Monday, January 14, 2019

Leinster-29 Toulouse-13

For me, rugby coaching philosophy can be broadly split up into two distinct camps.  One extreme insists that every player must follow rigid structures in every given situation, while the other puts faith in a player's ability to assess what's in front of him in a given moment and react accordingly.

Ireland under Joe Schmidt and Leinster under Leo Cullen have enjoyed great success in recent times by mostly employing the first method, with the added ingredient of having deep squads, all of whom are able to step in and do a job when required.  The second is one that is often attributed to the French, so much so that the term ‘laissez faire’ can be used to describe it.

After thumping Wasps comprehensively in the very first game of this season's Champions Cup, it looked to all intents and purposes that Leinster were going to continue where they left off in last seasons nine-out-of-nine run to the fourth star.

But then we came across a team with the same amount of symbols on their crest that was eager to remind the continent of that fact, and while it was only a win by a point, they still managed to make a powerful statement that they were once again a force to be reckoned with.

So from the second that full time whistle blew in the Stade Ernest Wallon, Saturday's match up at the RDS was always going to be crucial to the outcome of the pool, all due respect of course to both Wasps and Bath.

And what's more, while the French were able to name pretty much their strongest lineup for the trip to Dublin, Leinster were forced to omit the kind of names most other clubs in the competition could not afford to do without. Sexton, Henshaw, Rob Kearney, James Lowe…all were heavily influential in the acquisition of that fourth star.

So while in my preview I favoured Leinster to win, in my heart of hearts I did not expect anything remotely resembling this outcome. I was sure the matchday 23 would be well prepared, but I just couldn't shake the notion that the rugby gods had something like an early injury, controversial decision against us, costly mistake or even just the bad bounce of a ball in store for us to allow our visitors to pounce.

Yet none of that transpired. It was never easy and it took a mountain of hard work, but on Saturday this so-called ‘under strength’ Leinster squad put in one of the most comprehensive displays I dare say the RDS has ever seen.   And while the bulk of it was done using the first philosophy I harped on back at the start of this writeup, the crucial bonus point try was tacked on to our haul thanks to the second.

The opening quarter was always going to be testy.   So much was at stake that from the opening kickoff it was virtually cup rugby - every carry, every tackle, every set piece had to be perfect otherwise there could be catastrophic consequences.

When Ross Byrne got his first clean possession off a scrum after a couple of minutes, he ran with it.  This was interesting as his signature move has always been kick-passing…of course he can't do it ALL the time, but he had linked up well with several Leinster players in the past so even with the wind against him you'd back him to have a go at some stage.

On this first series it was actually Garry Ringrose in his support who was able to find some early space and an offload to Rhys Ruddock put us deep into the Toulouse half before a strong counter ruck won the ball back and they were even awarded a penalty.

While our first set piece decision was something of a surprise, Toulouse's certainly wasn't - scrum half Antoine Dupont had no hesitation in taking a quick tap and his snipe was well supported enough to get them all the way to our 22, only this time Josh van der Flier was able to rip the ball free to win it back.

After we cleared, a Toulouse lineout at halfway saw Sean Cronin steam towards their outhalf Ramos as if he both heard and understood the set play that was called. The 10 was flattened and his team-mates then pinged for sealing off, and after 9 phases around the 22 a high tackle gave us the opportunity to take a 3-0 lead which Ross duly took.

But the swings and roundabouts were to continue; Cian Healy was quickly thrust into an epic front row tussle with their tight head Faumina and a penalty for a collapsed scrum allowed Ramos to equalise after 13m.

You were always waiting for that moment that we'd be later pointing to as one that led to the result, and it really looked like we had it on 19 minutes.  Leinster thanks to an Adam Byrne break up the wing got straight back on the attack and what followed was an absolute monster of a series of phases.

