Monday, January 20, 2020

Benetton-0 Leinster-18



If you haven't been following Leinster rugby closely over the past few years, you'd learn a hell of a lot from the recent interview on the BBC Rugby Union Weekly podcast interview with Stuart Lancaster.

But if you're someone like me who has been harping on the province regularly in that time (since 2008 to be precise; seemed as good a time as any to mention it), while it was still a fascinating piece, very little of what he said came as a surprise.  Since his arrival, he has been able to get down to the business of tracksuit coaching which was always his preference, he has done so with great people around him from Leo Cullen on down, and the results on the pitch speak for themselves.

One thing you certainly wouldn't want to do while listening - play a drinking game where you must take a swig every time he uses the word "cohesion"!!!  Yet even that word itself epitomizes where Leinster have been in recent times all on its own.

Much like last week's win over Lyon, this display was not perfect.  Yet also like that match, once you put it in context with the rest of the season so far, it's hard to find another word that fits.  For one thing, we have to ask ourselves what exactly we want "perfect" to mean?

Do we really expect every single possession to lead to a try?  Every tackle to lead to a turnover?  Is that the bar we're setting?  I mean - being honest, when I watch us play I do find myself looking for "what went wrong" when those standards aren't reached as the match is in progress, but thankfully the final score always manages to drag me back to real world each time.

This run of 16 wins on the bounce to start the season is perfectly bookended by trips to the Stadio di Monigo.  Back in September, we came away with a narrow-ish, yet bonus point victory thanks in part to a second half red card.  A few years ago, that would be seen as a troubling result despite the maximum match points.  Not so any more, since Kieran Crowley has been at the helm.

Success at the RDS by way of victory in 2018 and a draw in 2019 may have come at a time of the season when Leinster will have had other things in mind, but Treviso's overall performances have come on in leaps in bounds in that time regardless.  Despite having the Italian ringfencing safety blanket removed, under Crowley they have managed to qualify for Europe by merit anyway, as well as coming within a whisker of the Pro14 semfinals last season.

And their evolution did not stop there.  Back on matchday 1 they came to the RDS again and while we prevailed, they showed a determination not to just be happy to make up the Champions Cup numbers.  They were there to compete and thanks mostly to a powerful lineout/maul set up (or dare I say cohesion), there was an ability to back up that self confidence.  So while the sight of their name at the bottom of pool 1 final standings might look familiar, it by no means reflects what they have brought to their six pool matches.

Their strategy for this one was clear - aim to maximise both possession and territory to such an extent that even winning a penalty at midfield could lead to a try-scoring opportunity.  Restarts were going short, the ball was kept in hand more often than not, and kickable penalties were spurned for kicks to the corner.

All of this was working to an extent from the kickoff.  It took us all of ten minutes to have anything remotely resembling decent possession in their half of the pitch.  And while overall our defensive structures were relatively sound, we could only keep them that way by way of conceding penalties - a total of seven in the first quarter or so to Benetton's one.

Yet when you choose not to take an easy three, you have to take at least five, and time and time again the home side couldn't do it.  Sometimes it was thanks to our defending, other times it was down to knockons, and arguably their best chance, when the ball was dinked over the top at halfway to fall right in front of two Treviso players who could have easily finished., was thwarted by sheer luck when the bounce was the most Leinster-est I have seen in many years, somehow finding its way to a very grateful Andrew Porter.

And even when our penalty count was such that referee Karl Dickson had no choice but send Caelan Doris to the naughty step, they still couldn't find a way through.  Speaking of Dickson, now seems a good time to critique the man with the whistle.  My main issue with him was his verbal communication.  At one point in the first half he tries to tell Porter he's illegal at the breakdown by calling "release, tackler!!!" yet since the tight head wasn't the tackler, he ignored it and thus was pinged.  "Blue 3" seemed a much more straightforward line.

Then as Leinster finally have a decent attacking position in the home 22, the ref declared Bram Steyn to be legal as he disrupted our maul yet as he says so, the flanker looks at him assuming he's giving out and the distraction actually allows Luke McGrath to rip it free.  Also in the second half, after a very harsh yellow card on Herbst shortly after kickoff (I doubt any one wearing blue would have appealed had the ref not gone directly to his pocket), he missed two seemingly easy opportunities to show consistency when both JVDF and James Ryan committed similar offences later on.  But I'm digressing by this stage - those are finicky points and I certainly don't think the winner would have been any different without those elements.

