Monday, December 16, 2019

Leinster-50 Northampton-21

No tries for Jack Ringrose on Saturday!  After both he and his brother Garry got hat-tricks on the same day back in round one, it would've been remiss of me not to check to see who got UCD's scores in their come-from-behind AIL win over Garryowen.  I doubt he's complaining, mind you; that was a good win for the students that keeps them in the playoff hunt.

What's strange about these two big wins over the Northampton Saints is that it's not the best we've done against them in Europe.  In 2016 after having won 37-10 in Franklin's Gardens the week before, we obliterated them 60-13 at the Aviva Stadium.  But that's where one important bit of context comes in - that was a very different Saints team.

Like this year's vintage, when it came to the return match in Dublin, their minds were more focused on their next Premiership outing, which was against the Sale Sharks both times.  But back then, they sat 9th on the table, while this year they sit top.

I actually thought this match would have been a lot closer to our back-to-back series with them in 2013.  Again, we had a convincing win at their place first back then only for the Saints to turn things around at the Aviva a week later - that might have been a tough ask this time, but I definitely expected it to be much more competitive.

Instead we had another lop-sided scoreline; not ideal for the neutral but I needn't tell you that when it comes to Leinster I'm far from one of those, so I enjoyed this outing immensely.  This week I'm going to do one of those writeups where I break down the key moments as headings and harp on them a bit; there were certainly plenty of scores to help fill out the article...

2m - Ringrose try #1 (R Byrne conversion), 7-0.

James Lowe received the kickoff and from there Leinster embarked on a near-perfect start - courtesy of James Tracy crashing out of his 22, Dave Kearney catching Luke McGrath's box kick at halfway and Lowe and Ringrose combining out wide to get into the Saints 22 in just over a minute.  Then all seemed lost when an inside pass to skipper Scott Fardy was knocked on but as the visitors tried to play their way out, Andy Symons' clearance kick was blocked allowing Ringrose to collect and saunter over the line. 

I have to say referee Dan Jones was way too quick calling the knockon advantage over, doing so after two passes as opposed to two phases, and given how last week had gone, you can imagine the frustration of the Northampton players, especially as Ross Byrne added the extras with a beautiful strike from the touchline.

6m - Ringrose try #2 (R Byrne conversion), 14-0.

Again Lowe received the restart although we went to the box kick quicker this time, and it gave the Saints their first bout of possession at midfield.  Right off the bat our infamous defense kicked in and they were driven back into their half forcing Dan Biggar to launch a high ball of his own.  As Luke McGrath took an impressive catch he was clattered in the air by the human wrecking ball that is Taqele Naiyaravoro, and the boot of Ross Byrne gave us a lineout at their 22.

What happened next reminded me of a Brian O'Driscoll try back in 2013; the lineout was even in the same spot.  Fardy took the catch before handing it to Josh van der Flier.  As if the Red Capped One's tackling skills weren't enough he also proved a handy scrum half as he fired a long pass to his actual 9 who shipped it on to Ross Byrne.

The set move had Lowe running a strong line to receive an inside ball from his 10 and as he's tackled by Proctor the cocky Kiwi made his offload to Ringrose look ridiculously easy.  Just six minutes gone, two tries for our 13, two tries for us, and this is why Biggar & co were so annoyed at that early advantage over call; we were always capable of scores like this one so our getting the rub of the green from the ref certainly didn't help.

11m - R Byrne penalty, 17-0.

Luke McGrath put this exit kick out on the full so the Saints finally had an attacking lineout but as they got going in our 22, it was their turn to have a lock knock on and while the ref did call advantage over quickly again, it was already clear that it wasn't to be the Premiership side's say as they got pinged for offside.

From there we made our way up the field with relative ease before a high tackle on Henshaw gave us a penalty in front,  Greedy though it may seem, I was disappointed we went for the three points and not the corner, although creating a three-score lead was of course absolutely the right call.

19m - Biggar try (Biggar conversion), 17-7.

It wasn't long before we were back in their 22 but this time we were pinged and a couple of further penalties allowed Dan Biggar to march his side up the field.  The third one was right in front of our posts and the Welsh 10 took it quickly, giving it to Proctor who somehow popped it back to him amid two tacklers, allowing him to break his side's duck. 

20m - Tuala Yellow card. 

Finally we had a Leinster restart but it still wasn't long before we were attacking their 22 again.  Having made space out wide, Lowe went on another tear up the touchline before offloading to McGrath and as he shaped to take the return, his jersey was pulled by fullback Ahsee Tuala.  After consulting the TMO the ref awarded a penalty and yellow card, although while I'm probably being greedy again, I thought a penalty try was on the cards as the jersey pull took Lowe off a line where he could have taken the pass.

22m - Furlong try (R Byrne conversion), 24-7.

From the ensuing penalty, we of course went for the corner and it was simply done from there.  Lineout, maul, Furlong falls over the line.  Having had a breakaway move result in a long run into the Saints half earlier, this was more his range and hey presto we had our 17-point cushion back.

30m - Wood yellow card.

