Monday, October 15, 2018

Leinster-52 Wasps-3



“What are you waiting for Johnny?  Just kick the bloody thing!!!”

But no, he was taking his own sweet time...and after more of a pause, he made us wait even longer by kneeling to tie his shoelaces before standing up again, gathering himself for further seconds, then taking a few steps back to lineup up his kick….and eventually, though still casually, striking the ball between the uprights.

It was as though he not only wanted to live up to the tweet I had just posted, but also to re-write it in all caps with a dozen exclamation points at the end.

Actually I had already given my half-time tweet a full re-write myself.  When Thomas Young, easily Wasps’ best player on the night, burrowed his way to another jackling penalty on 36m which led to Elliot Daly booming a touch finder into our 22, it looked to all intents and purposes that the best we could hope for was a 7-3 halftime lead, so I had a message like this all teed up to send…
Wasps have to be over the moon with that scoreline at the break.  After such a great start we haven't been able to break them down and if we don't get an early second half score it could be a long night. #COYBIB #LEIvWAS #ChampionsCup
But you'll just have to believe me that even at that stage, I also had the tweet I was to eventually send in mind, just in case.

So in a rare attacking position for the visitors, James Ryan read the dart perfectly to thwart their lineout and while they almost recovered, the net result was a scrum to Leinster.  No way was I sending my tweet just yet.

As Luke McGrath fed the ball into the scrum, the clock read 39:11.  After a few phases got us out of the 22, Wasps loose head Zurabi Zhvania was too slow moving away from the breakdown so Poite pinged him at 39:58.

Most players have the modern day equivalent of halftime oranges on their mind at that time.  Many would have been happy with any kind of lead in their Champions Cup opener and taken a tap to put the ball in touch.  But not Leinster.

Without hesitation, Luke tapped and went instead, knowing full well that his 14 team-mates would back him up.  He and Sexton orchestrated us to the halfway line, where we worked some space on the left wing. Conan shipped it to Cronin, who had James Lowe outside with acres of space ahead of him, a fact that was not lost on Wasps outhalf Lima Sopoaga.

The most ironic fact about this whole sequence is that Cronin's pass was actually destined to be forward, but Sopoaga wasn't ready to take that chance so just as it was released, he poked one hand at the ball, knocking it forward, killing the play, and leaving Romain Poite no choice but to go to his pocket.

Now with the iron this hot there was no way we were going to voluntarily end the half.  Sexton popped the kick to touch and it was our turn to have an attacking lineout. Not for the first nor last time on the night, this set piece was far from tidy for us, but we still managed to get on the front foot.

All throughout the half we had displayed a masterful ability to advance the ball up the field.  When it was crash ball we needed, then the likes of Henshaw, Ryan and Healy were more than able to oblige. When it was a few hard yards, a carrier would generally have two on his shoulder ready to clear out.  When we wanted it through the backs, Sexton had his troops in a line to befuddle would-be tacklers with a wraparound or similar space-creating sorcery.

But up to that point, ironically enough our only breakthrough had been when Sean Cronin spotted a missing pillar at the breakdown and charged through the gap to give us a fitting start to our #DriveForFive with a try in the fifth minute.

For over half an hour after, although we'd often get deep in their 22 from close to our own, there would be a knockon or a Young poach to stop us in our tracks.

Yet once we got the ball rolling forward again after that lineout, this was always going to be a bit different.  The pressure is on. We've an extra man. When this series dies, so does the half - and we can face our coaches with a lead of one score or two; it's all up to us.

So we poked and prodded some more at the Wasps defensive line...Cian Healy steamrolled his way into the 22 as if he knew it could be his last play of the night, and from there we got closer and closer and closer...until Luke McGrath, who if you remember started this bout of possession, got the ball down over the line with the clock now reading 42:42.

Back I go to my phone...delete, delete, delete….before typing instead…

How did I know to have this soundbite ready?  Simple - the evidence came from Leinster's matches from the previous six weekends in the Guinness Pro 14…

Cardiff (a) Ross Byrne pen 41+1
Scarlets (a) James Lowe try 41+1
Dragons (h) Josh van der Flier try 41+4
Edinburgh (h) James Lowe try 38
Connacht (a) Johnny Sexton pen 41+1
Munster (h) R Byrne pen 41+2

It's like we're able to crank up our levels of intensity right at the time our opponents’ are winding down and it really must add a considerable burden for them to bring into the dressing room each time.

And why was I urging Sexton to hurry up with his kick?  Because I presumed we'd need every possible second after the break with Sopoaga in the bin to extend our lead even further.  Clearly our skipper had a lot more faith in our abilities.

When Leinster have control of the ball to kickoff or restart, it is essentially a set piece.  There's no sense of “let's just put it up there and see what happens”...there is a specific outcome in mind so when the ball was caught in the Wasps 22 and dispatched back to touch giving us an attacking lineout with seconds gone on the clock, it can be safely said that it was by design.

From there we have Devin Toner rising majestically to take the dart and pushing it down to Luke McGrath who fires it towards Sexton and it goes even further down the line to Robbie Henshaw.  At this stage it's clear to everyone that the target of this move is the spot where Sopoaga was meant to be but that doesn't make it any easier to stop.

In my preview I singled out Wasps centre Michael Le Bourgeois as a potential danger, but on this occasion he was transfixed by Henshaw running at him and didn't account for James Lowe sprinting towards his inside channel and the little pop pass falls perfectly for the Kiwi who takes it in full flight.

