Monday, December 02, 2019

Glasgow Warriors-10 Leinster-23

The date was February 22, 2013 and on a wet night in Glasgow, the Warriors overcame Ulster in the then RaboDirect Pro 12 by a score of 20 points to 14

Hardly a memorable result in Celtic League folklore I know, yet it stuck in my head because of one unusual stat - the Warriors managed a bonus point victory that evening with the bare minimum of 20 points scored on the pitch.  Four tries, none of them with extras added.  And although the conditions were far from ideal, I distinctly recall at least one conversion was pretty much in front of the posts and thanks to a close up courtesy of the broadcasters, the outhalf could be seen cursing himself as he flung the tee aside.  

The placekicker in question was Peter Horne.  And before I leave my obscure opening reference behind, other players involved both in that match and last Saturday's were Tommy Seymour, Niko Matawalu, Tim Swinson and Ryan Wilson.  But back to Mr Horne; he's clearly not an ideal option for starting 10, and while all the talk before this match was about how Leinster were resting so many more players than their hosts for the upcoming back-to-back matches in Europe, perhaps it was this one Glasgow change that made the difference in Scotstoun.

It's probably unfair to put so much blame on the shoulders of one person whatever the result, and it's not that I'm suggesting Horne is a bad player; all I'm saying is that he's not an outhalf that's suited for this level at any club, let alone one that has gotten used to success with the likes of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings over the years.

The reason I focus so much on him is that despite Leinster's overall impressive display, clinically finishing chances in the first half to establish a lead before doggedly defending throughout the second to bring it home, when watching the entire 80 minutes you could still see a clear path to victory for the home side, and it was one that was blocked several times by the actions of their number 10.

And it's not as though a home win would have been an upset, even though the two sides have had contrasting fortunes in the opening weeks of the 2019/20 campaign.  It seems a long time since last season's final at Celtic Park which made the league realignment look as though these two teams would have been vying for top spot in Conference A.  Clearly Dave Rennie's squad was more affected by RWC2019 absentees than ours was, but still even hardcore Leinster fans were saying before kickoff they'd have been happy with a losing bonus point from Scotstoun.

And for the first ten minutes or so, it looked like that was all we could hope for.  Glasgow took the kickoff (giving that job to full back Ruaridh Jackson rather than Horne - that could've been a sign) and after some early exchanges a nice offload from Matawalu put Sam Johnson into space before the centre planted a nice little grubber through that sat up just short of the try line.

In a position to take the ball for the Warriors was Huw Jones, and in real time it really did look as though Hugo Keenan might have denied him a try-scoring opportunity with his challenge, which gave referee Craig Evans a decision to make between three options - just a penalty, penalty plus yellow, or penalty try as well?

Well the TMO system didn't throw bouquets at itself with what happened next - the ref stood there for ages waiting to see a replay that wasn't forthcoming.  I guess the booth was unable to transfer it to the big screen but this failing should be flagged a lot sooner.  Anyway, the TMO judged it to be the middle option which meant Keenan was sent to the naughty step although when I finally got to see the replay it looked as though the ball was already behind Jones before the tackle was made.

Yet down to 14 men we went, and to be fair to Peter Horne, the Glasgow attack following the ensuing lineout was employed cleverly to make the most of the missing full back, with phases creating an overlap for Jackson to go over in the corner.  But that's where it all began to go wrong for the home 10 as he pulled his conversion wide.  Granted it wasn't the easiest placekick but things weren't to get much better for him.

They continued to try to make hay with the extra man and looked to be on the way to a second try when another overlap appeared (we were down to 13 this time as Josh Murphy was receiving attention) only for Matawalu to let the final pass slip through his fingers.  They went back for the penalty advantage, and as Oisin Dowling took to the field to replace Murphy, Horne lined up a fairly central place kick which would have extended their lead to 8.  But that wasn't to happen, as he pulled the kick in similar fashion to his first and it clipped the outside of the upright before going dead.

From the ensuing 22 drop out, Swinson took the catch but Devin Toner wrestled him for it before it popped out into the grateful arms of Adam Byrne who charged up the wing with Jimmy O'Brien in good support; he took the offload and just like that we had our first decent possession at the opposition 22.  Amid the phases was a high tackle which gave Ross Byrne the opportunity to claw three points back, one he duly took.

So from having an extra man and a chance to go two scores ahead, now Glasgow were a mere two points ahead as Keenan returned to the action.  That's a massive difference against any team, let alone the reigning champions who are known for having a stingy defense.

One area the home side were getting a bit of leverage was the scrum, with a couple of penalty calls going against Michael Bent.  One of them was at midfield and put the Warriors back into a strong attacking position at our 22.  With our full complement of players it took them 13 phases to create some space out wide, yet it still resulted in five points, again from Jackson, though in the opposite corner this time.

