Monday, December 30, 2019

Munster-6 Leinster-13

You certainly can't blame this result on Frank Murphy.  Sure, his being from Munster wasn't the best look, nor was the fact that he reffed the same match last season which proved so controversial, nor was the way he was on a first name basis with the players as if he was an Under-12 coach asked to hold the whistle on a Sunday morning.  Yet the unified online anger against him (ranging from "He might as well have a red jersey on" to "Yeah, Frank, we get it, you're trying to be neutral") suggested his decisions really couldn't be linked to the outcome.

You can't blame this result on the conditions either, for the simple reason that both sides had 40 minutes with the wind at their backs.  It was a reality that needed to be handled, and Leinster did it better; I'd even go as far to say that had we been against the wind in the first half it wouldn't have made a difference.

I'd love to find a way of laying some kind of blame at eirSport TV, but only because I'm a finicky fan who likes as many stats as possible to help me analyse what's going on.  Once you get used to features like a "phase counter" graphic, you always expect them, and they are especially missed in low-scoring contests like these where there are key series of possessions that are heading towards the 40 mark.  It's challenging enough to keep track of who's carrying, who's tackling, who's clearing and who's fouling without trying to keep count of every breakdown as well.

I wouldn't even go as far as to blame the result on Munster's performance either.  They were definitely missing a spark at half back, especially for the first hour or so, but that said Leinster were making (or being forced into) enough offensive mistakes on their own to suggest the seven points that proved the difference at the end could have been found somehow, perhaps with a fully fit Murray/Carbery combo pulling the strings.

So what do we blame it on - the boogie?  Well yes, I suppose, if you want to use that word to describe Leinster's defending, which returned to the levels of consistency and organisation that has brought us similar tight away wins at Zebre and Lyon so far this season, offering a clear response to any concerns we might have had with Ulster's late try-spree last weekend.

As I watched this match the first time as a fan, I saw several different ways we could have thrown away our early lead, especially when Jack O'Sullivan jackled a penalty in our 22 at the 78 minute mark following immense pressure on our scrum.  But watching it again as a blogger who has written up all 24 of these contests throughout the 'Onesies', I couldn't help but be impressed by the blend of determination and confidence in the boys in blue without the ball from kickoff to the final whistle.  Full strength or no, you don't keep Munster tryless at Thomond Park without earning it.

Another thing I noticed on re-watch was that it looked to all intents and purposes that everything Leinster did was pre-planned.  Use the wind in the first half to build a decent lead, then trust your defense to bring it home.   While that might have been a very rough outline of the actual approach adopted by Leo and co, it's a hell of a lot easier typed than done.  Yet there we were getting over their line before the clock reached double digits.

The first to struggle with the windy conditions was former Leinster scrum half Nick McCarthy.  I'm assuming he practiced his box kicking in the warmups with some success because otherwise it would have been crazy to keep going back to them the way he did.  First, one would go too long, and when he tried to course correct the next one, it would just go straight up and down.  The happy medium could not be found - the only question was if Leinster would be able to capitalise.

While McCarthy was failing to clear, Ross Byrne was having great success with exerting pressure via territory kicks that kept the home side pinned back.  One such exchange gave Leinster an attacking lineout right on the 22 and after Devin Toner hauled the dart down and James Tracy cradled the ball as the maul edged forward, a neat set play from Rowan Osborne > Conor O'Brien > Ross Byrne > James Lowe got us all the way to the Munster line.  Just a few phases later Ed Byrne was being bundled over and there was our lead.

Now our task was to build on it.  Although the score suggests otherwise, there were some big moments from Munster throughout the match, but their only problem is that they were scattered throughout - making hay each time proved nigh on impossible and sometimes they actually regressed.

One such moment was a trademark jackled penalty from their tenacious openside flanker Chris Cloete that really got the crowd going.  Unfortunately for them, his desire to repeat the feat minutes later resulted in a penalty the other way for no clear release, allowing Ross Byrne to extend the lead to ten.

The greater our cushion, the easier it was to keep turning the Munster D as much as possible, and McCarthy continued to struggle with his clearances.  Just past the half hour mark a red hand on a blue arm in a lineout resulted in another three point chance for Byrne and we were now even further in front.

