Monday, December 24, 2018

Leinster-33 Connacht-29

It's for matches like this that Leinster fans need sites like Harpin On Rugby more than ever, especially after the way 2018 turned out. 

Because you can rest assured that this is one of the precious few places on t'internet where an author will take Saturday evening's Leinster v Connacht match and compare it to a particular movie in such a way as to make the boys in blue seem like the good guys!

Anywhere else you'd either have the mainstream media trying to be neutral, or you'd have this result portrayed by a movie like The Empire Strikes Back where the evil ones are still in charge at the end (a crisis that hopefully gets rectified in later episodes) or perhaps a bleak independent production all about the pointlessness of existence. 

But here, we get to have some pre-Christmas fun, because  for me the way this match turned out was totally like Die Hard.  You can pair off the analogies in many different ways, but I'm going with the RDS as Nakatomi Plaza, Andy Friend as Hans Gruber, Jack Carty as the guy on the computers who proclaims ‘the quarterback is toast’, and the Leinster bench collectively as John McClean; in the background for most of the show before screaming "Welcome to the party, pal" taking out the ‘bad guys’ one by one in a dramatic finish.

I mean let's face it…when Carty kicked his side to a 17-point lead with less than 20m left (three points that were only possible because of an extra 10m added to a penalty for dissent, arguably Leinster's most unforgivable no-no on the night), whatever about our past results, whatever about a perceived Connacht D4 hoodoo, whatever about the talent we were able to put onto the park, very few believed we could do it. 

You always do the maths, don't you.  We haven't fallen that far behind too often in recent times, but no matter what the margin, fans can't help making a quick mental calculation to work out what would be needed for a comeback, and for us it was three tries, at least two of them converted and all of them unanswered down the other end. 

But before we look at the happy ending, we must first explore the set up where the Plaza gets overrun by German bankrobbers disguised as terrorists.  In my preview I expected the Westies to play much as they did the reverse fixture back in October, namely putting all of their energy into keeping our side of the scoreboard as low as possible. 

Looking back, I really should have put more thought into that prediction. If it didn't work at The Sportsground why bring the same approach to the RDS? Besides, they have been doing well of late with an expansive game and right from the start it worked against us. 

I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a bit of suspicion over the late withdrawal of Tiernan O’Halloran. Of course I'm not suggesting he wasn't injured, but throwing someone like Bundee Aki into your lineup at the 11th hour certainly puts a spanner into the works of your opposition's mindset.  Trust me, this is not a conspiracy theory that comes from malice, rather admiration if it's true. 

And on pretty much their first opportunity in the 5th minute, they made crossing our line look way too easy with simple yet well-timed passes through the backline that found former Leinster winger Cian Kelleher in plenty of space to go over in the corner. 

Now I have lost count of the amount of Leinster victories over the years where the opposition have scored first (just last Saturday at the Aviva for one thing) so it was no surprise that we came roaring back a few minutes later when a sniping run from Jamison Gibson-Park freed up space for Conor O’Brien to go over and the conversion put us in the lead. 

So that was that, right?  'Order' was restored.  The Champions were in front. The Nakatomi Corporation Christmas Party could resume and return to celebrating a successful year.  Tell that to the guy in the green jersey driving the big lorry into the parking garage… 

Connacht stuck to their script and repeatedly found ways to either stretch our centres or just run right through them.  On 22m it was Darragh Leader, on at 15 in place of O’Halloran, who got on the end of some clever offloading up the middle to charge through and put his side back in front. 

There was to be no quick reprieve for Leinster this time as the visitors kept up the pressure and they got the try of the night before halftime.  Caelan Doris seemed to be getting us on the front foot at midfield when he took from the base of a scrum and charged towards the halfway line. 

But Caolin Blade, who played a great sidekick to Carty all evening, managed to strip the ball from our number 8 in the tackle and they were back on the attack.  Skipper Jarrad Butler took an amazing carry towards our 22 finishing with a neat offload that kept the attack going, and after a couple of phases Carty planted a cheeky chip over defenders that landed back in his arms allowing him to fall under the posts to be greeted by his delighted substitutes who had been warming up. 

So there we were at halftime and it was 7-19, exactly the scoreline the first 40 minutes deserved.  The siege was well underway and it looked like something had to be done quickly at the start of the 2nd half otherwise there was no way back. 

Well whatever the coaching staff said during the break seemed to work as we rumbled through an accurate set of 17 phases to get into their 22 before Mick Kearney got his first Leinster try, ironically against his former province. 

NOW order is on its way to being restored, right? We've made the right tweaks, and surely its only a matter of time before we pull ahead.    Yeah, about that… 

Again it was that man Carty the instigator, though again the 2016 champions were making things look all too easy.  He sold a dummy to one would-be tackler then ran through a gap between two more and all three (Leavy, Ruddock and Ross Byrne) have test caps. Once deep in our backfield, there was  Blade in support to bring it the rest of the way wrapping up the try bonus for the visitors. 

