed as a precaution.

There was further significance to Rob's departure in that it meant Conor O’Brien could get more game time than was probably intended. He's a great crash ball 12 who due to injury only had a few chances at senior level before this and he's another who benefitted from the seven-week Celtic Cup spell.

So with the home side continuing to make mistakes like missing penalty kicks to touch, Leinster got more chances.  After Tracy was denied his second try by a foot in touch (another call made by the AR though I reckon this one was right) Treviso then got pinged for a crooked lineout and from the resulting scrum, with a penalty advantage coming, Max Deegan took from the base to give it to JGP who used Conor O’Brien as the crash option and the youngster was rewarded with his maiden senior try.

We'll that was the win pretty much wrapped up but by this stage we couldn't leave without the bonus point.  After we had a move break down and the ball was fly hacked back deep into our half, Ross Byrne did incredibly well to recover and before long we returned it with interest as Bryan Byrne and Scott Fardy brilliantly counter rucked Treviso's attempt to do tidying of their own and eventually it was the hooker who got us our crucial fourth try.

There was another Celtic Cup hero to reward… Hugh O'Sullivan came on with ten minutes to go replacing Gibson-Park who I thought was man of the match.  He was composed when needed but also in the first half especially he seemed to be on a mission to hit as many green jerseys as possible (including one crucial tackle on Ratuva when he had some rare running space).  If the Kiwi keeps this up he can't be ruled out from a Champions Cup start in December.

Noel Reid also came on the the closing stages, and as we pressed in their 22, with a penalty advantage he lobbed a perfect kick into the arms of Joe Tomane who became the second to bag his first Leinster try on the afternoon.

I was delighted to see Joe score.  He has been the target of a lot of social media jibes in recent weeks.  A lot of it, in fairness, was justified because on more than one occasion moves seemed to break down when they reached him.  That said, a lot of those observations came with a hint of what I call “import scapegoating” about them, and I have tried to allow for his taking time to bed into Leinster's systems.  Hopefully this try will go a long way to getting him, and the fans’ opinions of him, into sync where they should be.

So overall a match that no doubt will be forgotten once the November internationals come into focus, but the five match points plus another 28 in the points difference column will count just as much in the final tally as any other.  

Once we can get Rob back on the pitch ASAP then it can't be denied that the boys in blue ticked all their boxes in Northern Italy last weekend…now it's on to South Africa to tick some more.  JLP

Later this week we'll have a guest post from Keego plus our 80-word reviews on Tuesday, Harpin Points on Wednesday, Telly post on Thursday and our Benetton preview on Friday.  Plus of course every morning our Front5 quotes & links.  Do stay tuned!

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