He had an option to his left.  He had another to his right. But we're talking about James Lowe and in this scenario there was only one option for him...straight ahead to the tryline and dot it down.  He might have needed a bit of help from Rob Kearney who cleverly ran alongside shaping to receive an offload all the while knowing he was blocking the pursuit of Elliot Daly, but it was still quite the way to start the half and put all my worries of Sexton's apparent time-wasting to shame.

The last time Wasps had anything resembling decent possession, they were just 4 points behind.  Now they're kicking off and the margin is a whopping 18. No wonder Daly was distracted enough to put his restart out on the full, and they were to have further no-nos in this area before the night was done.

The bonus point try also came from a trademark backline move.  A standard wraparound got us the space out wide and we had a three-man set all lined up ready to make the most of it.  What I particularly liked about this move was the way Robbie Henshaw fixed his runner, made him bite and nonchalantly shovelled the offload to Lowe in classic top-level centre fashion.

Only it wasn't Henshaw doing all that, was it.  It was Tadhg Furlong!!!! Just the previous Wednesday on these pages while looking at Ireland's current tight head options I was marvelling at how today's 3s are such a considerable upgrade on even Mike Ross’ vintage.  The ability to lock out scrums can only be one string to your bow at this level nowadays, and Furlong made this offload look ridiculously easy.

From there Lowe took it further up the line and since he already had a try on the board, fair play to him for letting Luke McGrath get his second.  Sure you never know, maybe the winger would get his own chance to add to his tally before this match was done.

So with Sexton slotting another conversion it's now 28-3 with just 53m gone.  Here is a good time to explore Wasps’ mitigating factors. Like I said earlier, they clearly came to the RDS with a plan to tackle us into oblivion, and the stats bear this out with Taylor 26, Rowlands 23 and Young 19 among the leaders.  But as the saying goes, it's not about counting tackles, rather making tackles count and those numbers are dwarfed by the fact that we gained a whopping 671 metres on the night to their 123.

Plus you can't ignore their injury list...having a deep squad is all well and good but no side can go into a European campaign without players you'd be relying on like Launchbury, Gopperth, Wade and Hughes.  Well, no side apart from Leinster these days, it seems.

As the clock ticked into the final quarter, as if he was a bit grumpy about the thoughts of his team mates stealing all the headlines, Johnny Sexton's quick thinking led him to both evade his tackler and put the two men outside him into space by chucking it through his own legs behind him; it went straight to Henshaw who made sure Lowe got his second after all.

Next in line for a spot on the score sheet was Jordan Larmour - this try was a lot more conventional with 9 phases putting us in a position to put it through the hands and at this stage Wasps were well resigned to getting a taste of the medicine they fed us twice in the 2015/16 campaign.

Shortly afterwards, Larmour was the provider as he fizzed a long pass high above the 22 line and Wasps defenders where it was taken by Ringrose and while his fellow centre Henshaw was stumbling as he approached the line, he still managed to get the job done.

Then on 77m, Rhys Ruddock clattered into the back of Romain Poite, accidentally of course.  You can totally see why the ref stayed down. He had started to move backwards to get a wider view of the play in front of him, plus he's a ref so won't be exactly expecting to feel the full weight of a massive back rower crashing into him, and I doubt landing forward on the ref cam attached to his chest helped much either.

I wasn't sure that showing the crowd the footage from said cam was entirely appropriate, and I was positive that the loud guffawing of a drunken gentleman a few rows behind me wasn't.  But hopefully he'll be OK and the last few minutes were officiated by his assistant Cyril Lafon… wasn't it nice of Leinster to make sure he wasn't denied the opportunity to signal a try scored on the night?

We have also done quite well scoring at the end of the second half this season so far, and when Jack McGrath crashed over it brought up the ‘fifty-burger’ that was made look all the more appealing on the scoreboard by the mere 3 in the opposite column.

So while it was no surprise that the man of the match award went to James Lowe (especially after I thought he should have gotten it last week as well), and there were strong outings from the likes of Ruddock (a late late replacement for Dan Leavy) and Healy, once again it has to be stressed that this was in every way a complete team performance by Leinster on a Friday evening in D4.  

And when I say complete I really mean it...a few hours earlier, the A team, which included players like Dave Kearney, Adam Byrne and Ross Molony, eventually put their Munster counterparts to the sword to reach the inaugural Celtic Cup final where they will meet the Scarlets.

Over the next few weeks the Leinster lads are poised to clock up a load of air miles...South of France next week for Champions Cup round 2, North of Italy six days later to face Benetton and finally way down to the Southern Kings, all while the Irish national team heads for Chicago.

When a European campaign kicks off like this, after winning five out of six in the previous weeks to open the season, and after amazing double-winning exploits from a few months before, are there any more superlatives left for me to churn out?

Much like my mindset when offering a prediction for this match, when I thought the bookies’ 17-point spread was too optimistic, I'm wary enough of the rugby gods to do anything but resort to the well-worn cliche of “nothing is won in October”.

But one thing I will say with absolute certainty...despite having swept all before them towards the end of last season, the Leinster team I have seen over the past couple of months in general, and Friday night in particular when it counted, is not only an upgrade, but one that can get even better.

And in future I'll do my best not to question Johnny Sexton's decisions again.  You really would think I'd have learned by now! 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 Toulouse preview on Friday.  Plus of course every morning our Front5 quotes & links.  Do stay tuned!

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