Monday, May 27, 2019

GLASGOW WARRIORS-15 LEINSTER-18


Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

A look at the final Pro 14 regular season standings in the 2018/19 campaign might suggest the Glasgow Warriors had to be favourites in this final, especially given it was virtually a home match for them.

They ended their 21-match campaign with a league-leading 81 match points, while even the Conference A runnersup Munster finished with more than we did.  But as anyone who followed the tournament's progress since the beginning of September will know, that's missing loads of context as we had our Conference sewn up by the beginning of March.

Next you might look at the final score from Saturday's showpiece and think it must have been a very close encounter given the winning margin was just the three points.  And to be fair, watching the 80 minutes live there was never a time I really thought we were well and truly 'safe'.  The second watch, however, told a different story, and not just because I knew the outcome.

It's not that I thought that this was an easy victory, but watching the way Leinster set about the entire match put me in mind of one word : 'comfortable'.  And if you want a number which I best explains what I mean by that word, I offer you '25'.

On minute 48, after the 9th phase of a Glasgow attack in our half, a tackle from Garry Ringrose forced a loose pass which the Leinster & Ireland centre dutifully retrieved and returned all the way into the opposition 22.  How many minutes were to elapse from then until the next time the Scots had more than one phase in our half?  You guessed it, 25.

Now of course a lot happened in between those moments, and not all of them were good things on Leinster's part by a long stretch.  But if you build a halftime lead (which also looked reasonably comfortable on second look) and manage to have a stranglehold on territory for such a key portion of any match let alone a final, then you'll win way more than you lose.

The road from the kickoff to the opening score, in fairness, was anything but comfortable for Leinster.  It wasn't that we were struggling, but it could be said that in what was always going to be a battle of the defences, ours was the first to blink.

If you're not a fan of box kicking then the first few bouts of possession for either side were not for you.  I don't mind it as much as most, once it's done as part of a coherent strategy (in our case possibly to negate the opposition 'targeting' our halfbacks early in a phase count) as opposed to being a last resort.  And more than once both Sexton and McGrath were putting enough hang time on their efforts to allow team-mates to get the jump on their opponents and bat the ball back for us.

Eventually we got enough benefit for Rob Kearney to make a real foray into their half and not long afterwards Warriors hooker Fraser Brown shipped a penalty which gave our skipper the chance to give us an early lead.  In the wet conditions and amid a chorus of Glaswegian booing across Celtic Park, he pushed his kick wide right.

A few minutes later, Brown was in the wars again, only in much more serious fashion.  Jack Conan had just stolen a lineout dart from him and in his eagerness to make amends, clearly tried to tackle Tadhg Furlong, who had the ball, only instead he clattered into Luke McGrath, who not only didn't have it but was off the ground at the time.

What I always say about Nigel Owens is that whether or not you agree with his decisions, he at least offers detailed explanations for them.  This was definitely one of those times - he deemed Brown's challenge as 'only a penalty' because he wasn't aiming to grab McGrath.  For me, that's not enough mitigation for the dangerous play laws as they currently stand.

But stay in his pocket the cards did, and our attempt to make hay from the ensuing attacking lineout fell flat when a pass went to ground to be collected by Tommy Seymour, who looked to have a clear run to our line until he was well tracked and hauled down by Robbie Henshaw.  However, shortly afterwards, Adam Hastings planted a wonderful territory kick to touch well in our half.

Then Glasgow were on the attack themselves as Johnny Gray rose high to complete the turned table by pinching our lineout, allowing them to roll through the phases and this time they were managing to inch close to our line.

Already we had seen a part of their special strategy when the vast majority of their territory kicks were aimed at our left wing, which made sense when you consider either Rob Kearney or James Lowe would be the ones forced into left-footed clearances in those situations, although both managed relatively well.

Now when on the attack we saw another element to their plan, as support runners would edge themselves a shade ahead of the ball carrier as he's brought to ground, making it that much more difficult for our defenders to set up to tackle the next phase.  Of course I'm not suggesting they're the first to ever do this, it's just that it seemed much more pronounced and eventually it led to their opening try.

