Monday, February 17, 2020

Leinster-36 Cheetahs-12

In one way, the above picture is perfect for describing Saturday afternoon in D4 and in another, it's totally useless.

As you can see, it clearly shows how bad the conditions were.  Storm Dennis proved to be a menace as our weather apps and the fear-mongering clickbait tweets had been warning us throughout the week.  And as an added feature, he waited until the moment the players took to the RDS pitch to release the serious rain, only switching it off again with the clock in the high seventies.

But what the photo doesn't tell you is that 8,000 plus rugby diehards braved the elements to watch the match unfold.  That's not a great figure by Leinster standards, but it's way above the median when it comes to the league.  The only reason the stands look in the photo more like those at Toyota Stadium Bloemfontein or Liberty Stadium Swansea for Pro 14 contests is that those at either end were closed for safety reasons, with ticket holders allowed to move to covered seating where the regulars were more than happy to "skooch" as needed.

So with high winds, a slippery surface and bar of soap for a ball, despite Leinster's perfect start to the season I couldn't help but have serious concerns about our ability to dig as many as four tries out of the muck over eighty long minutes, not to mention the very real threat of injury.  And when the Cheetahs' kickoff was allowed to bounce in our 22 before sailing out over the dead ball line for a scrum back, Leinster had an idea of how things were going to progress before even dirtying their alternate purple jerseys.

Yet while many of us have played in these conditions, this was far from a Sunday morning match down the park where scrums are more an opportunity to rest and kill the clock than to serve as an attacking platform.  These guys won't be joking about an 80-minute mudbath on Monday morning - they're professionals who will be evaluating their performances at that time (although in Leinster's case they might have a little giggle at Sean Cronin's expense, more on that later).

So it was interesting to see how they set about chasing the five league points on offer, and on the very first bout of possession from the scrum at halfway, Ciarán Frawley planted a perfect touchfinder into the Cheetahs 22 - one of many great decisions the young outhalf was to make on the day.  Were the conditions not so knockon-friendly he could easily have been man of the match.

Yet for the opening quarter the continuing downpour made any type of attacking rugby more of a challenge.  I abandoned my attempts to both tweet and take notes through the raindrops on my laptop screen after a few minutes (still nearly cost me) but the players had to find ways around rushing defenses without knocking on, failing on several occasions in the opening exchanges.

Eventually after a Leinster maul snaked its way deep into the visitors' 22, Max Deegan broke away and got it just short of the line.  There was already a penalty advantage yet in the series of phases that followed it sounded like referee Ben Whitehouse spotted another three infringements by defenders before Will Connors found a way to bounce off would be tacklers and crash over, with Frawley adding the extras.

So the seal was broken but the now nearly-horizontal rainfall kept producing outcomes you rarely see at this level, like an attempted clearance from Rob Kearney that was headed straight for the wonderfully-named Rhyno Smith - had he caught it, a try was on the cards but to an ironic RDS cheer it slipped through his fingers and into touch.

Finally the South African penalty count was too much and a no-arms tackle saw prop Charles Marais sent to the naughty step allowing Frawley to add three to our lead.  A few mistakes back and forth later, Deegan was breaking through to bring us close to the try line again, this time with the aid of his outhalf's quick hands, and after more error-free picks-and-go it was Michael Bent who got it down - not a bad way to celebrate his return from injury.

With two tries in the bank, the bonus point became an expectation rather than a hope. Another who was lining out for Leinster for the first time in a while was hooker Rónan Kelleher, although he managed a test cap or two since his recovery.  After burrowing his way to jackle a penalty in their 22, he went on to find his jumper in the lineout (far from a given on this day in particular) and he proceeded to take it all the way to the line from the maul in trademark fashion, giving us a handy 22-point cushion at the break that could have been double had the weather been more clement.

There was a bit of deja vu at the start of the second half as Frawley's kickoff also led to a midfield scrum but his fellow halfback Luke McGrath soon had us back on the attack thanks to a show and go (not sure the giant lock JP du Preez could see him from way up there let alone tackle him) that got him deep into their 22.  After the support arrived we settled into more phases around the line before Rhys Ruddock nailed down the bonus point try.

