Monday, November 25, 2019

Lyon-6 Leinster-13

I wouldn't say this is my biggest rugby bugbear (rug-bear?) of all but it's definitely in my top five.  Irish teams don't use drop goals anywhere near as often as they should IMO.  And the most ironic thing about it is that those particular "three-pointers" played a major part in both of our professional era Grand Slams.

For one thing, it's a handy way to make the most out of an attacking situation where you have already exhausted a number of phases in and around the 22 and the opposition D doesn't seem likely to buckle, nor does the ref seem likely to award you a penalty.  Be it the national team or any of the provinces, over the years the tendency always seems to be for us to either go for the rugby league style grubber through or more likely to persist with the picks-and-go.

My assertion is that if we keep the drop goal option higher on our list of playbook priorities, it could have us better primed for those situations in the final moments when a match/championship is on the line.  It won't always be the case that we'll have such world-class 10s like O'Gara and Sexton to call on at those times.

One top level competition where I do see the drop goal frequently used is the Top 14, and it's from watching their matches that I formed my opinion.  It might not be the sexiest thing to happen on a rugby pitch and you could definitely make a case for them to count for fewer points like in league, but for now they're a great way to keep the scoreboard ticking over.  But here's the thing...even for a French team, I thought what happened in the fourth minute at the Matmut Stade de Gerland was extraordinary.

Lyon took the kickoff and after a brief exchange of box kicks, Luke McGrath (who hasn't had a great opening couple of rounds and might be under pressure from JGP for the next couple) was the first to succumb to the damp conditions and spilled the catch in his own 22 to give the home side a wonderful early attacking opportunity.

After one reset, the scrum was solid and they proceeded to go through some phases around our 22, but before they even reached the 10th one, Sexton's former Racing team-mate Jonathan Wisniewski dropped into the pocket and attempted an early three points.

To be fair, our defense even for that relatively small number of tackles seemed to be as strong as it has been all season, but that's also part of my point.  Lyon were the home side, they've had a great overall start to the season as they lead the Top14, yet on their very first series of plays, they went for the three points.  I really don't think they could have shown more respect to our defensive organisation this season if their coaching staff actually bowed down before Leo, Stuart & co.

Probably because the kick missed it's mark, they weren't to go for this play again in the match; still, right up to the 80th minute and beyond, their attacking approach was clearly designed based on an assumption that trying to penetrate the blue wall by conventional methods just wasn't going to amount to much.

photo by Ian McDonald
So with our stinginess marker laid down before we really had a chance to do it ourselves, the question that remained was how we were going to establish a lead, and when some neat offloading at midfield saw Garry Ringrose break into the Lyon half, he was tackled high allowing "dead-eye Dick" to put us 3-0 ahead.

OK perhaps I should explain.  If you weren't watching BT Sport's coverage, that's what their commentator Scott Hastings (credit to Brian Donnelly for the name - of course I know who he is I just didn't know this was him!) called Johnny Sexton.  As his accent was distinctively Scottish, I assume that's a phrase that hails from that part of the world, which is fine.

But what became a trend from the commentary team was a tendency to get our players' names wrong.  To be a little fair to them, I can absolutely guarantee that if I were doing that job I would make verbal typos all over the place.  Still, the reason things like "Tad" Furlong (even if that is a common shortening for the same name in Scotland), and "George" Lowe (even if he was a former team mate of Ugo Monye's at Harlequins), caused myself and many other Irish fans irritation on twitter is because ever since BT Sport started covering the Heineken Champions Cup there has been a justified narrative whereby despite their being the only carrier of all games across Ireland & Britain, their coverage seems somewhat apathetic towards any club which does not play in the Premiership.  But I digress...

Play continued along a similar vein throughout the first half, with Lyon trying other means by which to get beyond the Leinster tackling cordon (cordon bleu? 🤔 - ooh, there's me title!!!) and to be fair, the little chip by Wisniewski with the likes of Charlie Ngatai and Toby Arnold doing the chasing did get some results on occasion.  However, they possibly went to that particular well one time too many...

With possession at halfway, and the play possibly a little too broken for this option, they went for it again and it was easily read by Josh van der Flier who managed to block, retrieve, run into space and eventually offload to James Ryan, who in turn surged all the way into the 22.  

From there, as has often been the case this season, he had excellent support to clear out the crucial first breakdown which meant we could reset and keep the front foot momentum going until eventually Max Deegan (who I noted in my preview has a knack for finding the try line) picked, went, and got over the line with a little help from a latch by Rhys Ruddock.

Since all three back rowers were involved in that move, I'd like to slightly digress once more to point out that as much as I'm one of Johnny Sexton's biggest fans, I thought the decision to award him Man of the Match was an extremely lazy one.  In fact, I don't think he'd even crack the top three since IMO all of our starting back row would be ahead of him, with Josh at the top thanks to another chart-leading 20 tackles plus a carry over from another good outing the previous week.

Anyway - Sexton did knock over the conversion to make it 10-0 to Leinster, which meant that "all" we had to do was maintain our defensive integrity and we'd get that coveted away victory in France.  Well it wasn't long before that integrity got its biggest and most prolonged test of the afternoon.

photo by Ian McDonald
Unfortunately Luke McGrath also gets negative marks in this sequence; after a Leinster scrum at midfield he was put under enough pressure by his opposite number Baptiste Couilloud (see pic - cheers Ian!) to cough up the ball and the Lyon 9 retrieved to bring it deep into our 22.  Luke did manage to stop him but on that breakdown Jordan Larmour jumped the gun slightly thinking the ball was out and got rightly yellow carded.

