Monday, May 13, 2019

LEINSTER-10 SARACENS-20



We started strong, they came back stronger. 

That just about sums it up perfectly, doesn't it? No need for me to write anymore, right? Grand so, see you all next week!!!!

Nah - I'd never do that, whatever the disappointment.  Win, lose or draw, I'll harp on what I saw.  Hmm, that might need work before I make it a catchphrase….anyway….

A pivotal moment in this match reminded me of one back in November 2012 when we travelled to the Liberty Stadium.  It wasn't the Heineken Cup, but then we were at the height of our rivalry with the Ospreys so even our Celtic League meetings were a big deal.  I'll let a passage from my writeup describe the scene, since I guess that's what it's there for...
"what summed it up for me was Leo Auva’a’s quick tap penalty in the first half. We’re away from home, against a team we’d desperately love to beat, and we have just gone into a 10-0 lead, winning a penalty at halfway. NOT the time for a quick tap...We left the door wide open for those pesky Ospreys to come back and they didn’t win four Celtic League titles without being able to stroll through it when we do."

Much has been said about Luke McGrath's decision to box kick when the clock went red at the end of the first half, but I'd still like to say some more.  I don't necessarily blame him completely for the decision, as it appears there was a culture within the team to see every bout of midfield possession as a points-scoring opportunity.

That's all well and good as a general principle, and it has served us well.  Time and time again this season I have marvelled at how we managed to squeeze out an extra score from the end of a first half (plus we've been good at scoring very soon after conceding).  But this match was always going to be different.

We had already been warned of Saracens' determination to pull back the ten-point deficit courtesy of two massive hits by Lozowski and Kruis respectively following the restart after Tadhg Furlong's try, and the latter one resulted in a penalty which allowed Owen Farrell to remove his side's duck egg from the scoreboard.

The clock had gone beyond 39 minutes by the time we were restarting.  I reckon 99% of teams in that position would have just one thing on their minds in that situation, particularly in a major final, that was to all intents and purposes a test match - get this half over so we can regroup.  

While I can see the importance of rising above the expected norms in search of greatness and seen it often work for Leinster, there are also times when you appreciate that such norms are there for a reason.   And had we possession deep in the Saracens half I'd have been all in favour for playing on.  But this ruck was slap bang on the halfway line.  In a match that was always going to come down to critical decisions, that proved to be one that really cost us.

It's easy to say all of that now I know, but having watched the match live 'as a fan' without too much of an analytical eye, on second look that was a standout moment.  But there were of course several others, so what say we go through them.

Since all the scoring came in groups of 10, I have decided to go over the match in ten-minute bursts.  NOTE - if you'd rather not re-live the match just yet feel free to skip to my summary at the end 😉 

0-9m

Much of the pre-match talk was about Jérôme Garcès and how he was going to call the Saracens line speed - we seemed to get our answer early when he pinged them for offside after just a minute allowing Johnny Sexton to settle us nicely with a 3-pointer.  But the feature of these early stages was how the Premiership outfit did with the ball.

After they secured a lineout around their own 22, we applied a strong counter ruck that allowed James Ryan to gather the ball but his team mates were a fraction late reacting to provide him with support and Saracens were able to recover enough to win a penalty.

From there we proceeded to repel their advances to our 22 and beyond with our own defensive organisation and line speed, and each time we managed to clear our lines it felt like a score.

10-19m

We had another turnover that was followed by misfortune when a fine tackle by Luke McGrath on Andy Good pried the ball free and when Jordan Larmour recovered his pace allowed him the catch up with his own kick towards the Sarries 22.  It just didn't sit up for him to retrieve unfortunately and it was deemed a knock on.

Our defence was still holding strong and Robbie Henshaw was next to turn one over, but now Mark McCall's men were starting to remind us that they're not too shabby without the ball either, with a hit behind the gain line by Jamie George making a big statement.

The next time they advanced to our 22 they got it all the way to our line but Rob Kearney was able to recover a loose ball and we did extremely well to clear the danger once more.  And when our line was next threatened, a Brad Barritt breakdown brainfart under the posts allowed us to clear. 

20-29

Despite our opponents having so much early possession and territory, our lead after the first quarter was deserved.  But after rolling through 19 phases around the halfway line only to have the ball pinched by Billy Vunipola, it was clear we needed something special to get as close to their line as they had been to ours.

Eventually it was a little shimmy by Rob Kearney, who it has to be said is well on his way back to his best if not already there, put us deep into their 22 and a long spell of phases back and forth across their try line led to three penalty advantages and ultimately Cian Healy getting over the line only to be called held up.

But since Garcès noticed that two of those advantages were offsides by the same player, namely the oft-pinged Maro Itoje, he went to his pocket and with both Saracens props going off injured  after this sequence, the iron seemed to be good and hot for Leinster to strike. 

30-HT

There was nothing over-confident in our decision to take the scrum for the penalty under the Saracens posts - with a man in the bin and a changed front row opposite, most teams would have gone for more than three. 

And sure enough we were rewarded when Jack Conan went from the base of the scrum before eventually it was Tadhg Furlong going over.  I remember how I felt as Johnny added the extras - the first 35 minutes had gone way better than expected; now the job was to bring this margin home and that was well within our capabilities. 

I've already outlined the next sequence so let's skip ahead to what happened when Luke's box kick returned to Earth.  Billy V, never far from a major positive outcome for Sarries on the day, took the catch and won his side a penalty at the breakdown, from which a monster kick from Owen Farrell turned a defensive situation into a strong attacking one.

