AGAINST THE GRAIN
I began last week's writeup of Leinster's win over Edinburgh with an in-depth account of a James Lowe try, because it involved a move designed on the training ground that paid off in spectacular fashion and once in a while it's good to step back from all the tactics-analysing and narrative-hunting to appreciate when a good plan comes together.
This week, however, although I have another Leinster victory on which to harp, I'm going to have to takes things in a different direction, because while I might consider some of the passages of play that helped us get there to be as pleasing on the eye as a well-worked try, most wouldn't consider them to be "You Tube moments".
Let's face it..I very much doubt that a rugby highlights programme is going to be adding a "Top Ten Series Of 10+ Phases Where An Attack Gets Nowhere Of The Week" segment to their lineup anytime soon...
But much like rugby is a sport that welcomes people of all shapes and sizes, the winning of a match is something that can be done in all kinds of different ways. This was a contest where two seemingly irresistible forces were pitted against immovable objects and the spoils would go to the side that broke through first.
And it's not as though anyone thought Connacht were going to be pushovers. They are one team that knows how to beat us on their own patch and just last week they comfortably overcame another. So it certainly wasn't a great shock when Jack Carty was kicking them into a 3-0 lead with barely 2 minutes on the clock, a penalty that was earned by monumental pressure heaped on Rob Kearney as we tried to exit from the opening kickoff.
But one of these days I'm going to have to take the time and go back through the archives to work out how often in the last ten years Leinster have conceded the first score of the match in the opening minutes yet still gone on to win. It's the kind of thing you notice when you bang out 2000-word pieces on every match in that time, and this day was no exception.
You see, Connacht's defence might have been focused and accurate from the kickoff, but as the assistant refs were raising their flags for those three points, our own tackling systems were yet to be really tested and once they were, the true nature of the battle at hand was revealed.
Pretty much every carrier in a green shirt was met either at or behind the gainline by two tacklers in blue ones. There was simply nowhere to go, and this applied in the 80th minute every bit as much as it did in the first quarter once Connacht started coming at us.
Tables of stats are things I rarely use for writeups, but I'm going to buck that trend for this one because I reckon the crunching of these numbers demonstrates just how effective we were at thwarting the Westies. Just have a look at the performance of Bundee Aki over two successive weeks on the same pitch, remembering that not too long ago the Scarlets actually beat Leinster...
I watched that Connacht v Scarlets match and Aki was in fine form; it's not like it simply evaporated in just seven days. We effectively shut down his ability to make things happen (credit in particular must go to Joe Tomane given it was his channel - he seems to be getting up to speed with our systems) and while of course they have other options, they were having similar fortunes with the ball. Simply put, they just were not crossing our line.
Josh van der Flier got man of the match, and deservedly so, though ironically I feel he wasn't quite as good as he had been the previous week when he was denied the award. Now when I say "not quite as good" I only mean because he had the nerve to miss ONE tackle as opposed to zero against Edinburgh, on top of a couple of times when he had the ball taken off him or he knocked on. But most importantly for the second week in a row his 23 tackles made easily led our charts.
However one devilish tackler does not a solid defensive system make, and like I said earlier, it generally took two to tango each time and to keep a team that won this league just two years ago scoreless for 78 minutes on their own patch is quite an achievement. And it's not as though our bench made any difference to our accuracy levels in the closing stages, though their job was made a little easier by the home side, which brings us to the key issue of discipline.
There's a lot of anti-John Lacey sentiment around social media, and a good deal of it comes from Irish fans. I don't get it. Sure, he has his own style and I don't always agree with his calls same as any ref, but I can't put the persistent criticism down to anything but blatant one-eyedness.
After 22 minutes, as Connacht were trying to exit their own 22, one of their better performers on the day Robin Copeland had a carry and as was the norm for the day, he was met by two Leinster tacklers, this time Sean Cronin and Scott Fardy. Generally the idea was for one player to focus on getting the man down while the other has a crack at stripping the ball, but in this instance, both had a hold of him, and both proceeded to lift him.
Once you have a carrier in the air, you are in something of a bind, pun intended. If you continue with the aggression that you brought into the challenge, your instincts could have you drive him into the ground. But if you realise what you're doing while he's still up, you could panic and let him go, which is also fraught with danger.
What seemed to happen to both Cronin and Fardy is that their decision-making process fell between two stools, which in turn meant Copeland fell between the two of them, albeit with some element of guidance. It seems Lacey appreciated that last bit and chose to award a penalty only.
You might think I'm trying to defend their actions here...I'm not. IMO Cronin, being the principal tackler, should have seen a yellow card based on the current guidelines because they are designed to stop players lifting in the tackle at all. Could it have been red? Personally I feel no because of the lack of force, but I do think some refs might have viewed the 'zero tolerance' directive differently.