Going back to the first half, Leinster did eventually start to get some possession and territory, yet our attacking approach seemed very similar to that of our hosts.  Although Ross Byrne does like his kick passing, the conditions didn't really warrant it and I suppose after taking so long to get any kind of phase sequence going, it made some sense to hold on to it for a while.

Eventually we won a kickable penalty and since our two-point cushion in the overall pool standings meant a try bonus wasn't needed, we could afford to go for the easy three which meant the halftime score looked like a repeat of our visit to Parma in October was on the cards.

Our task was made much easier by the Herbst yellow so soon after the break and we continued to press with a possession and territory game, although we did go for more kicking, albeit grubbers towards touch in their 22.  Eventually this did pay off, but kind of by accident as Ringrose sent one over the end line which meant we went back for a scrum.   At this set piece we had a decent advantage, winning one of several penalties and allowing Ross to double our lead and at least get something from having the extra man.

I really hate to say it because it sounds really arrogant, but even though the clock was ticking towards the 60 minute mark and we were yet to build a lead of more than a converted try, I still felt comfortable.  Like despite the lack of perfection from Leinster, the cohesion was still somehow apparent.

This impression was most embodied by the display of skipper for the day Luke McGrath, who was rightly awarded man of the match IMO.  I thought he did extremely well with the referee, made a number of darting runs around the fringes that kept the mostly-solid Benetton D honest, and also right after the Doris yellow when the home side opted for a scrum, he made a critical tackle on their hefty number 8 Tola Halafihi who had taken it from the base.  And his role when we eventually crossed their line didn't hurt either.

Our territory kicking paid off when Larmour got one to sit in their 22, forcing Monty Ioane to play it under his own posts under pressure from Jordan himself along with Ringrose, JVDF, Lowe and Luke providing excellent (some might say "cohesive") support, producing a 5m scrum.  From here our advantage was just too great and a missile of a long pass from Ringrose, followed shortly afterwards by an innovative backhanded one by Luke, put Doris through for the score.

Again it was credit to Crowley's men that they didn't deviate from their plan and they took another short restart, this time actually winning it back, yet as has often been the case during this unbeaten run, our defending was getting stronger as the match progressed and JVDF was able to latch on at a breakdown to win a penalty which quickly had us back at their end of the pitch.

From there we made crossing the line look much more straightforward as James Tracy went over in the way Treviso had been trying all day, peeling off a successful maul following a short range lineout.  Ross Byrne missed the first conversion but with this one in virtually the same spot, he was able allow just enough for this one to go over off the upright.

With the next restart going long into our 22, it seemed that Benetton were resigned to their fate.  Like I say, we may have been a tad lucky not to ship another card in the closing stages but apart from that we saw the margin home really well, with our efforts to improve our side of the scoreboard eclipsed by the more impressive target of keeping them scoreless.

And so we emerged with both the home quarterfinal and top seed tucked safely away, bringing an unbelievable block of results to a close.  Sixteen played in all competitions, sixteen wins.  So where does all that leave us?

Bizarrely we actually find ourselves in a very similar position to that faced at this time back in 2018; then we won our final pool match in a different time zone by a similar margin, making six wins from six in the pool stages with Owen Farrell & co set to visit the Aviva for an April quarterfinal showdown.  Only this time, the similarities end there, don't they.

I most definitely have a thing or six to say about the whole "#Salarycens" saga but if you don't mind I'll save them for a podcast during the week (forgive the shameless plug but you can click here to find out all of our platforms so you can subscribe).

For now I'd much rather focus on Leinster's side of things.  As often is the case at this time of year, having secured a home quarterfinal we must sit and wait to see what kind of squad we end up with on the other side of the Six Nations.  In the meantime, we have a lead atop Conference A of the Pro14 to consolidate, and despite all our victories, Ulster are playing well enough to suggest any kind of slip up (in a schedule that includes a South African mini-tour) might bring them close.

So there's much still to do for the boys in blue this season but with Leo, Stuart & co involved, who in their right minds would bet against them?  They certainly shouldn't be lacking in cohesion, that's for sure.  JLP

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