Monday, January 21, 2019

Wasps-19 Leinster-37


Decision making in the final stages of big rugby matches can often be the difference between success and failure. Ask Chris Robshaw…

But that was just the one example.  Just last week I got into a spirited debate on twitter about Ulster taking the option of three points to kill the clock (even though they forgot that bit as it turned out) as opposed to going for the try bonus point against Racing at home.

Then while this match was going on at the Ricoh Arena, over in Toulouse the home side seemed to have made the amazing decision to hold on to their lead over Bath with just the two tries on the board, as in their case a fourth would mean they must travel to Dublin rather than Paris at the end of March.

So when Andrew Porter and James Tracy jackled their way to a penalty in the 79th minute against Wasps, what was the decision going to be for Leinster?

Well, here's the thing about those situations; they only present you with a dilemma if the match score or the pool standings are anyway close.  If you have already put yourself in a comfortable enough position in the previous 70+ minutes and/or 5 matches, you needn't worry about what option you go for this time.

And with the five match points, first place in Pool 1 and the all-important home quarterfinal safely tucked away in Leinster's back pocket, the call for Noel Reid to end match with three points was made incredibly easy.

I can't lie; I had my doubts going into this one. Despite the form book, despite the tonking we gave the same opposition in round 1, despite the return to our lineup of such heavyweights on the European stage like Henshaw and O’Brien, I couldn't shake the notion that this might not be our day.

But then the match kicked off and the clues that I was wrong were there for all to see instantly.  Ruddock barged his way out of the 22.  Jamison Gibson-Park put up a box kick that was grabbed at halfway by Adam Byrne, and then a second kick of his found a great touch deep in Wasps territory.

From there we pretty much held the Premiership outfit hostage at that end of the park for the entire first quarter, exerting enough to control to suggest that letting them out of there was not an option until we had crossed their line.

And while the actual play itself would never make any YouTube montages, when you watch it unfolding and appreciate what's being done the action can take on a beauty all of its own, at least to rugby nerds like me anyway.

In simplest terms we were resorting to a mostly running game, but when most of the carries come equipped with two teammates in perfect position to clear out, then each one is guaranteed to be profitable.  And whenever it looked like space was running out, we quickly switched to plan B which involved pinning the home defence back in their own 22.

It was a resilience and persistence that simply had to pay dividends eventually.  In their eagerness to stop our gain line breaking, Wasps were continuously caught offside and eventually a penalty in front of the posts was converted by Ross Byrne.

But when the home loosehead Zhavania committed a classic old-school ‘prop penalty’ by picking up a ball after a teammate had knocked on (I was a divil for them which is why I was always told to stay away from the ball), it allowed us to march right back into their half, and a second penalty at the lineout had us back in their 22.

Now our early bout of ‘softening up’ was beginning to find a few cracks; Dave Kearney, who's form in rounds 5 and 6 could make him first call up for Joe Schmidt if there are any injuries to wingers in the coming weeks, got to the line in the wide channel and shortly afterwards it was Garry Ringrose who got it down.

Finally in the 19th minute after a bout of ‘kick tennis’ at midfield, the home side got themselves deep into our territory from a penalty yet after having seen what we could do with the ball, they now got a demonstration of how good we are at getting it back.

Our defensive focus wasn't too flashy either; sometimes we'd have two tacklers driving the carrier back but more often than not there was one, with his teammates avoiding a congested breakdown area making the blue wall as bulky as possible.  But the tackler normally did offer one little extra; doing what he could to shake the ball loose and on several occasions, it worked.

To be fair when Wasps skipper Joe Launchbury was forced off with injury in the early stages it already looked as though the writing was on the wall for them, but when his replacement Charlie Matthews knocked on to end their first decent attack, and from there Leinster were able to easily advance the ball up the field for another penalty-then-converted-try combo, it was pretty much certain.

