Monday, November 18, 2019

Leinster-33 Benetton-19

It was Friday, September 2, 2016.  Leinster defeated Treviso 20-8 at the RDS; for many that's not a bad way to start a new season, but there was definite disappointment among fans of the boys in blue, mostly due to the fact that we didn't manage a try bonus point.  I wonder how many would have believed we wouldn't defeat this opposition at home again until Saturday, November 16, 2019?  Not I, that's for sure.

I still did my best to find the positives in my match writeup, yet as I was in the process of composing it on the Monday, news came through that rendered the article virtually meaningless...

Leinster Rugby have this morning confirmed the appointment of Stuart Lancaster to the senior coaching team.

The bog-standard simplistic thinking would be that most Irish fans would be unhappy at the appointment of an English anything, but that wasn't the case.  From what I could tell anyway, the move was seen as a positive, and with all the feedback from England's RWC2015 campaign seeming to suggest that Lancaster preferred to get on with his work without a whole lot of media commitments, this arrangement seemed to be a good one for all involved with Leo Cullen willing to assume those duties.

Considering where Leinster was at that time (a bit like Saturday just gone, our previous competitive match back then was also against Connacht though that one didn't go so well for us) I think we can all agree that the Cullen/Lancaster ticket has done extremely well since then.  Bringing in a new generation of players to carry on after the likes of BOD and Jamie, check.  Bringing in a new set of high quality foreign players to carry on after Isa and Brad, check.  Raising standards to a level which meant re-opening the trophy cabinet for new additions, check.

As many have pointed out since full-time on Saturday, it was far from an ideal performance from Leinster.  But still, there were two standout moments for me that illustrated just how high the bar has been raised at the province since those two came together (though of course that is not to diminish the roles of others on the coaching ticket as well).

The first came on the 4 minute mark.  On our opening possession, Garry Ringrose gave a taste of what was to be a nailed-on man of the match performance by breaking a tackle or three to get to halfway and not long later, he was crashing over the line for our opening try.  However, that's not what caught my eye, strange though that may seem.

We got from halfway to the Benetton line courtesy of a penalty awarded for not releasing, which skipper Johnny Sexton duly dispatched to touch in their 22, giving us our first attacking lineout of the day.  Thanks to a combination of the general level of rugby standards at the province, the fact that this was in front of a home crowd, plus the fact that the bookies had us not only favourites for the match yet also for the whole tournament itself, we would have expected to at least create a scoring chance from this situation.  So what was the lineout call?

Would Devin Toner take the easiest option and have it thrown to himself?  Or perhaps James Ryan?  Rhys Ruddock?  All very well tried and tested lineout receivers?  No.  The call was to Caelan Doris, making his first European start.  And who was throwing said dart?  Sean Cronin?  James Tracy?  No.  It was Rónan Kelleher, also making his first European start.   And the throw went perfectly, allowing the platform for Sexton to find Ringrose for the score six phases later.

For me it's that level of confidence in the 'next gen' players that has been a feature of the Cullen era.  As I suggested in my preview, not many would have been surprised had he gone for more experienced options in the 2 and 8 jerseys for our Heineken Champions Cup opener, yet after 6 wins from 6 in the opening round of the Pro 14, it's important to reward good performances from that phase, and to not only do so by starting those players but also to trust them with the first key set-piece of the day speaks volumes for our coaching ticket's eye for talent.

For my second piece of Leinster-centric gushing (surely I have to be allowed since it's a Leinster-centric site)  I'd like to jump ahead to the midway point of the second half.  At this stage we may have had the try bonus point in the bag, yet the four match points were far from certain.  Before I get to the moment itself, however, a few words on our Italian visitors.

Perhaps the folks who were streaming out of the RDS from the 70 minute mark might not have been too surprised at the Leinster victory given it was "only Treviso" but those of us who tend to follow the sport a lot more closely know that particularly under coach Kieran Crowley they have done extremely well.  And while their victory and draw at the RDS in the last couple of seasons might come with asterisks given the stage of the season, their run to the Pro 14 playoffs last season where they ran Munster awfully close at Thomond Park certainly doesn't.

And all of this led to an air of confidence among the squad that has to stem from the coaches.   You're not just here to make up the numbers, lads - if you play the right way in the right areas you have to believe you can actually win.  This showed as early as the 8th minute when they won a penalty from the restart after the Ringrose try and when 99% of visiting teams 5-0 down would have taken the points, they made quite the statement by putting it into the corner, which meant they were under even more pressure to come away with a score than we had been before.

9 phases after the lineout, skipper Dean Budd looked like he was going to ground short of the try line after a pick and go yet before he fell he chose to spin the other way and get the ball down thus proving his own decision to be worthwhile.

And although we were able to crank our game up a gear to put the game's next three tries on the board (I'll harp on them later), when they managed to avail of another short lineout opportunity on the 50 minute mark as hooker Epalahame Faiva defied the efforts of Luke McGrath to stop him, they showed they had no intention of throwing in the towel.

Sure enough having thwarted Leinster's next attack, they pumped it all the way into our 22 - James Lowe was able to retrieve and tidy but it was to be a good ten minutes of play until we were to have possession in the opposition half again.

Despite the concession of two tries at this point, our defence was doing extremely well.  In fact it wasn't so much our tackling accuracy that was the problem rather our tackling discipline.  Needless high tackles around the halfway line kept giving the visitors opportunities in our 22 and as we now know, Benetton can really punish you in those situations.

