Monday, December 31, 2018

Munster-26 Leinster-17

Individual awards and honours are natural by-products of sports like rugby and when we're harping on them, a large portion of the subject matter is devoted to moments that led to someone being named ‘man of the match’. 

But given that it is a ‘team’ sport, honours such as being named captain or reaching a milestone of 200 appearances should be considered to be on a higher level again; so much so that those who achieve them are given the privilege of taking to the field before anyone else.  

One important thing about such honours and privileges bestowed on current players is that, well, they're current players.  All the accolades in the world are great and everything, but for the time being we still need you to go out and show us all what you did to earn them, if you wouldn't mind. 

The story of this match is not one of actual rugby.  Chasing an egg around Thomond Park did not lead to the final score.  It was a result that stemmed from an inability to cope with tactics that anyone with the smallest amount of rugby understanding knew Munster were going to deploy, a fact made all the more disappointing by the amount of experience at the highest level enjoyed by those responsible. 

It's a shame because even when Leinster lose I quite enjoy being able to describe entertaining rugby moments on these pages, yet for this writeup the bulk of the narrative has to be about unsavoury incidents and how they were handled. 

Given the theme is discipline, I suppose the best starting point should be referee Frank Murphy, if for no other reason than to highlight he wasn't at fault for what happened.  I wouldn't be wild about the fact that he once played for Munster, but not because I think that means his opinions would be biased, rather from an optics standpoint.  I have said it before about officials in this league when the teams come from different nations and the same should apply to interprovincials. 

If it were down to me, were a sufficiently ‘neutral’ Irish ref unavailable, then one should be brought in from outside and this has happened before. I still need to stress that I don't feel anything Murphy did on Saturday was because he might be some kind of Munster fan.  The bottom line is that we wouldn't be questioning his decisions if he never had them to make.  And the game was barely two minutes old when he had his first one. 

Anyone know what the recommended sanction is for ‘removing an opponent's scrum cap and throwing it at him’? I'm assuming someone thought to write that one down somewhere and give high-, medium- and low-end punishments for the benefit of citing commissioners? Seriously though, while it was far from the nastiest incident it defined the entire match. 

Johnny Sexton is well used to late hits at this stage. In many ways it can be seen as much of an honour as being named captain or man of the match - the opposition have clearly looked at your team's play and decided the best course of action is to target you. 

But often that targeting has been way over the top…Francois Steyn and Ross Moriarty have been relatively recent examples. However, what Fineen Wycherly did in the midst of an 18-phase siege on the Munster tryline in Leinster's opening attack was nowhere near that level of treachery. 

Don't get me wrong; there was definitely a lot of ‘mustard’ in the tackle. He knew damn well Sexton wouldn't have the ball when he grabbed him yet made it look like he thought he did. But that’s what you do in the early stages of matches; it's called ‘laying down a marker’.

Such gamesmanship is also a large part of Johnny Sexton's character and while it's a trait not often found in out halves, given the levels of success he has seen, you have to assume it's an integral part of his psyche; remove it and the world class quality he brings to the arena might suffer as a result. 

He clearly over-reacts to the dump tackle, as though he thought it would reach Steyn-like levels. And with the Munster flanker's arms wrapped around him, his desire to catch the referee's attention meant scrum cap grabbing was the only non-violent reaction he could make, although doing nothing was always the better option. 

Then of course we had the reaction of the home crowd when the replay appeared on the big screen, as if Sexton had actually ripped Wycherly's head clean off. So just two minutes into a match where the atmosphere was already fiercely partisan, we had an incident that catapulted it to new heights although I reckon Murphy dealt with it extremely well.  As for the remaining Leinster players, yeah, maybe not so much. 

When your opposition goes through a number of phases before kicking towards your 22 it should be seen as a compliment to your defence.  Maybe Chris Cloete had an outside chance of getting to Carbery's kick but the challenge of Scott Fardy, also a Leinster skipper this season, was actually a lot closer to decapitation and the penalty put the home side on our line leading to the South African opening the scoring. 

Fardy's action was just one the symptoms of Sexton's aggressive posture spreading throughout the Leinster team, and minutes later another good situation was ruined by an experienced boy in blue. 

Off the restart after the try Keith Earls’ clearance was blocked by Rory O'Loughlin (who incidentally was moved to the wing as Leinster's lineup was completely reworked due to Dave Kearney's late withdrawal) and when Conor Murray tried to tidy the situation, Cian Healy marred the celebration of his 200th cap by catching the Irish scrum half by the neck. Given what had gone before there could be no complaints for the yellow card. 

Here's the thing though - Leinster actually won that 10-minute sinbinning period 3-0, so even though it was only the second quarter it was already pretty obvious that if we kept our cool we were still well in the match.   But I suppose in order to keep your cool you must actually have it in the first place. 