On just the 6th one, Jordan Larmour showed off his fancy footwork,  if anything with one step too many as he might have gotten more ground with an offload or by running straight.  Yet into contact he went and the recycling continued, with more often than not three steps forward by the likes of Healy, Ruddock and Ryan being sent backwards by strong tackling by all the red shirts involved.

On phase 32 we got it up the line again and now we were in that crucial 5 metre zone, though Toulouse had themselves well set in the trenches.  On number 34 we tried putting it through the backs and while it was rushed Ringrose still managed to recover until finally on the 38th one, referee Luke Pearce signalled a penalty to the Top 14 side that they celebrated like it was a converted try for them.

I freely hold up my hand and admit I thought that could be a blow from which we could not recover, especially since they went on to have something of a purple patch themselves, though what I should have considered was that everything they could do in scrambling defence, we could do better.

Getting to the 22 was one thing, but our guests' ability to match us for anything close to 40 phases was limited by the ferocity of our tackling.  Unfortunately at the time of writing ESPN doesn't seem to have the individual numbers, but in reality it was a team effort with more often than not two blue shirts hauling down one red, making support lines and offloads all but obsolete as well as knockon and forward passes more likely.

Now it's time to bring up that Toulouse medic, whom I very much doubt expected to be thrust into the limelight on this particular day.  Given how the match turned out, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt that his confused demeanour when the ref was speaking to him was genuinely down to the language barrier.

That said however, the fact that Faumina was claiming an injury was to his shoulder when in fact he had what looked like two stud-scrape marks on top of his head suggested an HIA was absolutely necessary, and this franchise in particular has a good bit of “previous” in the area of mischievous medics.

On the next Leinster attack in their 22, we spurned some kickable penalties in favour of short-range lineouts to try and get a lead before the break, and ironically once Faumina was forced to admit that he needed an HIA, we used the next scrum to create the space for Jack Conan to crash his way to the line for the game's first try on 34m.

No doubt that was a crucial score, but nobody in the sellout crowd was under any illusion that this was anywhere near over yet, and when Rory O’Loughlin was a bit over eager trying to win the ball back off his feet at the breakdown, Ramos was able to end the half with a penalty to leave the halftime lead at just four. .

Again, I thought that could be the pivotal moment. But all throughout the break there was one thing giving me hope; Ross Byrne did not put the ball to his boot ONCE in that entire 40 minutes.  There could have been a grubber, or a little dink over the top, and even with the wind he generally has the skill to defy nature and make a crossfield kick work on demand.

So you could say that he was actively choosing NOT to kick, though if that was the case it would only make sense as a tactic if, having lulled the visitors into a false sense of security, he then went on to use it with maximum efficiency in the second half.

We had a slice of luck after the restart as what looked like a Luke McGrath knockon was judged to have gone the other way having grazed off an outstretched Toulouse finger along the way. Their defence was doing a decent job of keeping us out of their 22 until Garry Ringrose, whom everyone was saying during the week ‘needed to show leadership’ and went on to deservedly win man of the match, used his own boot to put a lovely grubber down into touch right in the corner.

So it was clear that now kicking was back on Leinster's table, but when would Ross go to it?  It wasn't long before we had our answer. Toulouse cleared their lines but it still gave us an attacking lineout and from this it was clear we were not going to wait for dozens of phases to elapse this time before we made something happen.

For this match I was seated in Section E of the Anglesea Stand and it gave me an absolutely perfect view of what happened on the 50th minute, and what's more I actually had my phone in hand ready to take a photo for posterity should something happen.

On the 15th phase Ross Byrne was actually facing my part of the stand when he looked up and planted a kick towards the corner.  Fool that I was I chose not to have faith enough to take a snap when it came down, because it landed perfectly in the arms of Dave Kearney who somehow had the wherewithal to both keep his feet in bounds and stretch over the line to get it down…an unbelievable try in any circumstances, let alone the close, consequential contest this had become.

It was an outstanding score, and thankfully photographers with the proper pedigree like Stephen McCarthy and Paul Walsh were able to capture the moment brilliantly.

