Monday, October 22, 2018

Toulouse-28 Leinster-27



When you do a write up for your favourite team week in week out you try to avoid using too many superlatives but after this battle of two great European champions I can say one thing with absolute certainty…

This match was hands down the most enjoyable Leinster defeat I have ever seen.

Of course I'm disappointed. Of course there were areas where Leinster were found wanting. And of course I'd feel differently if this were a knockout game.

But it's that last fact that brings the consolation. The more we kept posting near perfect displays like we did against Wasps, the bigger the target on our backs, so it's much better that we have this lesson learned now than deeper into the competition.

Toulouse were ready for us. We weren't ready for them being ready for us. But that the two points we were lacking to keep this winning run going were definitely on our side of things gives us every opportunity to come back even stronger.

For me a lot of the answers to our demise lie in Johnny Sexton's decision to kick the ball away as we chased the game in the closing stages. But by that I don't necessarily mean it was a bad one as many suggest.  

First we have to appreciate the situation he was in.  We were chasing the game, we were struggling to get out of our own half, and not for the first time, and we couldn't secure tidy ball from a lineout.  This is an area that makes us extremely vulnerable when we get it wrong.

As always it's natural to blame the dart-thrower, but the way ours went awry seemed to be more about general lack of communication.  A lifter not lifting, the timing off a beat or two...when we have set pieces we put ourselves under so much pressure to produce front foot ball that it's often difficult to recover from a setback.

I have to assume that in this situation the plan was to get it Robbie Henshaw who has having great crash ball success all afternoon.  So when yet another lineout failed to work, a plan B needed to be found.

And here is where we need to remember how Sexton uses the high kick.  It's never a ‘Hail Mary’ as far as he's concerned. Remember how we got our first score in the Grand Slam decider?  It's in his DNA not to let the ball go anywhere near the opposition without a plan to get it back, if not directly by a catch, then by faith in his defence to force a turnover or at least get some territory advantage.

But the third element of my theory about his decision is the most important.  Toulouse had our number all afternoon when it came to putting it through the hands.  We can be very clinical and precise in our set plays, but their coaching staff seemed to have their players primed and ready to look for indicators as to what we were going to do in certain situations and we often literally played into their hands.

So even though it came to nothing and we never got a chance to use the ball again, I still think his decision was a sound one given all that had gone before.  Speaking of which, let's have a look at how the scoreline was so close at that pivotal point of the match.

That we conceded as many points in the first two minutes as we had in all 80 the previous week speaks volumes.  Shortly after the kickoff James Lowe caught Cheslin Kobe as they were both going for a high ball and the Springbok was clearly in a better position which made the collision look like it could be more than a penalty.  But Wayne Barnes decided it wasn't dangerous though Ramos was still able to give his side an early lead.

Not long afterwards it was 6-0 and for various reasons we were struggling to get ourselves into the game.  When Luke McGrath sprinted from his own 22 to the halfway line, I had a feeling of “ah, HERE is the REAL Leinster” but as we tried to set things up for a series of midfield phases, their flanker Alban Placines saw a pop pass coming and soon after his interception, hooker Julie Marchand was returning the ball to our danger zone with interest.

It was these broken play situations where not only Toulouse, but any team hoping to get one over on Leinster, must be clinical.  It's a window of opportunity we're usually able to close quickly so if you don't have three or four players in a position to take full advantage, you'll be regretting it come full time.

On this occasion once Marchand was stopped their out half Zach Holmes was able to spot that Maxime Medard was free on the wing and while the pass had the sun behind it from his angle, the experienced winger was able to take and finish.

So although the conversion was missed they later added a third penalty to make it a 14-0 lead and we needed to get our side of the board moving soon.  

We started our scoring in similar fashion to our hosts by converting a couple of penalty chances courtesy of our skipper.  It wasn't until the second quarter that we were able to establish something of a rhythm with our phase construction.

And with Jamie Heaslip providing the commentary for BT Sport (where he did very well I thought) it was his natural successor Jack Conan who provided a neat step around a would be tackler to break through the dogged Toulouse defence and while he probably could have taken it all the way, he instead tossed a harder-than-it-looked offload to Sean O’Brien, off the bench early due to a van Der Flier HIA, to provide the finish.

But unfortunately that wasn't to be the last bit of number 8 play Jamie was able to admire for the half.  A few minutes later it was the turn of Selevasio Tolofua to provide the fancy footwork creating a sniff of a chance and although Sofiane Guitoune had a lot to when he received his offload (namely wrong-footing Jordan Larmour, no slouch himself) he made the finish look incredibly easy (did he ground it?  Was definitely worth a few looks but yes, just about I reckon) and just like that the home side's 8-point margin was restored.