With a couple of minutes left with Tuala in the bin, Saints skipper Tom Wood joined him, although I can't for the life of me work out why.  He had just been warned for team penalties and he was the one pinged this time around, although it looked like he was legitimately latched on and if anything should have won the penalty himself.

36m - D Kearney try (R Byrne conversion), 31-7.

After Ruddock and Doris combined to strip the ball free at midfield, we worked it wide where it was Kearney The Younger's turn to get in on the action as he tiptoed his way around a tackler or two before wrapping up the bonus point for us.  The TMO had so many looks at the strip tackle for a knock on you'd swear he was desperate to disallow the score but it couldn't be done.

39m - Sleightholme try (Biggar conversion), 31-14 (HT score).

We looked to be off to the races in the Saints half again before Ludlum read a McGrath pass perfectly to intercept and charge down the field into our 22.  He was well tracked by Henshaw who hauled him down but he had plenty of support and with a penalty advantage, they shipped it out wide where Sleightholme had the space to go over.

The TMO got involved again, checking where Gibson's decoy line took McGrath out of tackling range, but it wasn't the blocking that concerned me rather the blow to the head with his elbow.  Nevertheless the ref ruled that Luke had "initiated the contact" and the try was allowed to stand.

43m - Lowe try, 36-14.

Much like last week, you have to credit the Saints for keeping at us despite the deficit, and more so this time since apparently their Christmas party was scheduled for that evening in Dublin.  But even when they put in a 15-man effort to move the ball from one end of the pitch to the other via 11 phases, one dropped pass in our 22 meant it was time for yet more "Larmour-geddon".

Back to his side-stepping best, he left a host of Saints in his wake to make it into their half before being hauled down when he realised he had also avoided his own support.  It did arrive in time to recycle though, and once in the 22 Ross Byrne delivered a perfectly weighted grubber through which sat up for Lowe to take and his determination got him past Biggar at the line for try number five.  Shortly after Ross had to be replaced by Frawley after an awkward collision; hopefully he'll be ok.

48m - Ringrose try #3 (Frawley conversion), 43-14.

You see the "strip tackle" (pardon the double-double entendre) employed more often in each match but while it can be effective, it also comes with a risk because if you do wrest it free, you don't have much control over where it ends up.

In this match it gave us a perfect way to illustrate the fortunes of the two sides.  Earlier when Ruddock stole one, it was judged to have fallen sideways.  On 48m however, as Leinster were attacking the Saints 22, Naiyavoro got the steal yet it fell away from his team mates and into the grateful arms of Garry Ringrose who completed his hat-trick.

58m - Tuala try (Biggar conversion), 43-21.

Still the Saints kept at us.  Dave Kearney thought he had a second try when he ran the length of the pitch but it was called back for a tackle off the ball by Ringrose.  Their next trip to our 22 was thwarted by trademark van der Flier jackling. 

Finally they did put together a prolonged series of phases that was helped by an outrageous "slap pass" by Proctor which found its man from several metres away; then they worked it down the field before a rare lapse in our defence around the breakdown allowed Tuala to take it himself up the middle and dot down under the posts.

67m - Doris try (Frawley conversion), 50-21.

Almost like Northampton felt badly about that last try and were keen to return the favour, Caelan Doris spotted a similar gap at a breakdown down the other end and he too coasted under the posts.

That was all the scoring (as if that wasn't plenty!) but it certainly wasn't all the action, at least not for defensive nerds like myself.  While I've never been wild about a losing team getting a bonus point for four tries (one should be enough for keeping the margin down IMO) the fact was that Northampton still had one to play for and despite these heavy defeats could still consider themselves in the running for a best runners up spot.

Unfortunately for them, one of the biggest features of our outstanding defending has been the way if anything it gets stronger when we empty our bench.  When eight impatient boys in blue with a point to prove join the fray, all the determination in the world won't guarantee you a bonus point and we tackled like the win itself was on the line right to the end.

Jordan Larmour won man of the match and with his ridiculous sidestepping (which included one run in the second half that had the Aviva crowd close to shouting "Olé!" with every man beaten) together with some great catches of high balls, he probably just about earned it, despite Ringrose's try trio. 

The fact remains, however, that there were many fine displays throughout the Leinster lineup.  Ross Byrne was very commanding until his unfortunate injury, and Frawley's cameo also caught the eye.  The starting wingers were also outstanding in their own way and I can't see either being replaced in our top XV anytime soon.  In the pack Tracy, Furlong and, of course, the entire back row impressed.

But once again this was more about a team performance from 1 to 23.  I was surprised to learn that we were the first team ever to qualify after just the four rounds, but the way we have been playing it's not that much of a surprise.

Rather than be too superstitious about how long this perfect start to the season is going to last, I'd much rather let the future matches come along one at a time and just savour what I have seen to date.  We seem to be playing like a team that is determined to shake St James Park from our memories and while the likes of Clérmont, Toulouse, Ulster (who we play next Friday) and yes, even Sarries will no doubt provide much bigger challenges down the line, you can be sure they will be equally wary of us if not more so.

All in all it was a quality pre-Christmas treat at the Aviva, and it was good to see so many happy Leinster fans leaving the stadium.  With interpros and more Champions Cup to come either side of the holiers, there's loads more to look forward to.  JLP

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