Monday, May 20, 2019

Leinster-24 Munster-9

I suppose from a political point of view it made sense for the candidates for the upcoming EU parliament elections to be canvassing outside the RDS on Saturday, but if they took a minute to see it through a rugby lens, the last thing Leinster & Munster fans want to be thinking about right now is Europe.

Both sides went deep into another Heineken Cup campaign only to be halted by Saracens which, on the back of a disappointing Six Nations, made this semifinal the last chance to salvage any silverware from the 2018/19 season. 

Of course Leinster's wounds were fresher, and this could have worked two ways for the reigning double champions.  Would our shortcomings from Newcastle still be with us a week later or would they inspire us to regroup and raise our levels back where they need to be?  What transpired fell somewhere in between but definitely a lot closer to the latter.  

The opening five minutes had no surprises for those who have watched these two great rivals go head to head over the years.  There was much ball-carrying, tackling, clearing out, attempted strips & jackles, box kicks, and it was all to the expected standard.  There was even a perfect exchange of penalty kicks in those opening minutes - first Ross Byrne kicked Leinster into a lead then Joey Carbery dutifully responded.

But gradually as the first half progressed, it began to look more and more like it was destined to be Munster's day as the visitors appeared to have that much more possession, that much more territory, and that much more 50/50 calls from the officials going in their favour, like a monster hit by Garry Ringrose that was deemed a knockon when the replay (which wasn't consulted though, in fairness, shouldn't be for that offence) suggested otherwise.

Following the ensuing scrum Munster worked arguably their best try-scoring chance of the day when Tadhg Beirne took advantage of a sliver of space to power into the Leinster 22 before a pass was deliberately knocked on by James Lowe, an infringement that is worthy or review and once Mike Adamson did, he went to his pocket.

Some may question the failure to go for the corner, and thus our jugular, with the penalty but this is cup (not to mention derby) rugby so for me it made sense for Joey Carbery to take the three points on offer.  Like I said, Munster seemed to have an edge at that point so there could well have been hay to be made with the extra man.  Luckily for us, this was instead the ten-minute spell that turned the match.

Things seemed to be going well for van Graan's boys when we chose to go short handed at a scrum around halfway which helped their front row win a penalty.  But what happened next demonstrated why we thought it best to have tackling numbers. 

Not for the first time in this half Munster rumbled through a long series of phases, poking here and prodding there along our blue wall which was bolstered by our keeping numbers out of the breakdown until the right moment.  And that moment was found by Josh van der Flier, miraculously back early from injury and deservedly named man of the match by the end (25 tackles none missed on top of the poaching), who eventually latched on and won a crucial penalty.

What followed was a Leinster lineout in the Munster half.  This was a setpiece that, not for the first time in the past two seasons, did not serve us well.  The number-crunching shows 13 'won' out of 15 for us, but that doesn't tell the true story.  It's never enough for us to just end up with the ball - IMO there should be an extra stat in brackets for 'clean' lineouts and many of ours were sloppy, sometimes from wayward darts, and other times from the intelligence of Peter O'Mahony.

But on this particular lineout, we did enough to get ourselves front foot ball in the Munster half, and early in the set of phases they were pinged for offside.  Ross Byrne slotted the penalty and before the play restarted, James Lowe returned to the field to cheers of the RDS faithful - this had to be a major psychological blow, although more were to come before this half was done.

Last week Leinster in general, and Luke McGrath  in particular, were handed the ultimate punishment for not putting the first period to bed when given an easy chance.  This time our scrum half was involved in another regrettable incident around the same time when his hurried pop pass to Devin Toner caught the lanky lock off guard and as he was swallowed by the Munster tacklers he fell awkwardly on his leg and we can only hope the injury doesn't keep him out for too long (especially if the too-late arrival of the stretcher forcing him to put pressure on it walking off plays a factor).

But back on the pitch, the play resumed with a scrum to Munster and as Conor Murray fed the ball the clock read 39:55.  It would be unfair to compare this situation to the previous week - I don't blame them for not killing the half there.  Our southern cousins had the edge on the first 40 but without a lead on the scoreboard to show for it, so this was a good chance to strike before we regrouped.

And with Chris Farrell steaming down his channel on the power play ball, it wasn't long before they were threatening our 22 again, making  points on the scoreboard very possible indeed.

But once again, Leinster's defensive organisation was just too good.  Worthy and all as Josh's gong was for his performance, he was by no means the only beast at the breakdown for us.  Henshaw, Ringrose, Ruddock and Fardy (on for Toner not a bad replacement eh?) were all making timely interventions at the point of contact and on this crucial occasion, it was Cian Healy winning the penalty.  And with Ross Byrne's kick finding touch in the Munster half, we were left with yet another stroke-of-halftime decision.

Once again, the boys in blue backed themselves, only this time, it worked.  Having secured the lineout and gone through a few phases around halfway, a trademark jinking run from Jordan Larmour got him well into the Munster half, forcing yet another penalty out of the defence, allowing Ross to give us a lead at the break that some say was lucky, but I say was earned by our defence.

The thing about being strong on D is that you have to make sure you are also scoring points down the other end, and when O'Mahony broke too soon from a scrum at the start of the second half, it gave us an early opportunity to attack the Munster line, and again this lineout worked well for us when it counted.