They still had our stingy defence to contend with of course but after another long series of phases got them to the try line, in the end it was passed out the backs where quick hands from Farrell found Maitland in space for an easy finish, and the England out half brilliantly slotted the extra two to level the scores.

Should I be faulting our narrow defending for the try?  Perhaps, but I reckon the fact that we should have been in the dressing room at that point is more significant.

40-49m

The second half was almost a mirror image of the first with a couple of notable exceptions - the challenge on Rob Kearney in the air and of course Leinster's in ability to claw back a 10-point deficit.

Now it was our turn to have a lot of possession, and there was one 19-phase series in this portion of the match that was particularly frustrating when it was foiled by Liam Williams.  He deserves credit for both the tackle and the steal, though I'm not 100% there was a clear release of the Leinster man in between?

But at this stage the defences were still holding out for both sides, even after Billy V charged through a gap at the lineout into our half - after the series had reached 10 phases, Cian Healy, who had an outstanding game, jackled his way to a penalty before his hooker Sean Cronin was replaced by James Tracy.

50-59m

Unfortunately for Tracy, his first action of the match was to throw a very-obviously-crooked dart to James Ryan, thus denying us the opportunity for more play in their 22.  There followed more back and forth possession until Jackson Wray broke free much like Kearney had done earlier, and again Sarries were pressing our line.

While Itoje was binned earlier for multiple penalties, Scott Fardy did 'just the one' before he was sent to the naughty step though in fairness I have said that more of those situations (ie getting pinged while under pressure on your line) should draw yellow.

The TMO judged a Saracens attempt to ground the ball against the base of the post wasn't a try so Farrell wisely took the three points on offer to put his team ahead for the first time.

OK, now it's time to bring up the officiating properly.  Hopefully by doing so this far down the article you'll appreciate I don't think Garcès cost us the match, but it's hard to deny that there were a few decisions worth analysis, particularly that of the Kearney incident which came shortly after the restart following the Farrell penalty.

Both Maitland and Itoje were involved in the challenge.  The former hits Rob in mid air while the latter stayed on the ground and never so much as tried to watch the ball as it came down, coming into contact with the shoulder/neck/head area in the process.  If either had done what they did without the other, it probably would have been at the very least a penalty.  

I thought his decision was to take the easy way out and ping Maitland to avoid giving Itoje a second yellow, but it looks like he did in fact single out the forward.  The question is simple - would he have seen yellow if he hadn't already gotten one?  

Again I was reminded about a previous match against Welsh opposition - in the Six Nations, Sam Warburton once hauled down and Irish maul at the try line and then Wayne Barnes gave only a penalty without naming the culprit because, in my humble opinion anyway, he knew it would be his second yellow.

No matter what the team I don't buy this narrative that 'you cant give a red card in a final because it devalues the contest'.  The cards are there for a reason and it shouldn't matter what the occasion is.  But hey, those are just the rantings of a blogger, the decision was made and Itoje played on.  Thus ended the third quarter.

60-69

On the next Leinster series despite being a man down we managed 11 phases before Billy V summed up our day when he avoided a certain penalty for deliberate knock on by diving and making an incredible catch. 

From here Sarries showed much better management of a lead when a Wigglesworth territory kick immediately turned our defence around, forcing Larmour to clear only as far as the 22 - this is when the match started to drift away for good. 

Call me picky, but while I don't see others mentioning it, I reckon the dart at this lineout was pretty much as crooked as Tracy's earlier, yet the play continued and although we held them up at the tryline after 13 phases, the ref still gave the scrum to Saracens. 

Now it was their turn to have the man advantage at the set-piece and here is where Billy V shines.  From the base he took on several Leinster backs none of which could handle his strength and determination. 

70-FT

So now we were 10 points down but the Sarries D was way too 'in the zone' for us to have a hope of repeating their comeback. We did a quick tap for a penalty that had me scratching my head but nowhere near as much as for the earlier box kick. 

Possession went back and forth right up to the final whistle when their celebrations could begin.  As you can probably tell, I have run out of motivation for going into too much detail of the action at this stage!!!!!

SUMMARY

Yes, the referee made some iffy calls. Yes, we made some iffy decisions, and being a Leinster-centric site I feel I must highlight them so we can learn. 

But none of that should take away from the fact that Sarries are worthy champions. Not many clubs in Europe would have benefitted as much from the chances they were given.  

And although many Leinster players had good days at the office (Healy and Kearney to name just two) and our overall display was far from a disaster, all of our positives were matched (and usually bettered) by the opposition.  It was an amazing achievement for them and particularly Mark McCall; we know all about how three titles in four years feels.

What we must do now is take the lessons from Newcastle and learn quickly because there's still a title to be won this season, and just in case you don't see the point in bothering too much about the Pro 14, I might remind you that our seeding for next year's Champions Cup depends on how we finish.  Oh, and did I mention it's Munster we're facing in the semifinal next Saturday?

They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger - well one thing is for sure, our quest for that fifth star is anything but dead and we've plenty of experience and talent in the squad to get us to Marseille next year for another crack at it.  Anyone doubt that?  Thought not.  JLP

PS :  Many thanks once more to Big Joe Shep, Keego, The Sandymount Hotel and all involved in the 'Three Blokes, a Ball & BOD' event on Saturday - despite the result it was a superb occasion and I thoroughly enjoyed doing a bit of live harping on beforehand.  


Later this week we'll be looking ahead to next Saturday's Pro 14 semifinal, with the telly post on Thursday and of course #Front5 every morning. Do stay tuned!

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