Monday, March 04, 2019

Leinster-19 Cheetahs-7

Ugh. Given how the match was nothing to write home about, can the same apply to a blog and let me off the hook this week?  

I suppose not if it's meant to be a Leinster Rugby blog; and it's not like we lost or anything. Also the whole ‘home semifinal wrapped up with four matches left’ thing is certainly worth shouting from the rooftops of cyberspace. 

But by God, this was a rough 80 minutes of rugby to watch.  So rough in fact that I didn't bother rewatching the final quarter and that's a rarity at Harpin Manor. 

And it's not like I'm actually blaming anyone for it - I think I can see where the two sides were coming from on the night.  For the Cheetahs, they had just come off a pasting in Llanelli so it certainly wouldn't be a great way to end their northern tour if they got a bigger one in Dublin.  That's a shame because it's not like they've been without YouTube moments since they joined the league and this was their one and only visit to D4 in two seasons. 

But when a team comes to park a massive orange and white striped bus on the RDS turf, with keeping our side of the scoreboard down a priority, seemingly completely at the expense of doing anything to score themselves, it's never going to produce a classic, especially on a night when the wind and rain are already playing their part. 

And I'm not exaggerating - look at how the South Africans got their one and only try.  We were trying something to stretch them and Ross Byrne managed to get us a little bit on the front foot when the ball slipped out of his grasp in the tackle, freakishly bounced off his knee as he lay prone, and got fly hacked ahead by a defender and the ensuing footrace was always going to be won by the pacy Maxwane.  That the ball bounced perfectly for him near the line certainly didn't hurt. 

That was after 15 minutes and the conversion made it 7-7, so at the time we thought we might have something of a contest.  But after seeing the match as a whole, it's quite clear that such out of the ordinary occurrences were the only way we were going to concede points on the night.  

Which means that our challenge to get the win was predicated on our ability to break down their resistance, and it certainly wasn't easy.  To get our first try we needed an extra man on the park, and this was provided by a yellow card awarded to Cheetahs loose head Ox Nche. 

It should have been red IMO - he clearly connects with Fergus McFadden's head and I thought that's what zero tolerance was meant to be all about.  Nigel Owens produced a yellow instantly and proceeded to look over the replay to come up with a version of events that suggested he was ‘very lucky’. 

But here's the thing on that decision.  I disagree, but Nigel has the whistle, and he explained his thinking.  We accept it and move on.  In some corners of social media, when something like this happens all the usual Owens-bashing malarkey comes to the fore (‘time for him to retire’, ‘loves the sound of his own voice’ blah blah)  and I'm often curious as to why there's often so much anger directed at him in particular.  Perhaps we'll never know. 

Anyway; we dispatched the ensuing penalty to touch and once we won our own lineout from 5m out, it wasn't so easy for even such a defence-minded team to thwart us.  They did manage to sack our maul, but that just gave us the option to use the considerable ball-carrying skills of Conor O’Brien to bring it the rest of the way. 

Then on 23 minutes we got ourselves back into their 22 and after a few set piece opportunities didn't quite work out, we had a scrum where O'Brien was cleverly used as a decoy runner which allowed Rory O’Loughlin and Adam Byrne to combine for the latter to touch down in the corner. 

It wasn't until the 55th minute when O’Loughlin was able to get past the stingy D by following up his own kick ahead into the 22 with further fancy footwork before dotting down.   Kudos to Ross Byrne here for a sweet strike to provide the extras from out wide. 

But even with over a quarter of the match remaining, it was no surprise that the bonus point try was kept beyond our reach.  It's not like we didn't look for ways through at times, but we kept getting drawn into prolonged bouts of ‘kick tennis’, and whenever the Cheetahs managed to get any kind of traction with it, they'd simply kick some more. 

Just to give you an idea of how many kicks there were from hand on the night; the previous Friday when the other South African side were in town, the ball went to boot a total of 40 times between the two sides. Last Friday’s teams kicked from the hand 45 times EACH. 

Now to be fair, in Leinster's case it needs to be acknowledged that we had Ross Byrne at 10.  Kicking in play is kind of his thing, and I for one can't blame him for displaying it as often as possible as it sets him apart from the Carberys and the Cartys currently on Joe Schmidt's radar. Besides, as his assist to Dave Kearney against Toulouse showed, he knows when to bring it on the big occasion. 

It's just that on this night, while he found his mark several times, the moves came to nothing more often than not.  Box kicks, kick passes, grubbers, you name it, once swallowed up by the opposition, they tended to be spat back at us by way of yet another kick. 

At one lineout the Cheetahs did try something a little bit different, firing over all of the jumpers towards centre Dries Swanepoel, only for him to be crunched by a hit from Max Deegan that won a turnover, got a rare big cheer from the crowd on the night, and led to the back rower getting man of the match award. 

Along with our centres O’Brien and O’Loughlin, there were also decent shifts put in by Dave Kearney who tried his best to get us on the front foot, and in the pack Peter Dooley did well with much of the heavy lifting. 

If you accept that the Cheetahs' sole purpose was to kick and tackle us into oblivion, despite the fact the only thing they ‘achieved’ was a lack of cricket score, you could probably afford them come credit for keeping the league's leading scorers to ‘just’ the three tries, with flanker Gerhardus Olivier comfortably leading the tackle charts with 24. 

But that's the extent of the compliments I'm afraid. When we rack up massive margins there's often much moaning about how poor the standards are in the league etc, etc, but at least  on those days the crowd have a rake of Leinster tries to cheer about. 

Still though, the fact remains that first place in Conference B is ours to keep for this season, and that is definitely the biggest take away, especially as our final four matches are all against teams looking to join us in the playoffs. 

This gives Leo Cullen & co the luxury of using squad selections to benefit our preferred lineups for the big knockout matches to come.  No doubt Joe Schmidt and Noel McNamara will also appreciate the opportunity to rest or give game time to some of their players ahead of their own big tournaments ahead. 

But as for Friday night's match you'll just have to forgive me when I make my writeup much shorter than usual. They can't all be classics, and this certainly wasn't one. But at least I get the opportunity to use the word “squib” because it’s kind of word you just want to say out loud when you see it written down.  Go on, you just did it, didn't you?  😜

Here's to a much more exciting series of matches, with no changes to the identity of the victorious team of course, in the weeks to come.  JLP

Later this week; 80-word reviews on Tuesday, Harpin Points on Wednesday then it's the telly post on Thursday before we start looking ahead to the big Six Nations kickoff, 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