Last week I provided stats that showed how Leinster have scored points at the end of every first half this season.  Of course I should have known that would guarantee it wouldn't happen at the Stade Ernest-Wallon, but we did make up for that with the kind of start to the second half that Toulouse would have feared.

During the break I was lamenting the performance of Joe Tomane.  It's not that he's a bad player by a long stretch; he definitely ‘has some game’.  But so far in Leinster colours it looks like he hasn't quite drunk enough of our Kool-Aid yet and it often seems to be when it gets to him that an attack breaks down; also while all three tries weren't down to him by any stretch, they were all on his side of the pitch and he certainly could have been in a better position to stop the first one.

Anyway my halftime claim that we might be better served by Rory O’Loughlin coming off the bench was put to shame when Tomane plucked Sexton's kickoff and instantly had us on the front foot.  What a brave call it was to include him in the plan and it paid off well.

From there, we had a couple of series of phases around their 22 thwarted by more solid defending by our hosts, and their ‘chaos theory’ approach was having most effect on Luke McGrath.  It was far from his best afternoon in blue and I really feel he needs to be thinking less about trying to win penalties and more about being ready to find an alternative to a set play if there's a sense that it isn't on.

But the setbacks were merely slowing us down not stopping us and at that stage there was still a lot of time left.  When a bit of Toulouse backchat to Wayne Barnes gave us an extra ten metres to a penalty, we finally got a 5m lineout opportunity which eventually James Ryan got over the line and the conversion got us to with a point.

Now to be clear, it was far from one-way traffic at this point.  Toulouse lost Ntamack to an early HIA but his replacement Yoann Huget knows a thing or six about wreaking havoc on defences and he was always a threat along with the likes of Kobe and Guitoune.

But when a cleverly-weighted territory kick from Henshaw forced the home side back to their own 5m line, Bezy's rushed clearance gave us another attacking lineout.  Again the home side made us work through the phases but at this stage we seemed laser-focused and eventually a trademark barrelling line by Sean Cronin busted through the resistance...Leinster, who had been 14 points down, were now 6 ahead.  

That kind of turnaround would have finished most teams.  But no matter how long it might have been since Toulouse earned their own fourth star, the magic required to reach those heights lingers in the air around the place...you just need the right formula to tap into it.

And on this occasion, arguably for the first time this season, we were faced with opposition who had a bench that was well able to compete in the closing stages.  So did we, of course, with Sean O’Brien, Andrew Porter among those to impress.

But as well as Huget, Toulouse also had Antoine Dupont.  I remember watching Castres and wondering how he could be on the bench every week even though he was behind Rory Kockott.  Then I heard he was moving to ST so I figured that make sense, but now I see he's behind Bezy!!! Well he certainly put us through our paces in that final quarter and it helped them believe that they still had a more than fighting chance.  However it was to be yet another sub to make the final difference, and it will take some try to beat this final one as the best of this year's competition.

The sequence actually began with Toulouse in possession at midfield but some powerful intelligent counter-rucking by first Conan and then O’Brien (never thought of the significance of their two surnames together until now, would you believe) won us a penalty with another attacking lineout around their 22, a match-clinching bonus-point try seemed somewhat inevitable to many, but certainly not to another home supersub Louis-Benoit Madaule.

He seemed to start his line to intercept Luke McGrath's pass before the ball was lifted from the base of the ruck.  Whether or not the scrum-half could see the back rower coming we'll never know but one thing was for certain, he was never going to make it to the line from that position.  He needed at least two men in support...as it turned out, he had four.

Even though the runners weren't all backs, they arrived to Madaule's left as if the coaching staff had this exact play on their whiteboard.  First it was Huget. Then Placines. Then Bezy. All running at full pace, all offloading and receiving at just the right time. Finally it gets to who else but Maxime Medard and even though he knows his side needs the full seven points, he has enough faith in his place kicker Ramos that he makes a beeline for the corner to make sure of the try.  And what a try it was. Hand on heart I was applauding through my tears.

Which brings us back to those frantic final ten minutes.  You would have bet anything on Leinster getting a winning score from somewhere, but a combination of lineout fails and heroic defending, not that one decision by Sexton IMO as I said earlier, kept us from doing so,

Just look what it meant to their players.  To their coaches. To their fans. And look at what kind of try it took to beat us on the day, despite being down by fourteen at one point.  

Let's face it...if you can't see the positives going forward for Leinster, you simply don't want to.  Six points from two games is never a bad return, and what's more we're only two behind Toulouse and they are still to come to the RDS.

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 playbook when it's clear our opposition is on a mission to throw us off.

But for the next few days anyway, I'll be mostly still reeling from what was a match for the ages in this great competition.  Thankfully there wasn't a fifth star at stake on the day, but both teams certainly played like it was. 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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