To the letter of the law, Tadhg Furlong's yellow was correct.  It was a dangerous collision and one which ended Cloete's participation. But on scrutiny of the moments before the contact, the card definitely looks harsh.  James Tracy already has a hold of Cloete and Furlong's intent is clearly to help him get the man aggressively to the ground, yet the hooker moves downward at the last possible moment meaning the prop goes straight into the Munster player. I thought the ref described the incident well yet could have gone for penalty only, especially as by this stage Munster had contributed some colourful challenges of their own. 

Yet down to 14 men we were, and it was only a couple of minutes later that it became 13. James Lowe definitely comes across as being up for a challenge and had already been right in the thick of a shamozzle or two here.  Going by the way he clattered into Andrew Conway while the former Leinster winger was in mid air, the rush of blood hadn't yet receded for the current one. 

Of course there was no intent to injure the player, but that's not how the laws need to be written to protect players. He may not have known Conway was in the air, but by the same token he had to know a Munster player was going to go for the ball so he should be seen to at least check, and when Conway fell on his head that was it for Lowe's involvement. 

No complaints from me on this decision, and what made it worse for Leinster is that if there's one player you'd want in your team to play over an entire half short-handed, it's James Lowe. 

Going back to the ref for a second - while I really don't have much problem with the awarding of the cards, I was left scratching my head over technical penalties awarded to the home side either side of half time. One was for not rolling away when James Ryan appeared to be nowhere near the ball and while Healy did ignore instructions to let go of the ball before he was pinged, I thought he was within his rights to assume Murphy wasn't referring to him. 

In a match that appeared to be one-sided throughout, those six points really shouldn't be worth questioning, but the fact that they are leads me to a topic I felt hasn't really been explored amid all the talk about Leinster's multiple faux pas.  Setting aside the bragging rights earned by the victory, can Munster really be all that happy about this performance? 

And I'm not even going to engage in ‘whataboutery’ because while the disciplinary tally might have been closer than the direction of the cards suggested (11 pens and 2 free kicks v 14 pens), that's not what would concern me most if I were a Munster fan. 

Since the end of that first half I was obsessing over Leinster's failings but it was only when I watched the match a second time that I realised just how difficult it was for the home side to score points no matter how many players we had on the park.  That kick by Carbery into our 22 should have been a sign, and apart from a line break by Earls and a snipe by Murray, Munster really only got into scoring positions when we allowed them to. 

The first try was the result of a short range lineout after two successive penalties got Munster down the field, and the second we all know was an interception try by Keith Earls when we were attempting to get within two points in the closing minutes. 

But hang on a second…read that last part back again?  “We were attempting to get within two points in the closing stages”?  But we were a man down for about 60 of the 80 minutes, two men down for about 8? How is that even possible, especially given Sexton himself was substituted as early as the 60 minute mark?  Surely they must feel like they left a try bonus point behind?

I was disappointed by Leinster's part in this result, make no mistake. I was never happy about 10s being captain anyway and in particular I wasn't sure it was the right role for Johnny, at least not on a permanent basis (that said I recall Peter O’Mahony also had some anger management issues when he began wearing the armband regularly). 

But given the lead we have in Conference B of the Pro 14 (still an almost embarrassing 16 points ahead of 2nd place despite this loss), plus the fact that our overall discipline this season has been impressive, there's enough evidence to suggest that Saturday's debacle was a blip. 

Even if “Schmidt minutes” mean we have to rest key players next Saturday for Ulster's visit, it will be a perfect opportunity for us to return the standards where they need to be, because a week later we'll be seeing a different kind of red.  

Whatever about Munster's ability or willingness to push for tries against us, you can be darn sure to expect it from the likes of Médard, Kolbe and Guitoune, and there could very well be a dump tackle or two on Johnny from the likes of Jerome Kaino too. 

Speaking of disappointment, I have to throw a few bad marks in the direction of eir Sport.  And it has nothing to do with their presenters and analysts either...they're merely offering opinions and my enjoyment of rugby on telly is rarely effected by them, especially since George Hook left the scene.

No, my problems are in the area of actual presentation.  At a niggly level, I believe 'phase counters' should be standard throughout the professional game.  They are a very useful guide to both following and commenting on the action.  Another necessary graphic is the yellow card countdown clock...they actually had one as Healy went to the line yet it disappeared.

But the biggest no-no was when they had Murray Kinsella doing analysis.  Nothing at all against the man himself - he knows his stuff and provides great insight - but whatever his contribution, viewers completely missed a stolen lineout (both sides had issues on the day but with all the shamozzles it barely seems important) because the director was late returning to the action from a replay and this is unforgivable.

(Sorry for the telly talk by the way...normally I'd save it for our Harpin Points post on Wednesday but with the week that's in it we're taking a few days off so I thought I'd mention it here instead as it bothered me!)

Nothing that happened in this match can take from what has been a phenomenal year for Leinster & Ireland rugby, but if Leo & co can extract the right lessons from it, we could find it helps us somehow make 2019 every bit as good if not better. 

Have a Happy New Year folks, hopefully you'll stay with me to enjoy all that the next 12 months have to offer, including of course RWC2019.  Bring it on.  JLP

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 Ulster's visit to the RDS at the weekend. Do stay tuned!

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