Monday, December 10, 2018

Bath-10 Leinster-17

Not many clubs around Europe relish playing Leinster these days, but should the rugby gods decree that you must, the one thing you want to be sure of is that you're able to put out your strongest available XV, particularly when it comes to your out half.

And while Leinster's recent successes have stemmed from the province being able to dominate in several different areas, it certainly hasn't hurt our progress when our protagonists were prevented from putting a more potent playmaker on the park.

Going all the way back to last season's semifinal, we had the Scarlets who were without Patchell, Racing who lost Carter before kickoff then Lambie shortly after; this season there was Wasps without Gopperth…now for this match Bath were missing both Rhys Priestland and Freddie Burns.  And to keep this mini narrative going, when we faced Toulouse who were able to field Zach Holmes, we all know what happened.

Of course it would be harsh to pin the Premiership side's defeat squarely on the shoulders of James Wilson, but my point is that since they did so well despite the fact that there was more than one preferred option missing, we can only wonder how they might have done otherwise.

But it certainly didn't help their cause that he fired a high-arcing pass of over 20m which was always going to be at risk of interception.  Whether it was an action that came from him  thinking “You don't get many transition chances like these against Leinster, I'd better get this wide quickly” or if it was more a case of “I haven't heard the ref say advantage was over so I've got nothing to lose by taking a risk” we may never know, but having worked so hard to earn a 7-7 scoreline beyond the halfway point of a match we were favoured to win by 14, it was certainly a costly mistake for Bath.

By the way; if you're expecting a long rant about flags in this article, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed.  I've used the word in my title because it marked the day but here I'll try to stick to the rugby and I'll look at the controversy in my ‘Harpin Points’ post later in the week.

So…that interception swung the match in our favour, but why exactly were things so close at that point? It was mostly down to the home side's preparation.

Given their playmaker role wasn't ideal for them, although in the likes of Jamie Roberts and two big wingers they had plenty of beef to make line breaks happen, it made sense to put the bulk of their focus on keeping our side of the scoreboard down, and they did an extremely good job of doing just that from the start.

And what made the feat so impressive was that for all the fortune we may have enjoyed watching other sides do without their ideal out half, more often than not we have been able to rely on Johnny Sexton wearing 10.  Not an easy chap to keep quiet, most have found, even in these wet windy Somerset conditions.

Having said that, from a selection standpoint it really did look as though we were holding ourselves back somewhat.  For example, I thought Noel Reid had a fine game at 12 but tactically it was far from the kind of display we've come to expect from that position.  The crash ball option that Henshaw would bring just wasn't there and we had to find alternative ways of getting on the front foot.

And that wasn't the only position where we made something of a sacrifice…Dan Leavy certainly knows how to bust a gain line but while Bath didn't enjoy anywhere near the scrum superiority they did on our last visit to the Rec, at times we missed an experienced number 8 over the ball on the set piece.  The most telling example of this was in a defensive scrum on our line where the home side pounced on our hesitation to set up prop Henry Thomas to open the scoring after a scoreless first quarter.

Meanwhile time and time again, as we tried to get into a rhythm going forward, a combination of their line speed and our own accuracy and penetration being a smidge below par meant we had to wait half an hour to get on the scoreboard.

And it was in the back row where the home side equalled (if not bettered) us the most.  At full time the man of the match award went to James Ryan and in many ways it was deserved as for all our failings, that Thomas try was to be Bath's one and only and the young powerful lock was our leading tackler as well as getting in amongst their lineout darts.

But in the strictest sense of the term ‘man of the match’ I probably would have gone for Sam Underhill. Patronising as this may sound, getting within seven of the reigning champions was a very good result for this particular Bath selection and time and time again the England openside was the one thwarting us with his quick latches at the breakdown.  His fellow back rowers Louw and Ellis did well in support also.

Eventually we found another way to get to their line, and we also had to do it in transition.  A big tackle from Devin Toner forced the ball free and with the advantage the ball got to Noel Reid who's ‘five-eighth” instincts prompted him to send a testing little kick in the space behind the retreating Bath D.

It sat up nicely and all it needed to maximise the hurt was for a good kick chase, and we got it in the form of first Jordan Larmour, then Ringrose, van der Flier and finally Reid himself who combined to make it impossible for Cokasinga to tidy and we won a remarkable penalty as a result.