You expect the home crowd in any match to be vocal for the slightest infraction, and of course this counts triple when it's this venue and these opponents.  So you can be sure Frank Murphy got an earful when Ross Byrne tried one territory kick too many, having it blocked and then trying to make amends by impeding Rory Scannell's attempts to snatch it back.  It turned out ok for the home side, however, as a knockon and a scrum penalty later finally saw JJ Hanrahan get the chance to get them on the scoreboard just before halftime.

Any other season, if I was told not only were Leinster going to remain scoreless for the second half, but Conor O'Brien was to spill the second half kickoff giving Munster an attacking scrum right from the word go, only a fool would assume anything but a home win.  But with this Leinster D, anything is possible.

Munster did make points from this attacking situation, but it was just the three, and it took all of five minutes after a Doris steal at the breakdown relieved some pressure before Josh Murphy was pinged offside.  So now the lead was brought back down to a converted try - what Leinster needed was a way to do better against the wind than their opponents had before the break.

The next series may not have earned us any points, but it did serve to take the sting out of any momentum Munster may have gleaned from that early advantage.  We started just inside our own half and by the time Ed Byrne knocked on, another 5 minutes had been eaten off the clock and we had gotten all the way to their 5m line with several gainline busting carries, along with patient consistent recycling from young Rowan Osborne at 9, a late replacement for Jamison Gibson-Park.

By the time Munster emerged from their own 22, there was half an hour left.  We were not to return to that end of the field.  Again I was denied a graphic for this but I'd be confident enough saying the territory stat for the final quarter would have been 100% in the home side's favour.  A series of excellent kicks from first Rory Scannell and then Joey Carbery had us under the kosh on several occasions and much like us in the first half, it was up to Munster to take advantage.

And it's not like we played perfect rugby in this time either, although most of our no-nos were when we had the ball.   Often it was James Lowe doing them with a miskick out on the full here, and a poor decision to offload in his own 22 there, putting us back under pressure needlessly.  For a player like him however, that's not really a damning criticism because you know now only will he be determined to make up for it the next time, you also know he'll make good on it.

But time and time again whether the pressure was applied by territory kicks or our own mistakes, we were able to withstand it.  When it was our lineout throw deep in our 22, we managed to do enough to exit (even when it was Hugh O'Sullivan's first assignment after replacing Osbourne from his own 5m line).

And when it was a case of Munster cranking the invisible phase counter towards the 40 mark, time and time again we had at least one tackler to meet each and every one out runner.  Occasionally, we met them with two and when that happened, the gainline was driven back considerably, most of all on 75 minutes when a Cronin/Connors combo clobbered Darren O'Shea before the prolonged series was ended with Connors again hitting low before his skipper Scott Fardy jackled his way to the penalty.

Like I said earlier, while this should have been the match clincher, we were to offer them yet more chances in the closing stages but thanks to Ross Molony's lineout steal and clever clock-killing by O'Sullivan, we managed to lock down win number 13 from 13 this season.

Caelan Doris was awarded man of the match and was certainly a contender but not for the first time this season, he had tough competition.  Connors put up more insane tackling numbers (23, none missed), both our scrum-halves belied their lowly position on Leinster pecking order, and I'd like to give a special mention for James Tracy, who with Rónan Kelleher shining as a rookie before his injury and Sean Cronin returning to action behind him, has done very well in recent weeks IMO.  Jack O'Donoghue was probably the pick of the bunch from the home side.

But once again, it has been all about Leinster's defence.  Even against Ulster last week, we were able to keep them at arm's length when we had to, but this display, given the opposition, location and conditions, needed that little bit extra and we went out there with a lot.  I'm not sure what more I can say about a start to the season like this one, other than "more, please!".

And so we come to the end of a decade of Leinster rugby, on all of which I have harped week-in, week-out.  It began on January 16, 2010 with a Heineken Cup victory at the RDS over Brive, continued with a series of peaks and troughs, though definitely more of the former and I certainly can't think of a better way to end it. 

Here's to Leinster & Ireland rugby continuing to thrive on into the 2020s because despite the odd disappointment, it really has been thriving for the past ten years - I should know, I've watched it all!!! Onwards and ever upwards.  Have a Happy New Year folks.  JLP

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