Monday, January 13, 2020

Leinster-42 Lyon-14

I really don't want to make this writeup all about Ben Whitehouse if it's all the same to you, but because he has a habit of making himself heard when perhaps he doesn't have to, I'll get the talking point out of the way here at the start.

For me his reputation was forged a number of years ago when he was reffing a match between Munster and Connacht.  He awarded a penalty try based on assumptions of what was going to happen next that were so convoluted the Munster players & fans were left scratching their heads, and they were the ones who were awarded the score!!!

And you can be sure this match did him no favours when it came to shaking that narrative, and this has been much discussed on social media.  I actually won't harp on that too much, you can see it yourself here.  What I'll do instead is chuck him a bit of a lifeline by offering a few mitigating factors.

First, while I suppose being the senior official on the day he is responsible for everyone in his team, I really think all of those involved intervened when they didn't have to, most notably AR Mike English's contribution towards the end (paraphrase - "I didn't see what happened, but whatever it was, a player didn't like it very much") that led to a long delay for the TMO.

And that leads to my second point - fans are always understandably frustrated when there are stoppages for video replays, but in defence of the officials, there was nothing wrong with checking any of the three tries that were disallowed, and the first of those was Luke McGrath's before the match was even a minute old.  Perhaps the Scott Fardy cancellation was a tad finicky, but I still didn't see anything wrong with having a look.

If I were to have a major quibble with Whitehouse on the day, ironically it would be in an area where he didn't take action.  Three yellow cards are a lot for any team to ship especially in Europe, but I reckon Lyon could have had more.  

For one thing, the number 13 in their 'penalties conceded' column doesn't account for multiple times they had multiple advantages as we were rolling through phases in their 22.  For another, not one of the yellows were issued after scrums despite their being pinged several times at the setpiece.  While you could say after the match that Lyon put in a strong defensive performance at times, I'd counter that this couldn't be done without cheating, so it could be said that we were denied a few more points on the board than we actually got.

Now although I use the word "perfect" in my title, I'm not suggesting Leinster were on the day - in fact, the period of the match where we seemed to "let things slide" was notably around  the so-called "championship minutes" either side of half time when we struggled to make good use of Lyon's first yellow card, actually conceding a try in the process.  That said, if you're going to find yourself in a bad patch in a game, it doesn't hurt to have a two-score cushion when you do, especially if you're able to get things going again.

So let's see how we built that margin in the first place.  Like I said, we were a couple of over-eager steps by Luke McGrath from taking the lead in the first minute, and what's more, it was a move off our very first breakdown in our own half.  The space up that right wing was found so easily by Luke, Josh van der Flier and Dave Kearney that it seemed like a decent well to go back to.  Sure enough, Lowe found himself in a similar situation at just the 3 minute mark only for an awkward bounce stopping him.

But we weren't going to let that stop us either.  With phase after phase getting us beyond the gainline whether by passes or carries, we soon tempted our visitors into making their first penalty offences, first by their backs who were called offside, then their forwards who got pinged at the lineout.

As Ross Byrne prepared to put another kick to touch in their 22, Lyon failed to notice James Lowe creeping out to the far wing (keen not to be left out if that was where all the action was) and our outhalf's boot found the Kiwi with a perfect kick pass making the offload the Dave Kearney easy and thanks to a well struck conversion we were already 7 points to the good.

Things weren't to get much better for Lyon when Jean-Marcellin Buttin took the restart after more than half of his teammates had gone beyond him.  This kind of offside warrants a scrum rather than a penalty, although on this day it didn't matter as we earned one anyway at the setpiece.  With the central location it was no surprise that Byrne opted for the Anglesea Stand side touchline once again.

From here we easily exposed their defensive frailties out there once more as Toner took a clean catch, Robbie Henshaw provided his trademark crash ball and a neat dummy from Luke McGrath made space for JVDF to go over.  14-0 just like that, and all the signs are pointing to a repeat of the previous week's demolition of Connacht.

Yeah, about that...all due respect to our western cousins of course, but this is a team that has won 10 from 13 to sit 2nd in the Top14, certainly no mean feat.  And despite their sending a "typical French away" selection to D4 (no doubt mindful of the imminent visit of 3rd place Toulon in a couple of weeks) and the poor start, they weren't about to just roll over and let us do whatever we wanted.

The first sign was when we seemed to be waltzing our way to try number three before skipper Scott Fardy had the ball torn from his grasp by Hendrik Roodt in their 22.  Then having driven us back into our own half, Luke McGrath was smashed behind the gainline by Buttin yet even then, we looked more than capable of getting ourselves out of the situation.  Only this time we possibly had a bit too much confidence...

