Monday, April 29, 2019

Ulster-14 Leinster-13



You won't believe he amount of Game of Thrones references I had ready for this writeup.  With it being the last match of the regular season, the title was to be 'Kingspan Landing' and you can use your imagination for the rest. 

The reason I planned to lean so heavily on the fact that much of the show is shot in Belfast is that this was frequently billed as a 'dead rubber'.  Whatever the result, Leinster were going to finish top of Conference B, the Ulstermen were going to finish second, and both had much more significant contests to consider in the weeks to come. 

But it wasn't a bad game of rugby as it turned out, though a small homage to the epic fantasy series (and this week's episode in particular - though no spoilers I promise) was still worthy, because this was a rubber that refused to die right up to the end. 

For the first half an hour or so it looked like the two sides were going to cancel themselves out playing a very similar style of rugby.  Phase after phase after phase met by tackle after tackle after tackle and after not too long the odds of an error leading to a score seemed just as likely as a final score of 0-0. 

There was of course one major incident of note in those early stages, involving Fergus McFadden.  In my preview I pointed out that both he and Dave Kearney on our opposite wing had to be highly motivated to stand out in this match - though perhaps not this way. 

About five minutes earlier, Ferg was involved in a ruck where studs accidentally scraped his forehead, so he already looked like he had been in the wars before this talking point happened.  And to be honest, I'm not altogether sure what transpired between himself and Ulster number 8 Sean Reidy - it seemed to be your average bout of post-ruck handbags. 

But from the view afforded by the one camera angle to capture the incident, he definitely appeared to head butt Reidy. It was a sending off all day long in my book - I couldn't believe the officials' decision that it was just a penalty. 

As one commentator pointed out, in many ways Reidy hurt his team's cause by not going down in agony as many footballers would, and if that's true, it's a sad state of affairs.  The contact to the head should be enough regardless of the reaction, and I also find it hard to believe that there wasn't technology to enlarge our view of the incident. 

Yet stay on the park he did and you couldn't help feeling that this was somehow going to have an effect on the match down the line, which it did, though not until there was some other scoring first. 

Leinster eventually got points on the board after finally putting together a series of phases that managed to stretch the opposition D.  14 altogether, with ultimately a long pass from Ross Byrne arcing over the cover to fall for Jimmy O'Brien to get the ball down. 

With whatever was left of Storm Hanna still knocking around, goalkicking down at that end was something of a challenge and Ross Byrne's first placekick attempt had gone wide despite being relatively central.  This conversion was from near the touchline and although he gave it a good wallop it didn't make it over so it was 5-0. 

Ulster's response was practically instant.  The restart went directly to the Munster-bound scrum half Nick McCarthy, and he tried to clear but couldn't find touch, and eventually strong runs by Darren Cave and Dave Shanahan put the home side back on the front foot. 

Thanks to good support they got deep into our 22 and when Shanahan got himself a second carry, both Dave Kearney and Caelan Doris tried to get him down but instead it was more like they tackled each other allowing the 9 to break free and eventually get over the line. 

McPhillips had no problems with the Belfast breeze to add the extras, but with the clock nearing the 40th minute Ross Byrne finally had success of his own with a penalty to restore our lead. 

This should have been the end of the half, but we returned to our habit from the opening weeks of the season when we always seemed to squeeze an extra score out of a half, and this is where the non-red on McFadden (surely he will be cited?) came into play. 

Having just regained the lead, most teams would have been happy to end the half but we played our way from inside our own 22 to wind up winning a penalty outside Ulster's after 13 phases. 

Again we ignored the seemingly easier option and put ourselves under pressure by going for the corner and making a try something of a necessity to take full advantage of this situation. 

Skipper for the day Ross Byrne looked to be backing up his decision well when he called a wraparound move which afforded him enough space to make a try seem certain but he slipped at the vital moment so it looked as though all was lost. 

His inside centre Noel Reid, however, got things back on track by firing a perfect looping pass to the touchline where Ferg was eagerly waiting - there was a lot of work to do to provide the finish but he did it well.  Ross was again unable to add the extra two points, this time from the opposite touchline to before. 

We started the second half with another strong exit from our 22 with Jimmy O'Brien finding space to get it to halfway before Joe Tomane, who seems to have found a new lease of Leinster life at 13 in recent weeks, piled on the pressure by grubbering one to touch in the Ulster 22. 

From the there the game threatened to fall back into 'cancelling each other out' mode until it came back to life yet again when Ulster fullback Lowry sprinted half the length of the pitch putting his side on the front foot and thus beginning by far the most interesting spell of the match. 

Roared on by the home crowd, Ulster proceeded to get their offence going and while our line speed and tackling were doing well, the odd foot was straying offside and as was the odd tackle slipping high (often called by assistant ref Joy Neville - some criticised her for being vocal but I reckon more ARs should get involved), so we were being frequently pinged for advantages, and when the infringements were happening under our posts, they chose to go for the scrum option. 