So here we had an even better attacking platform for the home side, with an extra man to boot.  But we'll never know what their overall plan was because on only the second carry after the scrum option they went for, a rushed pass was dropped by lock Hendrik Roodt to take all the air out of the situation.  I don't think I'd be crazy to suggest this outcome was also forced by our defense's reputation.

For the remainder of the sin-binning and all the way to the break, while we couldn't manage to bring the play too far into opposition territory, they continued to struggle to breach our line, with Larmour returning to the field after we denied a 13-phase set thanks to our usual blend of line speed, coordinated 2-man tackles and blanket coverage.

This relative ease continued into the second half, although along the way another aspect was starting to creep in to our side of the equation, namely the concession of penalties.  Our overall count of 12 was way, way too high for our liking, and even though Lyon shipped 10 themselves, if there was to be a second card flashed I reckon it should have been to us.

Particularly at mauls after lineouts, while I thought referee Luke Pearce had a decent enough day with the whistle particularly when it came to communication, it seemed like he first gave us a warning at a lineout, then another, then said nothing the next time before eventually issuing a 'final' one.  Trust me, I'm not complaining, merely acknowledging, but this was the kind of "getting away with murder" of which we often accuse the All Blacks.

There was one moment in the second half where Sexton did stand out, when he planted a monster hit on Lyon's English born number 8 Carl Fearns before our skipper himself got drew an elbow from hooker Mickael Ivaldi.  This drew a penalty after TMO review and as Pearce tried to explain the penalty to Couilloud, the Lyon captain gave this curious reply : "But he (Sexton) is strong!!!"

Anyway, back to Leinster's second final warning, we managed a good lineout denial when Fearns led a maul that seemed to break free before getting wrapped up by Deegan, Porter and Tracy, thus creating a choke tackle.  On the Fearns close up as he prepared for the scrum, you didn't need to be an expert lipreader to tell he was disappointed.

Then on the next Lyon lineout, we infringed AGAIN, and this gave us our final final warning.  I actually thought this call was harsh as I really don't think Ryan did anything to disrupt the jumper but the upshot was a penalty and once more the home side showed respect to our goal-line defence by gratefully taking the three points on offer instead of having another shot at five or more.

We seemed to be on our way to more front foot ball when Deegan broke into their half (after yet another unsuccesful Lyon chip I might add) and he shipped it to George James Lowe providing good support.  No doubt the Kiwi might have been a bit miffed to have played so little part in the previous 67 minutes but still, this was not the time to be trying a cheeky behind the back offload, even for him, and it was intercepted.

Yet try as they might, the 'Wolves' could not gain any traction with the ball.  Devin Toner ripped one free to end a bout of Lyon possession, JGP cleverly drew a penalty at a scrum in direct contrast to his team-mate earlier, and even when inside centre (though more of a second five eighth) Charlie Ngatai planted a clever crossfield kick that put Rob Kearney under pressure, the experienced full back made tidying the situation look way easier than it was.

Then with a penalty advantage coming next time (in fact the only real time in this half) we got close to their try line, Sexton dotted down under the posts only for it to be rightly called back as Ringrose's intended decoy run looked more like an illegal block.  Still, the penalty was enough to restore our lead to ten.

Just as Lyon were restarting, I was thinking I'd be really pissed off if we somehow let them away with even a losing bonus point at this stage, yet although we did ship a kickable penalty straight away, it was one of those 'accidental offsides' where Toner got his finger to the high ball only to knock it forward and Ringrose did the instinctive thing by catching it, so in a way that dampened my disappointment as the margin went back down to seven.

And although I did breathe something of a sigh of relief as Toby Arnold spilled the ball after a strong tackle by Deegan after the clock went red, even as they were clocking up the phases up to that point I wasn't as anxious as I have been on similar occasions in days gone by; because as I pointed out last week, the introduction of our bench to the action seems to do little if anything to change the integrity of Le Cordon Bleu.

So obviously, I was happy overall with the result.  If I hadn't have thought of the French pun, my title for this piece was going to be "That'll do!" because that was by far the most frequent response by Leinster fans on social media.  Possibly not enough points scored (though in fairness the French weren't too bad themselves defensively), and definitely too many penalties conceded, but an away win against the Top 14 leaders while keeping them tryless is certainly nothing to be sneezed at.

One thing is for sure, despite our more than satisfactory start to the campaign, we still have a lot of work to do.  Benetton showed in round 2 that they will be no easy proposition at home.  What's more, having dug deep to win at the death, the Northampton Saints will feel they have momentum to do a better job of playing us on their own turf than Lyon did.  And it's not like we have a rest weekend before then - I'm sure the Glasgow Warriors will be keen to take us down a peg or two in Scotstoun.

But I will keep on saying it because Leinster keep on proving it week in week out over the eight matches we have played this season no matter what XV (or even XIV) is on the park; if we can continue to intimidate our opposition into making high risk choices with the ball merely by the thought of facing our defense for the rest of the season, it will only lead to good things come next May.  JLP

PS - If you're easily bored by all things pedantic, you needn't read this bit...going back to the subject of BT Sport's coverage, this is a much, much smaller point than the one I made earlier which is why I'm leaving it outside the main article.

But as I was watching the match I couldn't help but notice the way they abbreviated the two team's names for the score graphic in the top left hand corner of the screen.  "Lyon", despite having only four letters, was reduced to "LYN", thus suggesting that they only had enough space for three.  Yet when they did "Leinster", they were somehow able to shorten it to "LEIN".... 

Yes, I know, it's a dumb thing to notice, but I can't help how my nerdy mind works 😋

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