Monday, November 11, 2019

Connacht-11 Leinster-42

Generally Leinster welcome Munster to the Aviva Stadium as the final domestic fixture before the European campaign kicks off.  In World Cup years, however, things can be a little different, but one thing is for sure - nobody in their right minds thought this Pro 14 Round 6 trip to Galway was going to be anything but a challenge that would also help with the Champions Cup preparations.

For one thing, we already knew from recent seasons that Connacht are more than able to both front up and rise up against us, like Murrayfield in 2016, Galway in May 2018 and and we can't ignore our fortunate last gasp win at the RDS in December 2018.  For another, we also knew that Andy Friend had gone a long way to bringing the team back towards the dizzy heights reached by Pat Lam, with the team back in Europe and kicking off this season with 4 league wins out of 5.

So it's safe to say that nobody was expecting this kind of result on Friday evening.  And what's more, nobody was really expecting it after the first few minutes of action either, because not only did Leinster overthrow the first lineout, Connacht with their strong centres Robb and Farrell looked lively on their opening possession, winning a penalty right in front thanks to a high tackle by Deegan on Bealham, which Jack Carty dispatched over the posts giving them an early, and like I said far from surprising, lead.

But then it was just like Leinster flicked a switch or something.

On our first decent spell of possession Joe Tomane, who has really impressed in these opening weeks of the season, found himself in space out wide and planted a perfect little kick into the 22 which Caolin Blade could only gather before being swallowed up by blue-clad chasers, including Tomane himself.  Carty eventually cleared but the lineout was just inside the Connacht 22.

This set piece was a lot more straightforward for Leinster.  One off the top to Fardy, Luke McGrath with the long miss pass to Tomane for the crash ball which afforded enough space up the middle for our entire starting front row, first Ronan Kelleher, then Cian Healy and finally Andrew Porter crashing through about half a dozen would-be tacklers, to carry the ball over the line.  Tack on a nice conversion from Ross Byrne and it was a nigh-on perfect opening spell of possession.

Just a few minutes later, we applied more pressure to the Westerners' backfield, with this time a grubber through from Ross Byrne that proved even more difficult to deal with as Stephen Fitzgerald knocked on, no doubt wary of what kind of chase was about to swallow him.

It took us a couple of goes but when Bundee Aki, on briefly as a blood replacement, was pinged for for side entry at the breakdown, our kick for the corner set us up with an even better attacking platform from a lineout.  And we made this one even simpler...Fardy held the dart this time setting up the maul, a position from which Ronan Kelleher appears to be a natural at turning into five points.  Another excellent strike from Ross Byrne made it 3-14 after just 15m.

Next came a bit of mild controversy that could have changed the course of the match.  On first look, Will Connors' tackle on Jack Carty looked as though it could have brought way more than a penalty, yet after referee Sean Gallagher reviewed the challenge with his officials he called it absolutely perfectly by ruling that it was "late not high".  And no, that's not my blue goggles talking - contact was clearly on Carty's chest so I'm not sure why he threw his head back the way he did, but there was no doubt that it was late so the home side were at least able to claw back three more points.

But any hopes of a revival were quickly put to bed when Devin Toner applied enough pressure on Blade's exit box kick to force him to put it straight into touch, allowing us yet another strong attacking lineout opportunity.  To be fair we did meet with some decent resistance this time as 17 phases only got us 5m from the line but an offside penalty under the posts gave us a perfect chance to claw back that three points to our cushion.  Only that's not the mindset with which the leadership of Scott Fardy was operating.

More than aware with our lineout dominance, the call was made for the centrally-located penalty to be put to touch, and with a Toner catch and Kelleher detaching himself from the maul aided by a hefty latch by Fardy, there was no stopping the hooker getting his second and Leinster's third.  23m on the clock, 21-3 to the reigning champions.

As often is the case with victories like this, despite the high number on our side of the scoreboard, the low one opposite it also needs to be acknowledged.  Once more Connacht tried to spark their attack into life on the next series and once more they were thwarted by the strongly-drilled Leinster D.

