Monday, March 25, 2019

Edinburgh-28 Leinster-11

This time last week I was harping on a very disappointing end to Ireland's Six Nations campaign - now I must turn my attention to another defeat, this time for Leinster with a very similar scoreline, yet with an extremely different context. 

For the Welsh match I had to do my best to make a case for that performance not being an indicator of how Ireland was going to do in the World Cup.  But in Leinster's case, while there are also bigger matches ahead and what's more these are much more imminent, you can say with absolute certainty that this result can have no bearing. 

Just looking at the starting lineups gives you the biggest clue.  Leinster are in a very unique situation, going into the final four regular season matches in the Pro14 knowing that even if we lost them all 100-0 we'd still finish in first place in Conference B to earn a home semifinal and the first weekend in May off. 

This offers some interesting challenges.  What do you do with team selection with those four matches?  Do you treat them like the ‘Celtic (formerly British & Irish) Cup’ and give caps exclusively to up and coming academy players?  Or do you test key combinations ahead of all the knockout rugby to come? 

Well going by this matchday 23, it seems the newly re-signed (love the way that word reverses meaning when you remove the hyphen) Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have adopted a combination of those policies, with a crucial extra dimension, namely the return to action of important players in the squad who are back from long term injuries. 

So we're trying some youngsters, we're folding back in returnees like Leavy, Tomane and Luke McGrath, and we're also shifting one or two players to positions they may not be used to.  Josh Murphy was named in the second row, Noel Reid at outside centre rather than inside, and while originally Ciarán Frawley was to wear 15, Ross Byrne’s late withdrawal meant he went to 10 while Jimmy O’Brien was to have a go at fullback. 

All of the above meant that Leinster kicked off with a XV that was even more patchwork than we would normally have for a match that was stuck in the calendar right between the end of the Six Nations and the Champions Cup quarterfinals. 

Meanwhile our hosts Edinburgh found themselves in a completely different situation.  On the one hand they did themselves immensely proud in Europe by earning a home quarterfinal, but on the other, a series of domestic disappointments (including defeat to the Southern Kings) meant they really needed the points from this match if they wanted to stay in the promotion hunt.  

They thus treated the home crowd to a starting XV that can't be too far off that which will face Munster next weekend, and what's more, they had the likes of John Barclay returning from his own very long-term injury. 

I know that's kind of a long-winded build up that makes it look like I'm making excuses for Leinster's defeat, but it's a context that cannot be ignored.  But still, despite the lopsided nature of the starting lineups, we actually got off to an excellent start in this match and thoroughly deserved our lead at the end of the first quarter. 

The opening exchanges were exhausting - over four minutes of play after the kickoff without the ball going out of play.  It was mostly box kicking around the middle of the park until an Edinburgh ruck formed on our right wing.  It was one of those situations when a tackle gets made in the wide channel which means two or three backs have to deal with a breakdown until the forwards get across the pitch. 

Well on this occasion Fergus McFadden was determined to be a lot more than just a placeholder and his powerful counter ruck caught the home side by surprise and turned the ball over. 

Then a few phases later a neat exchange of passing between the same few backs (Noel Reid also involved) got us deep into the 22 and it was only when the ball got held up over the try line that the players finally had a chance to catch breath. From the ensuing maul we won a penalty that allowed Frawley to kick us into an early lead. 

The home side came back and should have levelled but Jaco van der Walt’s penalty attempt came back off the upright to be eventually tidied by Max Deegan (my Leinster MotM).  Then as they tried to come back at us, we had the game's first yellow card incident. 

Noel Reid was trying again to cause mischief at the breakdown yet when both Frazier Mackenzie and Pierre Schoeman tried to stop him from either side, the different contacts resulted in him being brought up in the air and going beyond the horizontal without being guided to the ground. 

To the letter of the law, upon reviewing the incident, Ben Whitehouse was probably right to punish Mackenzie with just a yellow card.  Reid's arm was, after all, the first part of him to hit the ground. 

However I'm wondering if the fact that his landing made his head whip and strike the ground anyway should also be a factor? The resulting HIA which meant he played no further part supports this notion. Does it seem right that he who performs a dangerous tackle misses 10 minutes while he who receives it misses the rest of the match? 

Anyway we put the penalty to touch and a nice innovative crash ball move uses Dan Leavy and gets us on the front foot in their 22.  A few phases later Pyrgos seemed to deliberately knockon yet Whitehouse awards a scrum.  Another massive shove gets us a penalty anyway and it gets put to the corner, from which Sean Cronin peels away from the maul after the lineout to get it over the line. 