So when they had yet another attacking dart in our 22, it was important that our defensive cordon remained intact.  And the last thing you'd want to do at a time like that would be to make as many as four substitutions, right?  Not under the Cullen/Lancaster duo it isn't.  The former England coach has assumed the bulk of the defensive duties in his time at the province and it has to be said, an average of just 12 points and under 1 try conceded in 6 Pro 14 matches this season shows it has been working.

Yet still, swapping your entire front row and your strong-tackling out-half before a key defensive set isn't something most teams would tend to do.  And I have to admit, as faithful as I am to the boys in blue, I wasn't crazy about it myself at the time.  While I understand the need for squad management and making subs at pre-determined times, I would have thought the match situation also had to be taken into account.

Well, like I said, these substitutions took place on the 55m mark, and it wasn't until ten minutes later that James Ryan swatted an Italian dart giving us possession in their half and in all that time, they could not cross our line.  The introduction of Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Michael Bent and Ross Byrne took absolutely nothing away from our defensive structure.

Remember - if Benetton had crossed in that sequence they'd pull to within a score and their tails would have been well up.  Yet we were still showing good linespeed (and if you think we were offside that was nothing compared to what our opposition had been doing all afternoon), we were still hitting carriers two tacklers at a time driving them away from the gain line, we were still keeping the wide channels well covered.  Maybe some scores got through but when it really mattered, none could.

In fact if I had any complaints about the bench it would be Ross Byrne's first attacking decision, namely a crossfield kick pass from within his own 22.  As much as I like watching our defense in action, that doesn't mean I'm happy when we just give the ball back to the opposition needlessly!!!

Going back to the area of impressive substitutions, we had more on the 63 minute mark though this was more about the calibre of players being introduced.  I doubt there is a team in the competition who wouldn't be envious of being able to bring on players like Scott Fardy and Robbie Henshaw as late as the fourth quarter, especially when you consider the latter was a late replacement for Joe Tomane, who had also impressed this season.

Sidenote - I couldn't help but note the irony of Robbie being added to the matchday squad seeing how just seven days earlier I whinged on these pages about how often it was his name that was actually removed at the same stage!!!

Anyway, it's about time I stopped all the time travelling and got on with describing the remaining tries.  After Benetton struck quickly following our opening five-pointer, we returned the favour, again winning a penalty at halfway to get into their 22 except this time the score came after a penalty coming from the first lineout.  Then it was relatively simple - lineout > maul, phases, Ringrose try.

It took a Benetton yellow card for repeated offences to get us number 3 (and in fairness, we might have been a tad lucky not to get one for the same reason at some stage, especially since so many of the pings were for seat belt tackles).  After one starting prop went to the naughty step while the other went for an HIA, we went from scrum to penalty advantage to Rónan Kelleher showing once more he has a keen eye for the try line by cleverly stepping his tackler and crashing over.

My halftime wish for an early score after the break to nail down the bonus point was granted when Sexton tried his patented "wraparound" move.  Benetton scrum half Dewaldt Duvenage tried his own wraparound on our skipper yet couldn't hold on and Sexton broke free and surged into their 22.

He had plenty of options in support and chose Josh van der Flier who could have scored himself yet chucked it back to his skipper and as you can see from the lead photo, it meant a lot to him.  I'm more than 90% against having the World Cup at the same time the domestic season kicks off, but in this particular case after Ireland's particularly disappointing campaign, this weekend of four wins from four for the Irish provinces has come at just the right time to help those players move on.

After seeing off the Italian purple patch, James Lowe put us back on the attack in trademark fashion.  Having earlier done an improbable leap to keep a kick to touch in play, on this occasion he took a more straightforward catch and ran towards the chasers, almost daring them to tackle him.  It looked to all intents and purposes that he was going nowhere until an improbable offload in the tackle allowed Max Deegan (an early replacement for the unfortunate Doris who suffered an HIA) to break into the 22 where he was high tackled.

Yet another penalty led to a score from a set piece and 6 phases after the lineout, there was Garry Ringrose yet again, this time taking a miss pass with just the right line to put all would-be tacklers in his wake and putting the victory beyond doubt.

Another sidenote; this time about the Ringrose hat-trick.  While it was indeed amazing news for his brother Jack to also get three tries on the same day, for UCD against Terenure, that fact begs a question : why was there a full round of top division league matches on the same day as three of the four provinces were kicking off European campaigns?  All I hear about is how the club game needs promoting - maybe the fixtures could be spread out more easily for fans of both levels to lend their support.

The scoring at the RDS still wasn't done - full credit to the Italians for playing right to the final whistle and with a bit of luck they might have salvaged a bonus point or two.  Shortly after Sperandino was bundled into touch, the winger was eventually found in space to breach the Leinster defence, only he could only do so in the very corner.  

Why Ian Keatley bothered taking the conversion at all was a puzzle as the clock was ticking into the 80th minute and they still needed another try, but still they did well to soldier on for 8 phases after the restart before Henshaw ripped the ball free in a tackle at halfway to end the contest.

Others to impress on the day were James Ryan and Josh van der Flier who led the tackling charts with 19 and 18 respectively, though as I often say it was the team defensive effort that stood out the most.

So to those who remained in their seats to the final whistle, it was a satisfying end to an overall satisfying 80 minutes.  Was it perfect?  No.  Yet we thumped Wasps 52-3 at the same stage last season and emerged with the same amount of match points.

At least this way we know we have areas on which to improve, and with this coaching staff we know they are well able to make the right adjustments.  Factor in the desire of other next gen players to step up to this level, not to mention the desire of yet more RWC2019 squad members to move on by returning to the fray, and you have a Leinster set up that looks set to continue to be difficult to beat wherever they may go.  JLP

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