Monday, April 08, 2019

Leinster-27 Benetton-27

photo by @ClancyLisa

CHOPPING AND CHANGING

This wasn't half a bad match for one that wasn't supposed to matter!  And even the crowd wasn't as sparse as I predicted in my preview, with the added bonus being a greater than usual Italian contingent that were very vocal and brought a lot to the atmosphere. 

Even the fact that it ended a draw wasn't anticlimactic; much like the England v Scotland match at the end of the Six Nations (another that was deemed irrelevant) there was no need to go reaching for any references to kissing sisters. 

Don't get me wrong - this match will be long forgotten even before the Toulouse semifinal appears on Leinster's radar, but let's just say on the following Monday there are still plenty of points on which I can harp, so this is going to be one of those writeups where I scatter some headings down the page and offer some thoughts on each. 

BENETTON

Can we all agree that the days of patronising this club are over?  That's two years in a row we have failed to beat them at home, they are right up there in the Conference B mix for both playoff and Champions Cup qualification, and for this match in particular, they blew up the narrative that Italian teams can't play for 80 minutes. 

Even putting aside the fact that they were ahead on the scoreboard for over half an hour, I really don't think the word ‘patient’ goes far enough to describe the work they put into their final match-equalising try. 

Yes, I know there was a contentious block involved in the move but I'll deal with that in the next point - the fact remains that the try came after two marathon sets of phases in the Leinster 22, first, one of 26, and when the ball was held up over the line, they managed not only one of 29, but it was one that began as a 5m scrum after which their attack was pushed all the way back to the 22 yet they never gave up. 

I saw a lot of praise around Irish twitter at full time for Conor O’Shea but let's be honest, while he does deserve credit for all things positive in Italian rugby, the bulk of the kudos for Benetton has to go to Kieran Crowley and his staff.  They are a well coached outfit who have done extremely well to put themselves in this position and I'd love to see them finish in the top three. 

NIGEL OWENS

He never fails to be a talking point when he holds the whistle, which is unfortunate, but I have a feeling I hold a minority opinion about him. 

The main criticism seems to be along the lines of’ ‘He loves the sound of his own voice’.  I'd argue that perhaps it's more a case that his critics aren't too fond of the sound of his. 

For one thing, while of course I don't agree with all of his, nor any referee's decisions, the reason I'd have respect for Nigel and those who officiate like him is that at least he cites chapter and verse for pretty much every borderline call. 

For another thing, those who complain about hearing his voice seem to forget that he's not the only one talking on the pitch; he's just the only one who is wearing a mic and referees get verbals in their ear from minute one through eighty. 

The two biggest calls were the Fergus McFadden incident and of course the try at the end. 

Not having the benefit of the microphone up in the Grandstand, I didn't get the full journey of his ruling on Ferg.   On first look I actually thought the Leinster winger (congrats on the OLSC legend status by the way) was going to be pinged for illegal entry to the ruck as I missed both his contact with the opponent's head and the ensuing neck roll. 

Nigel gave the penalty to the latter incident before being shown the former, and I actually thought he might have been generous to us in deeming the blow to the head to be ‘unlucky’.  Ferg could very well have seen yellow if not worse.  But like I say, at least once he came to his decision the ref made it clear to everyone, and not all of them do this. 

Next was the James Lowe/Marco Zanon incident ahead of the try at the end of the match.  It was definitely a block, but Lowe had already made one attempt to tackle the try scorer Ratuva and was in the midst of setting up for a second when Zanon stepped into his line. As Liam Toland said in commentary, you could make a case for the block to be legal, as such moves happen frequently in matches without being called. 

Personally I think there was definitely a strong case for over ruling the try but Nigel made his call on the field and stuck with it after seeing the replay himself.  Of course we don't like it as Leinster fans, and of course we should express our disagreement, but I don't see the need for attacks to be so personal.

Two major incidents, both of which resulted in tries, one for either team, and in both cases we are left in no doubt as to how the ref saw it.  We should accept that and move on IMO. 

LEINSTER'S OVERALL PERFORMANCE

Now, to Leinster.  When the matchday squad was announced on Friday it was already full of many interesting talking points.  First there was Noel Reid at 10, which seemed odd with Ciarán Frawley fully fit. 

Next there was the call to put Max Deegan at 7 - I've no doubt that he can play that role and I looked forward to see him have a go, but with all the injuries we have at that position it seemed that Scott Penny was the more obvious choice. 

Then, having made those calls and trained throughout the week on the strength of them, they were both taken away from us.  First an illness to Josh Murphy meant that Penny was to start anyway meaning Deegan had to shift over to 6.   After just 20 odd minutes it was Frawley's turn to be called to action earlier expected when Reid went off for an HIA from which he never returned. 

When you've already assembled a patchwork squad for a match that is of little relative importance, it can't be easy to adjust to such changes in key positions, even for a club with a big talented squad such as Leinster. 

But despite all of this chopping and changing, I think the XV we had on the park from start to finish did reasonably well.  Sure, we can't be happy about the tries we conceded but we were up against a skillful and determined side and the boys in blue put in some good work to stay in it, especially on defence. 

