Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Leinster-40 Ulster-7


“The four proud provinces of Ireland” is one of the best lines from Ireland's Call. Whatever about their respective fortunes on the pitch there can be no doubt about the pride their best fans have for their heroes and this passion is what has helped make it possible for the sport to flourish right through from September to May each season.

Unfortunately that similarity of enthusiasm does not always mean the success is going to be evenly shared. It's true, each of the four has had their moments of glory - first Ulster winning the European crown, Munster chipping in a couple and even Connacht landing a Celtic League so it certainly hasn't been all about Leinster through recent history.

But as the game has grown in popularity since it went professional, the odds that the emerging talent pool was going to be evenly spread about the island were always long and with Leinster having the largest population and the most silverware, it's not that surprising that such a large percentage of them hails from there.

Another shame is that the provinces are unable to field their best sides when they face each other. With both Leinster and Ulster hosting top French sides in competitive European pools next week, they would have been crazy not to break out a load of cotton wool for a mid-season Pro 14 clash.

Yet even with this protection in place, which included two Lions Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong watching from the sidelines, Leinster were still able to field a front row of three Grand Slam winners.  

And as if that wasn't depressing enough for non-Leinster fans looking on, when Messrs McGrath, Cronin and Porter were hauled ashore after just 50m with three of the four tries in the bank scored by them, their replacements proceeded to continue the set piece domination which led to the fifth and sixth tries, the only real high points of a pretty drab second half.

Was it that Ulster were poor or Leinster's patchwork team just was too good?  The answer is probably somewhere in between but a sense is beginning to emerge that unless some radical changes happen to the calendar allowing full strength sides for these matches, the chronic ‘one-sidedness’ could well continue for years to come.

To put the first half in the simplest terms possible, when Leinster found themselves in decent positions, they generally scored, and when it was Ulster, they generally didn't.  Cronin barged his way over for a couple before the match was 15 minutes old; the line he ran for the second one looked like he built up a head of steam from the opposite end of the pitch.

And when the Ulstermen managed to pull a score back through hooker Adam McBurney, you thought maybe this was a sign that they could compete with their hosts, or at least keep them honest if nothing else.  They managed some decent offloading combinations at times and always had threats in the likes of Cave, Kernohan and Lowry though the full back was unlucky to be forced to leave early through injury.

But literally from the restart they were put back in their box; a short kick was retrieved putting us instantly on the front foot and when it got to Conor O”Brien the RDS crowd were treated to a score very similar to that by Rory O'Loughlin against the same opposition (and at around the same time of year if memory serves) two seasons ago.

The replay of his mazy run does look as though a host of Ulster would-be tacklers are at fault but IMO it was Kernohan's miss that created the opportunity.  He got his positioning completely wrong, clearly not ready for the pace and power that was coming at him, and his team-mates had to be banking on the young Leinster centre at least being slowed down but it wasn't to be and just like that Ulster's seven points had been taken back.

And when we won a penalty just before the halftime whistle, with a twelve point lead the conventional wisdom would be to take the kickable points to create a three-score cushion at the break.  We even had the option of two positions where referee Andrew Brace saw infringements and one was in front of the posts, yet we still went for the corner, and eventually backed up that confidence with a carry over the line from Andrew Porter.

It was all just too much for McFarland's men and even when they had bouts of possession and territory for large parts of the second quarter, couldn't do much with it. And while our centres Noel Reid and Conor O’Brien did well with the ball (the latter won man of the match on the strength of it), their combined 22 tackles also impressed me since I feared that might have been an area the visitors could exploit.

I certainly wouldn't call it a flawless performance from Leinster by any stretch, particularly in the second half when we seemed to catch Ulster's dose of knockonitis.  But to be able to build a lead so comfortably allows us to focus on individuals like O’Brien and try to work out what levels they can reach in the years to come.

Just look at our starting back row.  Max Deegan plays like he's been around for decades, Josh Murphy is improving every time I see him and as for Scott Penny, I still can't wrap my head around the fact that this time last year he was gearing up for a Leinster Schools Cup campaign.

Then we have Ciarán Frawley, who is very likely to be wearing blue 10 quite a bit over the next few months. His decision making and execution are not only impressive, they look like they can get much better. Some of the backline moves off of set pieces were ones of which the club captain would be proud.

It was also an opportunity for Rob Kearney to get some game time ahead of the weighty portion of the campaign. He did well in his skipper's role and the chances are we'll be needing every bit of his experience next Saturday.

Hopefully Ulster prop Kyle McCall will be OK after what looked like a nasty injury - he was caught in a horrible position by a clear out (a so-called ‘rugby collision?) that gave his left leg little chance.  

To add further insult to that injury for the visitors, the jackling that put us in position for the penalty try at the end was won by young Oisín Dowling, who on his first Leinster appearance was allowed to lean forward and burrow his way to a whistle seemingly unchallenged.

And as a final word on this Leinster performance, after seeing red in Thomond Park last week, in the end I thought we did well to limit our penalty count to just six this time around.  As expected Alan O’Connor tried to get in the thick of things to rile us up but all it achieved was an Ulster scrum turned into a Leinster penalty.

We can't begrudge Leinster having the pick of the best talent, and maybe in key positions like props, perhaps even hoarding a few.  But by the same token we mustn't grumble when players that were let go like Jordi Murphy, Tadhg Beirne, John Cooney and Tom Farrell flourish elsewhere.

Right now our advantage in Conference B of the Pro 14 is downright embarrassing. Nineteen points separate us now from second place (it's Edinburgh now yet seems to be  different team after every round) and with the gap in points difference (over 200) you could call it twenty.

You really have to work to find too much wrong with that state of affairs.  Here's hoping we can bring that kind of form through to the business end of the season!  JLP


PS - apologies for the shorter-than-usual writeup this week; we had a hectic Monday here at Harpin Manor and besides, few would argue this was hardly a match to write home about let alone on a blog!  Fingers crossed we'll be able to return to a happy healthy 2000+ words next Monday!🤞


Slowly getting back to the normal routine...Keego will share his thoughts on Tuesday, Harpin Points is back on Wednesday then it's the telly post on Thirsday before we start looking ahead to the big four-star clash with Toulouse, with of course Front Five every morning. Do stay tuned!

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