It was Sean Cronin who made the line break putting his opposite number Niall Scannell on the floor in the process, and when the Munster hooker tried to return to his defensive duties 5m from the try line, his run took him directly in the path of Luke McGrath's outlet pass.  I know scrum-halves often chuck the ball at opponents to draw a penalty in situations like this one, but having watched this a few times I really don't think he knew Scannell was there.

Either way, the result was the same, and especially on big matches like this one, officials are often keen to 'even up the numbers' on the card-showing front when given half a chance so off Niall went to the naughty step and Ross Byrne increased our lead to six.

But when Peter O'Mahony pinched a Leinster lineout minutes later and shortly afterwards Fardy fell off his feet trying to jackle shipping a penalty (would've been a harsh yellow but it did stop front foot ball and I've seen them given), Carbery was able to pull three points back and it looked as though we were to be equally wasteful with our man advantage.

Then after Munster were attempting to exit following the restart, it was their turn to try a risky call only it didn't work out at all.  Yes, our defensive line was solid and didn't look like breaking.  Yes, ways had to be found either around or over it.  But I'm not sure the time to try kicking variations is when you're in your own 22 and a dink over the top by Carbery went too far and was retrieved by Luke McGrath.

In fairness to Munster, the chase was strong and Luke did extremely well to hold on to recycle the ball - once we settled, we cranked up the offensive power once more.  Our first sortie was repelled but when the clearance gave us a lineout just in our own half, we set about creating an amazing team try that was to finally break the match wide open.

First there was a good maul set up which saw us trundling into the Munster half, tempting a penalty advantage against O'Mahony for side entry (sidenote - Munster's 13-7 edge in penalty count was in reality even worse as I noted at least 3 further advantages that weren't used, like this one).

We next saw some excellent exchanges on our left wing involving Robbie Henshaw and (of course) James Lowe which put us on the front foot.  And this time we weren't so keen to get bogged down in a series of phases - Ringrose drew criticism last week for 'wasting' and overlap and to be fair, when he saw the three men outside him were wearing 1, 3 and 2 respectively, many would expect him to take it himself once more.

But this wasn't just any 1, 3 and 2.  In this day and age every player needs to show abilities needed for other positions and both Healy & Furlong showed perfect 'fixing and passing' techniques to provide the space for Sean Cronin to power over the line for what was always going to be the match-winning try.

Ross Byrne capped his solid afternoon with the extra points and must have been well chuffed leaving his World Player of the Year skipper with a 10-point lead to bring home.  And Sexton wasn't long getting involved when a neat 'show and go' flummoxed Tadhg Beirne.

But to their credit Munster weren't done yet and a massive shove at the scrum on our put in at halfway forced Jack Conan and Luke McGrath to get their wires crossed leading to a penalty that gave them another chance to crack our defence.

Yet it just wasn't for cracking.  Liam Toland in the eirSport commentary box used the word 'underlap' (I'm surprised I haven't heard that before but I doubt he's the first to use it) to describe the lack of space in the wide channels.  Eventually one of my favourite Munster players, Dave Kilcoyne, tried to make something happen with a strong carry but he was met head on by Andrew Porter, another recently back from an injury lay-off, who became the umpteenth Leinster defender to wrest a carried ball free.

After the challenge, 'Killer' went down to one knee ahead of the upcoming scrum.  For me, that was a clue that he wasn't up for the set piece after a solid shift approaching 70 minutes to that point.  But bind for the scrum he did anyway, again facing Porter, and when this time it was us being awarded the penalty for a front row infraction, the Leinster pack celebrated like the match was won.

I think we can pretty much take it for granted that as long as James Lowe is with Leinster, he'll make a point of getting himself involved somehow against our biggest rivals.  Of course he had already done so in both positive and negative ways to this point, but his finish for the try right at the end was truly exquisite.

The set up was good if straightforward; quick passing from the base of a scrum against a tired and probably deflated Munster D, but still Lowe had some work to do, namely hand off Mike Haley, which he did and even at that it still took some fancy footwork at the line to avoid touch - the lead photo shows how successful he was.

It 'only' yielded 5 points thanks to a shocker of a placekick by Sexton to round off the match, but it still made the final margin look larger than the 80 minutes probably deserved (in contrast to the same semifinal fixture one year earlier which was probably worth more than a 1-point win for us).

Much of the post-match criticism seemed to be directed at Munster for finishing tryless; for me that's unfair on Leinster's defensive organisation.  If the visitors had takeaways to work on I'd be more inclined to look at discipline and decision-making but I'll let their own bloggers dig more deeply into that discussion.

For Leinster's part, while it was hardly a flawless display, it was certainly a great response to seven days earlier.   We were under the kosh in the first half and had we relented the result could very well have gone differently.   The stat category that was highlighted the most against Sarries was that of 'collision dominance' and there was definitely a visible amount of extra power in our hits this time around.

Now we find ourselves on a collision course of a different sort - the Glasgow Warriors showed with their 50-burger in the other semifinal that they are 'in the zone' at just the right time of season to earn their second Celtic League crown in front of a home crowd.

They'll have to get past our tacklers first, though.  Should be an interesting end to the season.  JLP

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

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019