One decision I found odd was that made to substitute a seemingly-fit Penny right before Benetton had a 5m scrum in the closing stages. I'm not saying that the try wouldn't have been scored had he stayed on necessarily, but the youngster had been doing a decent job throughout countering the carries from the base of Benetton No8 Halafihi, and seeing how our late change  we had to resort to prop Ed Byrne to wear the 20 jersey, it might have been better to leave Penny on.  I understand the call for the substitution might have come from the coach's box before the scrum was awarded, but it still could have been changed. 

Still though, overall I thought we came out of the match with more positives than negatives. 

JOE TOMANE

Joe has come in for much criticism this season and I haven't shied away from it myself, particularly in his last outing against Edinburgh. 

But I certainly believe in his getting a chance to prove himself, and while this is very much a ‘hot take’ on my part, I reckon Leinster may have been using the game plan for this match as an opportunity for him to win over the Leinster fans. 

Overall, I think he did quite well.  Without the ball he put in some very good hits, and with it, he had some decent runs. But on that second point, I reckon his team-mate outside him Conor O’Brien would still have been a more effective option in the 12 jersey.  He did as well as he could from outside centre but he's very effective on ‘crash ball’ yet more often than not he'd receive it from a standing start. 

It's not that I think Tomane is a bad player, far from it.  I just get the impression that he is struggling to tune in to the Leinster & Ireland way of playing the game.  An example of this was in the first half when he had a strong run up the touchline.  Most Irish players in that position would either kick it ahead or cut in side and recycle.  He went instead as far as he could before kicking it into the centre where Luke McGrath was very unlucky to knock on when a try was certain. 

Just to be clear - I'm not saying what he did was ‘wrong’ and like I said it nearly led to a try, but it was an action you'd expect to see more in the Top 14 and maybe those players would be a bit more prepared for it. 

Let's just say that while he did well on the night, I didn't see enough for him to be involved in the European semifinal, even if Robbie Henshaw proves to be unavailable. 

MAX DEEGAN

“Imagine a world where you're not a rugby player - what's your job? Astronaut”

In the matchday programme there was one of those question and answer features with Max Deegan and that's what was first in the list. 

Well he did an exceptional job getting himself propelled into the air for the lineout that came before the Brian Byrne try in the 70th minute.  The hooker should be thanking his jumper because the dart was a fair bit off yet Max showed quick reactions to gather it regardless. 

Then earlier when Luke McGrath quick-tapped a penalty it was Deegan who brought the strong running required to get it as far as the line before Lowe provided the finish. 

Overall I find Max to be an extremely versatile player that seems to take great care in developing every aspect of his game.  After excelling at 8 since his rise to the Pro 14 side, he has been at “6s at 7s” only in the literal sense in recent weeks, and his man of the match award on Saturday was well deserved.  He is definitely worthy of consideration for involvement against Toulouse. 

CIARÁN FRAWLEY

It can't have been easy for him to first see Reid named ahead of him only to be called into action midway through the first half.  But seeing how the score was 3-10 when he was introduced, he has to be happy with his contribution. 

Perhaps he was part of a ‘weak link’ in our defence for the second Treviso try but overall he definitely kept the game running well and showed good technique both on the quick tap try and one that came from a training ground move.  Assuming Reid has to sit out next week for protocols, Ciarán should start IMO. 

JAMES LOWE

Lowe is Lowe.  Every time he's involved you know something is going to happen.  It's not always a positive, like the occasional forward pass and kick out on the full, but you know those will be quickly forgotten when he does something special.   When he scored his try he took three would-be tacklers with him to the line. 

But the question still remai; is it worth sacrificing one from Scott Fardy and Jamison Gibson-Park to get the Kiwi into the matchday squad on Easter Sunday?  I'm thinking no at this point, though I'm certainly not happy about saying it. 

LUKE MCGRATH

I thought he did very well as captain and had no trouble arguing his case with Nigel.  He also showed good leadership in taking that quick tap which led to the Lowe try.  It's great to have him back in the lineup and I'd have no problems with his sitting out the visit of Glasgow next week to prepare for the following week. 

BARRY DALY

Made great contributions when he joined the line and also put in some key tackles but he also had enough aerial and positional issues to have me wondering if he was better suited to a wide role. He certainly wouldn't be in my top three Leinster fullbacks list right now, two of which would be Kearney's. 

Still, if the coaches have long term plans for him at 15 and reckon he can get to the right standard with extra game time, then he's definitely the ind of player who can improve. 

THE ROAD AHEAD 

As you can see from some of my player comments above, it's all about Toulouse now.  Sure, the Warriors come to Ballsbridge next week and we will of course be giving the match the full Harpin On Rugby treatment on these pages, but with first place in Conference B in the bag I can't blame the coaching staff if they opt for more chopping and changing to the lineup. 

Maybe, just maybe, further results like this one and against Edinburgh wouldn't be ideal for morale in the squad, but we have already shown once this season that we can put in a good showing against Toulouse after a few erratic performances. 

If you haven't seen enough from this team over the years to believe that whatever happens in this unusual ‘midseason preseason’ phase in the Pro 14 campaign we can still field a squad and gameplan on April 21 that can get the job done, then I really don't know what you've seen. JLP


Unfortunately due to other commitments our '80 word reviews' and 'Harpin Points' features have been suspended until further notice.  Later this week we'll have the telly post on Thursday before we start looking ahead to visit of Glasgow Warriors to the RDS, with of course Front Five every morning. Do stay tuned!

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