Here is where the interpretation of the Laws got interesting once more.  In a repeated series of scrums on our line, Marcus Rea, who was on at number 8 for Reidy, seemed to think he was free to guide the ball with his hand to a favourable position each time while the scrum was still set and driving forward.  No need for a wider camera shot this time - it was plain to see. 
"Any player within the scrum may play the ball but only with their feet or lower legs and they must not lift the ball. Sanction: Penalty." 
The Laws are pretty clear on this in Section 19, yet he did it again and again throughout this sequence.  It hardly an offence of an equal nature to that of McFadden, but at least his was called as a penalty. 

Still, when you overlook or miss the transgressions much as the officials did, you see a prolonged spell of Ulster pressure which proceeded to test Leinster's defence to the fullest. By full time, we had made a whopping 266 tackles with 95% success rate, and the bulk of the work was done by Josh Murphy (27) Doris (28) and Will Connors (33). 

The penalty advantages were still coming however, and eventually George Clancy had to issue a yellow card with young lock Oisin Dowling the recipient.  That didn't stop us from making life difficult for the Ulster attackers, however. 

I have said before on these pages that having a man already in the bin shouldn't prevent the ref from carding another if the penalties keep happening and again I felt we we lucky as there were more offsides called.  

But while Ulster finally did manage to get a converted try to nudge in front (with ironically the handsy Rea himself getting the touchdown when we finally blinked at the breakdown leaving the pillar unguarded), it came a full 16 minutes after Lowry's initial burst and Dowling was able to return to the action in time for the restart. 

This meant we had an entire quarter to get back the lead, while also knowing it could well take a lot out of our hosts to score again.  By this stage Ross Byrne had been replaced as playmaker by Ciaran Frawley and he quickly got us moving with this time a 13-phase series getting us into the 22 before a little grubber through seemed to set up another sub, Barry Daly, for a score. 

However the final bounce of the ball took it a lot higher than expected, and although Daly made a heroic effort to clutch it and dot it down, not only had he run out of pitch (by a fraction) but it seems to have cost him an arm injury which hopefully only ruled him out for the rest of this match. 

We were to have one final opportunity in the closing stages; with a high tackle for a penalty advantage in a central (yet not an easy distance with the wind) position seemingly in our back pocket, we made a lot of ground into the Ulster 22 but on the next phase after Clancy declared the advantage over, our sub hooker Ronan Kelleher was unable to collect the ball. 

Scott Penny forced a good steal as Ulster tried to wind down the clock but in the end it was another strong tackle from Darren Cave, who I thought deserved the man of the match award more than actual recipient Marcus Rea, that brought the match to an end.

And what a reaction from the Ulster players, coaches and fans alike when the final whistle blew!  You'll just have to trust me that I'm being sincere when I say I was delighted or them.  Of course no one likes to see their team lose but I have harped before on how Ulster have had some rotten luck in recent years so I couldn't begrudge them these celebrations. 

Back to our side of things, this finally brought our disappointing series of 'midseason preseason' matches to a close, with zero wins out of four.  Munster fans will no doubt try not to let us forget that they pipped us for match points in the final tally, though should they overcome Benetton next week the home advantage in the semifinal will tell its own story. 

And it's not like we haven't learned anything from these games - with all attention on both Leinster's imminent knockout fixtures plus Ireland's World Cup campaign, it's worth remembering that Leo Cullen & co have a host of players vying for spots in our squad at the start of next seasons Pro14, which is later than usual at the end of September. 

It looks like we have been trying players out at full back, with Barry Dally and Jimmy O'Brien getting some game time there.  I thought both did well on offence, but at times we were lacking in a lot of the 'housekeeping' 15 work we have come to take for granted by Rob Kearney, so it will be interesting to see how we go. 

Another good option that seems to have emerged is Joe Tomane.  He seems much more willing to attack the gain line from outside centre, has had some positive results, and has improved defensively as well. 

So that brings the 21-round Pro 14 regular season to a close, and easily the biggest take away for Irish rugby fans is the impressive achievement of getting all four provinces into the playoffs.  No doubt that will give the league's detractors more ammunition as though the competition is somehow slanted in our favour, but I reckon we're worthy of merit in our own right and shouldn't be ashamed of it. 

We'll see who is sitting on the league's iron throne when the full time whistle blows in Glasgow at the end of May.  You just knew I had to get one last reference in there, didn't you? JLP


Since Leinster have the coming week off, we reckon we'd take a break as well; hope you don't mind.  Naturally if something tickles our fancy in the meantime we'll post or tweet about it but our regular features will resume next Monday for the build up to Newcastle. Do stay tuned!

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