When you get used to virtually everything your attack touches turning to tries, you need to be wary of complacency setting in, and although I wouldn't want to pin too much blame on Ross Byrne, it was his pass off a set move that was cleverly pinched by Lyon number 8 Bruni.   He had a lot of ground to cover but he did so really well and there we were, back at a 7 point margin.

Thankfully this only served to anger the four-time champions who quickly put together a set of 17 phases including an amazing clean break from "Man of the Match Max" Deegan to get back into their 22.  After having Fardy's try disallowed, we embarked on another series of 20-odd phases, as the Lyon defence were holding out thanks to many penalty advantages before Lowe and Dave Kearney combined once more out wide, only this time with a higher degree of offload difficulty achieved by James.

It was here that Whitehouse finally saw fit to brandish a card at a red jersey, with the honour going to centre Ethan Dumortier although it almost could have been anyone.  But the number 14 wasn't an ideal number for us in the first half - whether it was our lead or the amount of opponents, we somehow managed to lose our mojo, mostly by way of discipline, so much so that if I was Harpin' On Lyon my leadoff Whitehouse rant might have wondered why he never threw a card Leinster's way.

So after first a high Devin Toner tackle got them into our 22 then a Rhys Ruddock penalty got them within 5, there was a third advantage in the mix of phases around our line before Roodt, no doubt extra-determined following a bit of handbags with Fardy moments earlier, got it over the line.

Things could have gotten even worse as it was Ross Byrne's turn to fluff the restart.  His form, as well as that of the backline, definitely seemed to dip after the interception, with indecision and wayward passes creeping in to our play, but with our defence remaining solid once we stayed within the Laws, it didn't cost us too much.

Actually while I'm on the subject of our D, the truth was we didn't have that much work to do without the ball.  Only Scott Fardy was able to break double figures in the tackle column, as opposed to the 11 Lyon players who did, including 4 who broke 20.  Top of the charts for the French side was Felix Lambey with 24, quite the achievement considering he came from the bench in the first minute and also got a spell on the naughty step in the second half for a deliberate knockon.

His yellow, which came amid a spell of constant Leinster pressure that included JVDF being denied his second try due to a Lowe pass shading forward, gave us a second bite at making the man advantage count and we got the job done thanks to a series of scrums that had the Lyon pack cracking under the pressure. Eventually their goal line defences succumbed to a thunderous line by Deegan, providing  his inevitable five-pointer.

So that was the bonus point secured, and crazy though it may seem, it arrived a lot later than it could have.  And to Lyon's credit, they still refused to let up, although without any further mistakes on our part to let them in, it wasn't going to have an effect on the scoreboard.

Not for the first time this season, our bench put in a decent shift.  Sean Cronin peeled off a maul to get try number five (although Tracy's overall display justified his starting berth) while the sixth was finished off by Andrew Porter from even closer.  In between, the crowd had an issue with a Lambie tackle on Ciaran Frawley which seemed to come from the Owen Farrell School of No Wrapping, but once more I'll cut this ref some slack in that perhaps he opted for mercy.

Having had a pop at some RDS matchgoers on the podcast during the week for leaving too early, although more did seem to do the 'walk of shame' on Sunday, I have to say I was impressed by the vocal reaction to some late Lyon pressure on our 22.  The final few minutes embodied just the kind of thing you'll miss if you plump from a prompter pint between the cheers and the determined Lyon carries, though in the end our even more determined tackling won out yet again and six converted tries to two seemed a fitting result by the end.

Of course you can't say any of Leinster's 15 wins to start this season have been "perfect", yet when you put them altogether, it's as perfect a start to a season as any team could wish for.  Of the 11 opponents we have faced, I'd say Lyon were probably the most difficult, comfortable though this victory may have appeared, at least on second watch.

But when it comes to the other meaning of my title, you get into very interesting territory.  Of those wearing blue on the RDS turf at kickoff on Sunday, I reckon only Ross Byrne can truly say his jersey is on loan, and even that is only because it's from a player no team on the continent could leave out.  And remember, among the excluded of which I speak are the likes of James Ryan, Rob Kearney, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan.

Here's the funny thing about this perfect start, however - we are now getting into a section of the campaign where all of that work can be undone.  Teams like Toulouse and Racing have kept the pressure up so much that despite 24 points secured from 25, even a home quarterfinal isn't yet mathematically certain.

That doesn't mean the numbers aren't working somewhat in our favour, however.  There is absolutely no pressure for us to secure a try bonus point next week when we travel to Treviso.  They will definitely be keen to give us a game and the victory is by no means certain, but not having to score four in the process definitely makes things easier.

All I know is that I'm quickly running out of ways to positively describe this season so far.  I guess all I can do is enjoy it while it lasts although there has been plenty of evidence to suggest it could do a whole lot longer.  JLP


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