The match seemed to shift toward Edinburgh's favour at the 20 minute mark when they won a free kick at a scrum on halfway. From there the tide turned at the set piece as WP Nel appeared to get the better of Ed Byrne opposite him. 

From that moment right up to the closing stages of the match, we just weren't able to buy our way out of our own half.  I actually thought our overall defence was pretty good on the night but when your opposition has a two-thirds advantage in both possession and territory it's not too much of a shock when they go on to get the four-try bonus point. 

It was actually Nel who was directly involved in both of the tries before halftime.  The first came after a long series of crabbing pick-and-go phases that went from one side of the pitch towards the other in a fascinating game of ‘who's going to blink first?’

For each carry the Edinburgh forward would take it up with a couple of team mates around him, while Leinster came with a chop tackler and a grabber each time, setting up the next phase.  What made it difficult for us was when the goalposts came into play and the scrambling defenders had to adjust.  We just about managed the first one, but when it came to the second and Nel had the ball, Bent missed his chop tackle which gave the South African born prop the momentum needed to bring it over the line. 

The second try came from slightly unfortunate circumstances.  While we conceded our advantage in the scrum we were doing extremely well on their lineout throws, with Deegan, Murphy and Ruddock all getting raised paws to different darts. 

When we snaffled one in our own 22, McGrath tried to connect with McFadden to clear but the latter misread the intentions meaning the scrum half had to bring the ball over his own line giving Edinburgh a 5m scrum.  From there Nel turned the screw once more which led to a penalty try that made the halftime score a much more dominant 21-11 rather than 14-11. 

We were far from out of it but the writing was on the wall for us when Dan Leavy was sent to the bin early in the second period.  Again, by the letter of the law, you could say it was the right call.  The ref did tell him to leave it after all. 

But at the risk of getting too deep in semantics, when a proven poacher like Leavy hears a referee shout ‘leave it’ after he rips the ball free at a breakdown, the lack of number called means he could think the command is being given to his opponents. Whitehouse did go on to say ‘leave it seven’ but by then the ball had long since been ripped.  For me it was a harsh penalty let alone a card. 

But you can hardly blame the home side for taking advantage and with the extra man it didn't take them long to grab a third try, this time courtesy of their experienced hooker Ross Ford who dragged it over the line. 

The bonus point score was in the bag by the 62nd minute; again it was the result of a long series of phases and Edinburgh's strong Fijian number 8 Mata was no match for Joe Tomane at the try line.  This is as good a time as any for me to focus a bit on our Australian import. 

I wouldn't want to base my overall opinion on Tomane based on this one display, particularly after he was out injured or so long, but what I saw in this match does seem to tally with observations I made on previous outings.  I just get the impression that he might be finding it hard getting himself clued in to the Leinster way of doing things? 

This one match contained multiple examples IMO.  To be fair, the Mata try can't be counted as one because many would find it difficult to stop him.  But at one stage on a promising attack he grubbered a kick through that really didn't look like the right option.  Another time, he completely got in Jimmy O’Brien's way for an unnecessary crossing call. 

On the defensive side things weren't much better.  He might be forgiven for letting Mata through but Nel also got by him on the first try and he didn't look too comfortable finding his position on the try line in the build up.  He also seemed to let a few routine tackles literally slip through his fingers. 

Perhaps I'm being harsh on him, and I'm certainly not saying he has no further role to play at Leinster, but if Robbie Henshaw proves unavailable for the visit of the Ulster men next weekend, my gut is telling me we'd be better off starting with Conor O’Brien or even Noel Reid at 12 than we would Tomane.  That's my biggest take away from this match. 

Going back to the actual action, the final quarter kind of fizzled out without any further work for the scoreboard operators. Edinburgh had their five points, the defeat didn't really matter to Leinster, and while we did push for a consolation try towards the end, it wasn't forthcoming. 

Of course we won't be thrilled as Leinster fans to see three more outings like this in our remaining matches, but once we can assemble our best available match day 23s for the matches that do matter and return to the kind of form that got us in the strong position in the first place, I think matches like this one will be quickly forgotten.  JLP

Later this week we'll have some returns of our own with our Telly post on Thursday and our Leinster v Ulster preview on Friday.  Plus of course every morning our Front5 quotes & links.  Do stay tuned!

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