The second five pointer was even more straightforward than the first. Wasps were pinged offside on an exit kick (yet another error that shouldn't be seen at this level) and on the 5m lineout that followed our kick to touch, Ruddock rose to take the dart, a maul was set up, the drive was on and there was Sean Cronin ready to fall over the line with it.

Bish, bash, bosh; Twenty-nil to Leinster by halftime.

Credit where it's due - Wasps came out for the second half determined not to throw in the towel.  In fact, the opening few minutes were virtually a mirror image on those at the start of the match, only this time the home side got the ball up the field with a series of neat offloads and support runs.

Now it was our turn to be pinned back in our own 22 with all attempts to clear being returned in kind. Eventually with a prolonged series of phases Campagnaro spun his way to our line before Nathan Hughes barged his way over.  After 132 minutes of rugby between the two sides this season, Wasps finally had a try.

But there the similarities from the first half would end and having already shown the patient phase play and dogged D, Leinster were to produce another of our many trump cards - an uncanny knack of scoring shortly after conceding.

Man of the match on the day went to Gibson-Park and for that there can be no complaints. In his first season with us he had many detractors, yet while I couldn't ignore his off days, I also felt he deserved time to get used to our style which was very different to that he experienced in Super Rugby.

Having earned us the bonus point try with his quick thinking at the RDS last week, this time around his role had changed considerably.   Luke McGrath's injury meany the Kiwi had to suppress those sniping instincts and tune in to the slow, steady approach put forward by the coaching ticket, and it has to be said he did this brilliantly on the day.

After a series of 13 phases got us back into the Wasps half, JGP's clever little stab kick put them back in their own 22 and shortly after when Dai Young was surely furious at yet another pointless prop penalty (this time from Cooper-Whalley who was promptly hauled ashore), our kick to the corner led to a repeat sequence of lineout > maul > drive > Cronin try, putting our hooker up among the leaders in the pool stages.

Now the score was 27-7 as the game ticked into the final quarter and at the risk of sounding arrogant, the match as a contest was over.  You can be sure Andrew Porter, on for Tadhg Furlong at this stage, knew it was over, as at a ruck outside our 22 he fell asleep at the pillar position allowing Wasp 9 Dan Robson to easily wrong foot him and dart over the line for an easy seven points.

But by now the Leinster bench was pretty much empty and they were to make amends for Porter's error by combining brilliantly for our bonus point try, easily the score of the match.

A strong carry by Cian Healy got us to the 22, and shortly afterwards it was Max Deegan, drafted to the 23 after Conan was forced to make way for O’Brien, who got it into their 22. By now the ‘softly softly’ approach was a thing of the past as an offload to Rory O’Loughlin was followed by another to Noel Reid and hey presto, there's try number four.

On 73 minutes, we were pinged for a crooked dart, which while never a good thing, also served as a reminder that the set piece had gone extremely well up to that late stage.

Things got a little scrappy in the closing minutes and again the home side deserve kudos for playing to the end; a try from Watson in the corner made their side of the scoreboard more respectable before Reid finished off proceedings with that final penalty.

And so a pool campaign that started with a comprehensive victory only to be pegged back in Toulouse, ended up with Leinster in first place preparing for a home quarterfinal.  I have to say it was satisfying to not only watch us win so comfortably in our match, but also to our clearly being a strong influence in how Toulouse were approaching their task at the same time.

Next in this competition for us is Ulster in what I have decided to call the #BrexitBowl.  For me, the biggest flaw in this competition is it's place on the calendar; for the eight sets of coaches who busted their asses getting their teams into the knockout phase, there now comes over two months of prayer and crossed fingers in the hope that their test players don't come a cropper during the Six Nations.

But if the last couple of weeks have taught us anything, it's that Leinster are well equipped to tailor their game plan for virtually any match situation.  If we can continue in that vein, the slow and steady journey to Newcastle and star number five is there for us to complete.  JLP

Later this week...80-word reviews are back on Tuesday (they really are this time - had to postpone last week!) 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 Friday night's visit of the Scarlets to the RDS, 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