So this begs a perfectly reasonable question...since Connacht were struggling to find gaps in our defence, would ten minutes with 14 blue shirts on the park have helped them do so? My answer would be yes, but definitely not enough to completely wipe out the 17-point margin we had at the end.
And when it comes to discipline, our aggressive nature was always going to lead to more penalties this week (10) than last (3) but before Connacht fans get too indignant about how we avoided a card, I have to point out that the home side shipped 15 and thus were lucky not to see yellow themselves.
They did, of course, see red...for the second week in row, Leinster's opposition had a man sent off in the closing stages when the result was pretty much decided. And there can be no debate over this one.
Now let's be clear...I very much doubt anyone can claim Dominic Robertson-McCoy intended to plant his studs into Josh van der Flier's head/neck. The word is 'reckless'...he DID mean to stamp, he DID mean for it to connect with an opponent; he just wasn't looking where he was doing it. The red card was absolutely warranted and I sincerely hope he doesn't see any pitch time for the month of October at the very least.
I have covered pretty much everything about this match so far except the actual scores that put us well beyond the home side's tally of three, so I probably should start getting to that. I see a lot of comments which suggest that we somehow 'left a bonus point behind', but it's a bit unfair to put Connacht's struggles down to our defence without crediting them for our taking over half an hour to lose our 'duck-egg'.
We did spurn a few opportunities to go for the posts in the first half before Sexton took one, but I wonder if that was down to chasing a bonus point or was it knowledge of the infamous Galway gusts at that end of the Sportsground, something that his new provincial backs coach knows all about.
And I've been going on quite a bit this season about how we manage to find a score in the closing stages of a half - the same happened here as we won a few penalties deep in the Connacht 22 but in the end I reckon it was smart to take the three points to give us a lead at the break and avoid the risk of a major morale-boost for the home side in the very possible event of their keeping us out.
But it was right at the start of the second period when we finally found a way through. Jack Carty was another Connacht player struggling to find his form from the previous week, and while he was trying every trick in the book to get past our stubborn tacklers, his kicking in particular often let him down and when he tried to clear after the second half restart, he failed to find touch and instead it bounced into the grateful arms of Rob Kearney.
His return run put us well on the front foot before the first minute of the half had elapsed, and his team-mates were certainly ready to make the most of it. A couple of carries from the pack set the stage for Garry Ringrose to employ his signature move to perfection.
In theory, it's definitely a clever manoeuvre. After a couple of passes have seen the ball get to you, if you quickly stop and set off in the opposite direction, not only does that wrong foot a host of defenders but you also have the 'benefit' of several of your own to run behind.
That second bit could be a bit dicey...I fear maybe one day on a big occasion for Leinster or Ireland we might see a TMO call obstruction, but generally Ringrose does a good job of picking his line to avoid it and this was no exception. It didn't hurt that Tadhg Furlong was the last player he ran around before straightening his run though!
So now we've a decent lead and still our defence is holding out assaults coming from the other direction - a series of 19 fruitless phases that followed the try was their second of the match (with another of 21 to come later). Then on 52 minutes we win a penalty after Carty can't shift Cian Healy who has latched on to the ball held by Robin Copeland...this puts us back into their 22 and we're going for the kill.
It was mostly another good day for our lineout - the stat man credited us for 18 from 18 though a few were wobbly (actually to be fair to Connacht we were lucky on several occasions throughout when a dropped ball fell kindly for us). And for this lineout we chose again to do things a little differently to what was expected as a standard maul was formed travelling in one direction before Sean Cronin peeled off with the ball to head in the other and get himself over the line.
And not for the first time this season, a sweet strike from Sexton added the conversion...it's easy to forget to mention them but for this location in particular his place kicking was on song.
It was only when the home side went down to 14 men that it looked like a bonus point might be possible but while we definitely went for it, Connacht were just as keen to stop us and the time ticked away from us. I can't be anything but satisfied with the four points especially given how this fixture went last season!
The only real concern from the match was the early withdrawal of Rhys Ruddock, especially since he seemed to continue playing after the injury was flagged. This meant for a longer than planned stint for Sean O'Brien's return and he seemed to settle in fine, but it would of course be a shame to lose one quality back rower as another comes back... fingers crossed for Rhys.
Remember when September was a bad month for Leinster? Wasn't all that long ago. Well given we're five points clear in first place with a points difference of +82 after just 5 rounds, I think the month went reasonably well for us this season! But as we all know, the month that follows is where things get cranked up a notch, with Munster at the Aviva plus rounds 1 & 2 of Europe to come.
Things definitely look to be going in the right direction; we just need to stay focused and make sure not to be caught out ourselves by anyone running against the grain. 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 Leinster v Munster preview on Friday. Plus of course every morning our Front5 quotes & links. Do stay tuned!
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