It was Rob Harley and Zander Fagerson who performed the most blatant example of this right at our try line, allowing the latter's brother Matt to take and barge over the line on 13m.  Just to be clear, I'm not calling this 'cheating' per se; as with most grey areas in egg-chasing, if you're getting away with it then it has to be a good thing.  So now it was 7-0 to the Scots and there was to be certainly the most 'Leinster' response imaginable as I doubt there's a better side in Europe at reacting to a conceded score.

Off the restart we had an amazing chase by Jordan Larmour who stopped the ball-catcher in his tracks.  But it wasn't just himself bearing down on the Warriors 22 - a couple of phases later it was Luke McGrath charging down Stuart Hogg's attempted clearance and once over the line, the ball dutifully sat up on it's edge and spun in play long enough for Garry Ringrose to dive on it and get us on the board.

While of course the score was crucial, I doubt that this would even crack the top three of Garry's most important contributions to this match.  About five minutes later, after he was beaten all ends up by his opposite number Steyn, he made it his business to get back and clatter the last man, namely DTH van der Merwe, to help prevent what looked a certain try that could have turned the match.

Add this to Henshaw's vital tackle on Seymour, plus several different bouts of precision tackling that snuffed out Glasgow's set plays (especially their quick inside pass) and you have a virtual masterclass from our centres that demonstrated just how valuable they are to both Leinster and Ireland.  They were 'credited' with seven missed tackles between them but that's another deceptive number as they were rarely costly.

That try saving challenge from Garry did eventually result in three points for the Scots giving them a 10-5 lead, but shortly after Fraser Brown was taken off for what looked like a nasty injury having gone over on his leg, we set about a simple yet effective series of 17 phases that included a Sexton wraparound which helped Rob Kearney get into the 22 before carry after carry was finding soft shoulders and gaining us ground until we got to their line.

When we found ourselves in this position, we didn't resort to players positioning themselves ahead of the ball to get it over the line.  All we needed was the power of Cian Healy with a little shove from behind offered by Scott Fardy.  Despite all the gains we had made to that point, there was a lot of work to be done in the finish yet it was made look easy.

Having pushed two placekicks to the right, I'm sure I wasn't the only one to implore Sexton to favour the left post a lot more for the conversion which he duly did, giving us our first lead of the day, and for the record, one at the 29th minute we would never let go.

It was at this stage the Glasgow confidence really started to wobble, or at least it was clear that they required some extra tactical strings to their bow if they were to get back into the lead.  

Our tackling just got better and better as the match progressed, with James Ryan and Rhys Ruddock among our leaders.  For the remainder of the first half everything the Warriors tried fell flat and courtesy of a scrum penalty and a second accurate kick from Sexton, we went into the break five points to the good.

We always seem to say at halftime that the 'next score is crucial' but it really did apply here.  If it went our way, we'd be two scores clear.  If it was Glasgow, we were into 'squeaky bum' territory.  About a minute after the restart a promising set of phases for them ended when Johnny Gray knocked on.

Shortly afterwards, Sexton and Henshaw looked to have Hastings perfectly wrapped up for a choke tackle only the result was even better as Henshaw broke away with the ball.  While there was no score as yet in the half, we seemed to be growing in confidence until we got to that 48th minute I mentioned earlier - and although Ringrose was unable to turn the broken play into a try, a penalty shipped at the breakdown by Steyn was rightly (though surprisingly as I thought Owens would be more lenient given the occasion) shown a card for slowing front foot ball.

We chose to go for touch from the penalty, but 7 phases after the lineout the hosts shipped another (this time under the posts and arguably could have been another card), Sexton took the easy three and hey presto we not only have our two-score lead but we also have some time with an extra man to stretch it further.  And as a further note - that score, on 51m, was to be our last of the 2018/19 season.

It looked like Glasgow were going to get right back at us when Tommy Seymour brilliantly caught the restart, yet Stewart's knockon a phase or two later highlighted the kind of evening it was for the Conference A table-toppers.

Next when our captain piled more pressure by kicking one deep into the Glasgow 22 forcing them to be tackled behind their own goal line and giving us a 5m scrum, it looked to all intents and purposes that the match was there to be won.