First and foremost was Will Connors, who had some productive carries but most of all led the tackling charts with 23 and none missed (the stats at FT gave him 18 but it was since amended), and what's more, although he both started and finished the match he had to go off for an HIA, which probably stemmed from the fact that the vast majority of his challenged involved taking out the first carrier from the breakdown at the knees or below, making offloads much harder and jackles much easier.  With all due respect to Kelleher for his brace of tries, I'd have given man of the match to Will.

And it was actually while Connors was off (not a bad replacement in Rhys Ruddock) that we secured the try bonus point in under half an hour.  And yet again, the score was made look far easier than it should.  At one stage in the 10 strong phases that gradually got us to their line, it looked like Fardy might have gotten himself isolated with one of his carries but an absolutely monster clearout from Ruddock (which I actually credited to Toner at the time, my bad) kept the play going and eventually it was Andrew Porter getting his second and our front row's fourth.

We did of course go on to add a fifth before the break and I will get to that, but overall the point needs to be made that despite the definite high level of difficulty for Leinster going into this away interprovincial, we managed to put it to bed primarily with our forwards in just the first thirty minutes, which it must be said is quite the achievement.

And what makes it even more impressive is that although we're starting to introduce World Cup players back into the side and between the likes of Healy, Ruddock and especially Porter they did make big contributions, this result could not have been achieved without those who have been there since Round 1 of the campaign, which surely must give Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster & co just the right kind of selection headache going into Europe.

On to that fifth try - it was almost as though the Leinster backs were a tad miffed that the pack had done all the scoring up to that point, because off a midfield scrum an excellent combination between Lowe, Tomane and Keenan got us deep into the 22 before Ross Byrne was able to use a decoy run by Tomane to be able to take it to the line himself before adding his fifth conversion from five attempts to send us into the break a massive 35-11 to the good.

I've read a few reports about this game and a lot of them say "Connacht improved after the break".  Did they?  Really?  With the roles reversed I'm not so sure I'd be so keen on Leinster getting similar consolation.

Yes, it's true, they did start the second half with a lot of possession and territory, and it did eventually lead to their lone try on the night when Fitzgerald crossed, but given that it took a first a Josh Murphy neck grab after one lineout, then a Scott Fardy infringement at the next, before Carty's crossfield kick found Fitzgerald who got over the line unimpeded due to Hugo Keenan misjudging his line and slipping, I reckon it was more down to our mistakes than an actual 'purple patch'.

And when it came to the defensive side of things for Leinster, that disappointing series was by far the exception for what was overall an outstanding display - Connacht did try several different ways to break through but it just wasn't happening.

In fact if anything our D is what led to our 6th try as the home side were forced to push things and a very poorly thought out pop pass from Dave Heffernan proved to be a gift for James Lowe who caught and ran back more than half the length of the pitch to put an end to the scoring on the night at the 69 minute mark.

With a gun to my head to find anything wrong with Leinster on the night, my issue would be kind of trivial.  It just annoys me in general when a player is named in the starting lineup only to be withdrawn at the last minute, yet while I don't have the stats to hand, surely Robbie Henshaw has to hold some kind of record for that over the years?  Hopefully he recovers in time to appear next week.

There can be absolutely no doubt that Connacht can bounce back from this and get a result in their European opener against Montpellier next week; that it's also at home and there's an 8-day turnaround certainly doesn't hurt.  They definitely got a demonstration of what can happen if you aren't switched on for the crucial opening half an hour.

As for Leinster, well last July when the draw was made we were all saying how relatively handy our pool things look a little differently as Lyon are 1st in the Top14, Northampton are 2nd in the Premiership and as for Benetton, we haven't beaten them at the RDS since Sep 2016 (ironically a couple of days before it was announced Stuart Lancaster was joining our coaching ticket).

That said, something similar happened when the draw was made in 2017.  We thought we had it handy yet when the fixtures began, all of our pool mates (Glasgow, Exeter and Montpellier) were top of their respective leagues and if my memory serves, that didn't turn out too badly.

So here's hoping the standards we have shown since the end of September can be brought forward to the coming weeks.  The schedule is really going to start hotting up - four European matches in five weeks with a league visit to Glasgow in between, then the seasonal interpros.

What a perfect way to forget all about that competition on the other side of the world, the name of which escapes me... JLP

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