Leinster kept trying to make inroads, also using width where possible and at times wingers Dave Kearney and especially Adam Byrne were on the end of our own good backline moves but more often than not we were thwarted either by a knock on or some solid Connacht D before we got too far. 

Then it looked like things could get even worse when ref George Clancy had the TMO look at a Rory O'Loughlin challenge on Blade but thankfully the officials realised that the scrum half had not gone ‘beyond the horizontal’ and thus was only a penalty. 

But about 5m inside the Connacht half we were pinged and somebody wearing blue took exception meaning Clancy brought the mark to 5m inside our half; now Carty could stretch the lead to 17 points and we needed a minimum of 3 scores to get anything out of the contest.  As the clock ticked into the late 60s it really didn't look like that would happen, and I prepared a full time tweet packed with a seasonal helping of gracious acknowledgment. 

But little did we know that our John McClane was ready to emerge barefoot from the shadows and start picking off hostage takers one by one!  First to our aid was the sub front row of Messrs Ed Byrne, Cronin and Porter (not Michael Brent's best outing it has to be said BTW) which won a penalty that gave us a 5m lineout. 

It kind of went without saying that if we were to get anything from the match at this stage, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING had to go perfectly. No time for dodgy darts, carrying cockups or pesky penalties. And at the lineout, Ruddock took it cleanly, the maul formed without a hitch, and Cronin got it down over the line. 

That got the RDS crowd smelling something might be on.  From the restart we set up some more space for Adam Byrne to go charging out of our 22 again and when JGP spotted space in behind the Connacht D he pinned them back only for Leader to clear. 

But his kick didn't find touch and Ciarán Frawley, on at fullback since just before the break for Hugo Keenan, was able to retrieve and this time when Adam Byrne found some space; his neat exchange with Rory O'Loughlin broke the gain line before Scott Fardy got it down the line and a basketball-style pass to Dan Leavy helped him get over for our own try bonus point score. 

This made for a tricky touchline conversion for Ross Byrne but it was not a bother to him…now with 7 minutes to go the score was 26-29 and only Hans Gruber himself stood between us and an amazing comeback victory. 

Well as always with the final kill in such movies, the last one was by far and away the most difficult.   Connacht have never beaten us at the RDS and they weren't going to let this opportunity go without a fight.  As we tried to work more space up the wing a thunderous hit from Bundee Aki put Frawley into touch - the clock went past the 76 minute mark before play resumed. 

But then as Connacht tried to move the ball off the lineout, possibly a time that's more for carrying with the benefit of hindsight, a pass from Kyle Godwin was batted back to the Leinster side by Rory O'Loughlin and eventually Gibson-Park tidied up possession for us though it was in our own half.  The clock now read 76:40. 

Now the margin for error had evaporated completely.  On the 14th phase Max Deegan barged into the 22, but the Connacht tackles were coming in thick and fast.  I wondered what kind of choice we'd make if the ref awarded a kick able penalty, though in the closing stages of a 3-point game you'd have to do something like fire explosives from high atop a skyscraper to get pinged. 

So we were driven back out of the 22 for some phases, and the odd time we threw the odd risky high pass but still kept possession.  On 79:48 Reid stepped his way back in only for us to be sent back outside again. 

Now the clock was red, and when Dave Kearney got some space he was able to bring it far enough that we were camped on their line for the final showdown. 

And this was only phase number 26.  It was to reach 41 before the drama reached its conclusion.  For every carry there had to be perfect pickup and ball-retention in contact, and one by one the boys in blue managed it. 

Finally the resistance cracked, and it was Andrew Porter who finally removed the wristwatch that sent Gruber tumbling to the Los Angeles ground.  That really was a heroic sequence by our finishing fifteen it has to be said. 

Since it was Connacht, there was a lot of understanding from the Leinster faithful afterwards, and you could say Andy Friend & co would have been more than happy with a return of two match points at the kickoff.  But the way the match transpired with an amazing 70-plus minutes from the visitors, there can't be a whole lot of consolation to be felt. 

Essentially we got a glimpse of what it must have been like for New Zealand fans when they pinched victory at the death against us at the Aviva in 2013.  

Of course we still have concerns on our side of things.  If Munster find us with a similar soft centre next weekend, we could well be forced to perform a Die Hard sequel. 

But for now, all we can do is be thankful ahead of a big holiday week for yet another bonus point victory at the RDS and shout “Yippee-ki-yay…. “; hang on, I'm not sure what comes next in that quote, I might have to watch the movie again to confirm. 

Have an amazing few days folks, see you on the other side. JLP

PS Apologies if I've given too many "spoilers" if you haven't seen the movie, but if that's the case you have more important questions to ask like "why not???" 😉 

With the week that's in it our regular features will be on hold for a few days...we'll be back with Front Five and our telly post on Thursday before previewing Leinster's trip to Thomond Park. Do stay tuned!

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