Things didn't go QUITE that perfectly for us, as Nigel Owens proceeded to get very fussy with the scrum.  My closest estimate is that between that set piece and the one we took for a penalty there were 10,000 resets, which proceeded to both kill the Steyn penalty and give the Glasgow D plenty of time to recover from the previous onslaught and prepare for the next.

Eventually, when a little knock on from Luke McGrath meant the points scoring opportunity was gone, Glasgow players and fans alike celebrated like the championship had been won, when in fact the deficit was still 8 points and they were still deep inside their own half.  When Stuart Hogg finally did put the ball to touch in our territory and Luke McGrath took it quickly to Rob Kearney, we had the game's most pivotal moment/decision.

All the time before this incident and all the time afterwards, we seemed to be making all the right decisions, which makes sense because we are well used to occasions like this one.  And of all the boys in blue, the one guy you'd expect to do the right thing is Rob Kearney, yet for some reason he felt the need to challenge Hogg as his own high ball came down.

Much like the incident earlier, I thought Nigel's ruling was one degree below that which it should have been.   Brown got 'penalty only' rather than yellow; Rob got yellow rather than red.  In both cases I'm referring to the player safety guidelines as I understand them.  The only 'excuse' I can offer  (though it's a really weak one) for Nigel not brandishing red is that perhaps he felt he was 'making up for' the earlier leniency.

But even with that penalty, which was put into touch in our half, the Warriors were still unable to create phases in our half - although their maul rolled well towards our 22, their strike runner Steyn ran straight into the grateful arms of both Sexton and Henshaw who held him up for a choke tackle before a (perhaps fortunate) penalty from the scrum gave us the chance to clear.

Once back down the other end, we returned to our 'smart rugby' by running a straightforward series of 24 phases which included pinpoint accuracy in carries and clear outs.  Again, Glasgow eventually won a penalty but again, not before another sizeable chunk had been taken off the clock.

As the penalty was taken, Sexton was replaced by Ross Byrne who, perhaps not now but definitely one day, might remind the more senior player that when roles were reversed a week earlier Leinster's lead was greater.

Finally the Warriors were able to get a move going at our end, and although it took them 7 phases to get into our 22, by the 8th they had stretched us enough to allow the space for their replacement hooker Stewart to get in 'Dane Coles style' in the widest channel.

So the good news for Glasgow was that they had finally narrowed the gap.  The double whammy of bad news was first that Hastings was unable to convert the try and by the restart, Rob Kearney was back on the pitch for what some are saying could have been his final five minutes for Leinster.

We naturally put the restart into their 22 and set about trying to keep them there.  If we thought Owens was lenient up to this stage, I think you probably needed to bring a weapon onto the pitch to run a risk of getting pinged for this series, and try as they might for 17 lung-busting phases (with many key Leinster tackles throughout many from our bench), Glasgow's attempts to break through our blue wall just weren't getting anywhere until finally a knockon on the 18th phase gave us the scrum and possession we needed to close out our 6th Celtic League title.

Many will call this 'winning ugly' but this particular beholder's eye can definitely see the beauty in what we achieved both this week and last.  We had a decision to make after Newcastle - do we throw in the towel and hope to regroup next season or do we unleash all the lessons we learned on both Munster and Glasgow?  The trophy we brought home to Dublin gives us our answer.  And the rewards don't end at silverware - we're now guaranteed a top seeding for next season's attempt at our fifth star.

So in the end it wasn't quite as successful a season as last year but let's face it, that was a monumental ask as there was bound to be at least one team to emerge from the chasing pack to challenge us.

When it came time for the presentation, on a day of brave yet mostly correct decisions from Leinster, fair play to Johnny Sexton for sacrificing his first chance to lift a trophy as skipper to allow the honour to fall to Sean O'Brien, who no doubt knew his World Cup hopes were dashed.

And thus ends another exciting season of writeups here at Harpin Manor.  It seems like ages ago since we pipped the Blues in Cardiff, and that's probably because it IS ages ago...it's a long bloody season but there can be no doubt that Leo, Stuart and co have been the best at managing the long haul in recent times.  Long may they continue!  JLP

NEXT FROM HARPIN MANOR - Most of our regular features will keep going for the next while, and next Monday we'll do one of our month-by-month 'season summary' posts before our attention turns to the Junior World Championship.  Do stay tuned!!!!

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