Sexton had already put a place kick off the upright but I doubt that was the reason we went for the corner this time.  By this half-hour stage it already looked like tries were to be few and far between and this was a golden chance to set up a short range maul.  And with a good call for Toner to be used as a decoy, Ruddock plucked the dart cleanly and the set up got Seán Cronin all the way to the line.

From there the floodgates might have opened, but instead the weather plus the home side's tenacity remained a leveller right up to half time and beyond.

There was also the fact that our own defence was having decent jackling success of its own, with Cian Healy popping up to save the day on several occasions.  I wasn't altogether sure about referee Mathieu Reynal's interpretation at the breakdown (hands beyond the ball ignored more than once), but he was reasonably consistent for both sides.

And it was after one of those Healy jackles, on 48m, where we thought we had a good attacking lineout position only for Cronin's dart to be called crooked, scrum advantage on the way, Bath ran a phase or two, ref called the advantage over and Wilson did what he did…

…which leads me to Jordan Larmour. He made that finish look easy, but it was far from it.   There's every chance he thought the interception was on the cards, but he must have also been mentally switching to standard defensive mode, given our dodgy dart.   For him to draw a bead on the trajectory of the ball, take it and sprint under the posts with Semesa Rokoduguni on his tail was no mean feat whatsoever.

The good news was that we were now 7 points ahead with half an hour to go.  But that could have also been bad news as there were no guarantees we'd add much to that margin, plus any kind of slip could quickly put Bath back into the contest.

So what followed was a lot of kick tennis; you make a mistake;  no, you do; no, I insist, etc etc.  Many little battles were being won by both sides but none were being pressed home.

Finally Leinster were presented with another half chance, if you could even call it that. Bath were rolling through more phases in our 22 when some wires got crossed in their clearing out and it popped out to Devin Toner who did his best scrum half impression before it reached James Lowe.

I contend that the Kiwi does not wear a left boot; given what happens when it connects sweetly with a rugby ball, it is more of a missile launcher.  Not for the first time he managed to turn defence into attack with one swing, and much like Reid earlier, he had no hesitation in following it up.

Once more it was Cokasinga on the defensive side of things, a role his coach won't have wanted him to be performing too often on the day.  When he gathered the ball he was met with full force by Lowe, and with more quality kick chasing by his team mates, Jamison Gibson Park wasn't long in getting over the ball to win us a crucial penalty with less than ten minutes left.

Meanwhile, the second worst thing after a Leinster defeat had happened…Johnny Sexton was both nursing an arm and limping, so it was down to Ross Byrne to take the penalty, and he made no mistake when it mattered, giving us a vital two-score cushion.

With the clock winding down yet another Underhill-won penalty put the hosts back in our 22, but when we were further pinged under our own posts, they took an age to make up their minds what they waned to do.  A quickly taken three points might have given them a fighting chance of regaining the restart, but having actually called for a scrum, Reynal mercifully allowed them to switch to a three pointer that gave them a losing bonus point to end the match.

For me, Leinster's biggest take away from the Rec is simple…the plan was a gamble we just about got away with.  And if we're serious about chasing that fifth star, the best way for us to respond is to bring a much more dominant display in the return. 

With all due respect to our opponents, while we may not reach the margin of their last December visit to Lansdowne Road, we have to set our sights on all five match points to keep a home quarterfinal in play.

To achieve this, we'll probably need to make a couple of changes. As well as I thought Noel Reid played, perhaps a Ringrose/O’Loughlin centre axis, in either order, could get us closer to the style we're used to.

Naturally a lot depends on the Sexton injury report, though Ross Byrne’s form of late suggests he's more than able to step in. Otherwise I'd leave the backline pretty much as it was.

In the pack, again it would be a shame for Fardy to miss out, but I'd be more concerned about fixing the number 8 problem; we've relied too much on our scrums this season to tweak them too much now.  I'd bring in Conan and you can take your pick from Ruddock, Leavy and JVDF for impact from the bench, we'd be sorted any which way.

One thing is for sure; the boys in blue will be greeted to the Aviva turf by thousands of not-ironically-at-all flag-waving Leinster fans, and I can't wait to be one of them. 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 Bath 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