And when Horne's third attempt failed to hit the target, even through the TV you could sense the disappointment from the home crowd.  What was a 10-3 lead could have, and arguably should have, been 17-3.

It's not as though their stand-in stand-off's problems were only from the tee either.  The vast majority of his territory kicks fell comfortably into Leinster hands, and given how our one and only foray into their half had gone, it did look as though there were more points for us if we even got half a chance.

The first half chance arrived after another strong Adam Byrne run and now it was our turn to work some space in the widest channel before a Conor O'Brien offload put Cian Kelleher into space to go over.  Ross Byrne had no trouble adding the extras to level the scores and with 32m on the clock I'd wager most Leinster fans would have taken 10-10 as the halftime score in a heartbeat.

But Horne's nightmare first half was about to get worse when, after being tackled, he placed the ball back for a team-mate that wasn't there, which allowed Ross Molony to nip round and go for it before Horne instinctively pulled it back.  Am I alone in thinking that was possibly a yellow?  Seems like the definition of a "professional foul" to me. 

Anyway - we were grateful for the penalty and straight off the lineout, Conor O'Brien provided the perfect crash ball before quick hands by first Gibson-Park, then Connors, then Ross Byrne got it back to Cian Kelleher who got it down for his second.  Clearly he's had enough of his brother Rónan getting all the try-scoring glory lately!

That score was right in the corner but this meant little to Ross Byrne who put his opposite number to shame by brilliantly dispatching the touchline conversion over the posts to create an unbelievable 7-point cushion for us.  The Warriors did try to respond before the break but after 13 phases, with cruel irony it was that man Horne again with the knock on and we were able to kill the half.

I truly did not know what to think during the break.  How on earth were we in this match, let alone in the lead?  One thing I knew for sure - this was no occasion to go taking any risks in search of a bonus point.  We needed to play smart rugby in the second half to bring the lead home, and thankfully that is exactly what we did.

What can I say about out defensive organisation that I haven't already said over the past eight matches this season?  Well one thing does jump out of this particular performance - our overall missed tackle count of 31 doesn't look great as a raw stat.  But when you saw our D in action, it didn't really seem to matter as whenever a carrier was missed he was generally swallowed up but at least one tackler moments later.

And top of the charts yet again was Will Connors, who seamlessly picked up from where he had left off in Galway a few weeks ago.  There was certainly nothing misleading about his finally tally of 25 tackles made and none missed, and there was plenty of quality to go with that quantity.  It was like he instinctively knew which phase to get involved each time, not to mention which technique was most effective, although the chop does seem to be his forté.  Add that to some decent carries and passes and you have another complete performance which made the MotM choice very easy.

But even he couldn't stop the Warriors all on his own and all throughout the second half our linespeed and coordination were just too much for our opposition yet again.  When it came to the crunch, there simply wasn't a soft shoulder to be found and it's almost as if knocking on or getting bundled into touch is becoming something of an inevitability.

It didn't hurt our cause to tack a few points onto our side of the scoreboard in the meantime, and again Ross Byrne didn't disappoint from the tee (his territory kicks in the second half were also worth a mention), adding two more penalties to bring the lead to thirteen.  However even as the second went over with only ten minutes left on the clock, you couldn't help thinking that a quick Glasgow score could keep the contest alive, and in fairness they never gave up and I reckon they had close to 100% territory in those closing stages.

But that meant little to our D, which if anything seems to get even stronger the longer a match goes on, even with a raft of second half changes.  On 76 minutes we held out a 16-phase set before Jackson was denied his hat-trick by spilling it over the line.  Then having gone back for a penalty, Glasgow went for a scrum and from here Johnny Gray spun over the line only to be held up.

We saved the best spell for last when an energy-sapping 31 phases (not forgetting the bitter cold - the player's breath made it look like a vaping convention) ended in their sub scrum half Nick Frisby getting put into touch beyond the 80th minute, an outcome which was celebrated by the Leinster XV as though we had actually nicked a third try ourselves.

Among many honourable mentions for individual performaces is Caelan Doris for some great carries and tackles of his own.  Also I thought Dowling did well for his extended cameo, and Gibson-Park's exit touchfinders, especially in the second half, were particularly helpful and I wonder is the newly-Irish-qualified 9 is pushing for a starting role next week.

Of course I'm extremely wary of heaping too much praise on the Leinster set up.  There's a massive test to come with a home and away series with Premiership (Biggar v Sexton on terrestrial TV next Saturday - could be their best pool-stage viewing figures to date) so nothing can be taken for granted. 

But especially after all that happened in Japan, I'd really have to turn my "curmudgeon-ometer" up to maximum to complain about Leinster's season to date.  From 1 to 15 we seem to have options galore ready to get the job done and all I can ask is for more of the same each weekend.  JLP

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