Yet after Ross pulled his touchline conversion wide, the score was still only 15-6 and there was half an hour left.  At least that's how it looked to most Leinster fans, because on the pitch it was starting to look like there could only be one winner.

We were trying more and more things differently to the first half; a sly dart to the front of a lineout got Conan close a score but his offload was intercepted.  Ross Byrne finally went for grubber into the 22 but it was retrieved by Dupont. Still, despite the failures, the guests continued to be pinned back on their own line.

Finally after more hijinx from that mysteriously mute medic when Jerome Kaino was leaving the field, a lineout and maul set up 9 short range phases before Seán Cronin did enough to convince the TMO he had secured try number three.

Suddenly, with a quarter of the match to go, we were thinking try bonus point instead of just being happy with a win, although our guests to their credit chose to dig deep and seek our a bonus of their own.

Cheslin Kolbe, of whom I was thinking while strolling to the RDS earlier was easily worth 14 points to any team, finally managed to demonstrate why by dancing up the Leinster touchline shortly after the restart.

18 phases around our 22 followed before we were hauled back for a high tackle on Huget by Ross Byrne which could have seen yellow from a ref that didn't appear inclined to produce one.

They then set up another lineout situation to throw some more kitchen sink at our line, but on the 17th phase our ‘tenacious D’ earned us a clearing penalty that also felt like a score in our column.

But no matter how much it felt like one, they don't give you bonus points for them, and the clock was now headed to the 70th minute and beyond.  We couldn't seem to get any moves going until Maxime Médard, one of many who had (or were forced to have) poor outings on the day, got isolated giving us a penalty in a good attacking position.

The standard text of The Modern Guide To Leinster and Ireland Rugby would generally dictate that a kick be put to the corner in those situations, but Jamison Gibson-Park, on for Luke McGrath who seemed to suffer a serious leg injury, sprinted forward to take the a quick tap in the very same manner as Dupont had in the first half.

Only this time, the quick thinking had much more direct purpose.  The high, fizzed, arcing pass from the centre of the pitch towards the widest channel is one that is being used more and more frequently these days, and it is not without risk.  In fact, just last week against Ulster, JGP himself had one such attempt intercepted.

But clearly he stayed back at training during the week to work on this aspect of his game.  In a sweeping motion he fired a missile of a pass that landed perfectly to Adam Byrne who caught the Toulouse defenders unawares to clinch an incredible 4th try.

I began to prepare my full-time tweet, which was to say that no matter how impressive the four tries were, it was the fact that we kept this potent French backline tryless that had won the day.  Naturally I was forced to revise that when a neat offload from Bezy allowed Kolbe to sprint home to end the match, but it hardly mattered as the 5-0 split of match points remained intact.

We still need to follow this up with a win in Coventry next Sunday, and it will be the last match of the pool stages so we should know exactly what we have to do.  But for the next few days at least we can savour a magnificent all-round display by a group of players who may not have been household names before, yet are a whole lot closer to that status now.

All throughout the week I moaned to anyone who would listen about the annoyance of a Saturday lunchtime kickoff.  It's not so bad on TV but when you have to make travel plans it can be a real pain to organise your day.

However, when a match turns out like this for your team, particularly when you had so many reservations going into it, then it could have kicked off at midnight and I wouldn't have cared.

It truly was a lunchtime special that left Leinster fans hungry for much, much more success this season and in little doubt that this squad can deliver. JLP

PS After a shorter than usual writeup last week a went a bit longer this, though for a match like this one (especially on a winning European weekend for all four provinces) I could have harped on for twice as long!!! 😂 

Later this week...80-word reviews are back on Tuesday along with the latest guest post from KeegoHarpin Points on Wednesday then it's the telly post on Thursday before we start looking ahead to Leinster's trip to Coventry, with of course Front Five every morning. Do stay tuned!

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