Even the vastly experienced Ruan Pienaar had been unable to make a mark for the Cheetahs, and an attempted box kick that went out on the full summed up their afternoon.  A clever little chip from McGrath then nearly found Tomane in the 22 but Rhyno got it clear over the dead ball line.  This was never going to be a day for backs scoring five-pointers, truth be told.

Eventually it was another 5m lineout that got us over as Kelleher looked as though he'd do a replay of his early try only for him to transfer it to (or maybe have it nicked by?) Will Connors who got it down for his own second.

Often I think it's lazy to give MotM to someone who got more than one try.  And it wasn't just Frawley in contention on this day - McGrath, Deegan, Ruddock and Kelleher were among the standouts for Leinster.

But while I often harp on how we should cast doubt on tackling numbers, it's hard to ignore that on the day, when only two boys in blue purple broke double figures, Ruddock was second for Leinster with 10 while Will Connors had a whopping 18.  That's almost 20% of our tackles made by less than 5% of the squad.  He's heading towards CJ Stander territory when it comes to receiving match gongs but it's hard to question any of them.

When you win any match by a wide margin, the sporting thing to do is to acknowledge any positives you can find from your opponents.  But while it can definitely said that the Cheetahs didn't give up in the final quarter and actually produced a dozen unanswered points in that time, I'm not sure if that's anything to write home to Bloemfontein about.

For one thing, with knockout rugby for Leinster and Six Nations rugby for Ireland bound to be occupying our minds, I for one can't have too many complaints about our going down a gear or two in the closing stages.  And for another, if I were a Cheetahs fan I'm not sure how impressed I'd be with my team only springing to life once 36-0 down?

Still, they did produce all the good rugby towards the end, although their first try came after a thoroughly frustrating series of scrums on our 5m line.   At one point there was actually a Leinster fan screaming at the ref to award a penalty try!  But he did show a yellow card to Sean Cronin and eventually sub tight head Luan de Bruin got the ball over, although honourable mention should go to number 8 Jasper Weise who came close several times in the sequence.

They added a second courtesy of Aidon Davis right at the death and they might have gotten more were it not for what I thought was a ridiculous yellow card shown by Whitehouse to their centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg.

On a few occasions throughout the match, the Welsh ref used the phrase "common sense" when explaining his judgement.  Like after one of many low-trajectory restarts was knocked on only to be picked up by a team-mate, he took the conditions into account and opted for scrum back rather than a penalty.

So when both van Rensberg and McFadden went into "slide mode" at midfield for the same loose bar of Dove ball, the collision may have sent our winger's hurtling to the ground as though it were a tackle in the air, but I really do believe both were entitled to go for it.  And as he flashed the card the ref even said "he doesn't attempt to gather the ball" despite the fact that he actually does gather it intentionally (seen in pic taken shortly after the lead one was).

That only leaves me to describe Nugget's Golden Moment towards the end, and hopefully he'd understand I only draw attention to it because, well, how could I not?  The match was won, the clock was ticking down, and the way things were going, a lineout deep in their 22 looked like it could well lead to a sixth Leinster try.

And it's not as though things were straightforward for either team at this set piece all afternoon.  The visitors had the Toner-sized du Preez successfully thwarting our plans throughout, while on their own throw they kept challenging Dennis with long darts and losing. But as it turned out, during all those failings, poor Seanie was saying "hold my beer"...

Honestly, this could have happened to anyone, and I'm pretty sure he is well able for the slagging;  besides, my humble scribblings will be nothing to what he'll be getting from his team mates.  All it took was a tiny slip from his grasp and a tiny portion of the ball to hit his head in the back swing and anything was possible.  Definitely one for the "one day even he'll look back on this an laugh" file.

So not long after that bit of comic relief the Cheetahs got themselves into double figures on the scoreboard and Dennis mercifully rewarded the crowd with clear skies as they left the RDS.  And having gone into the weekend being mindful in my preview that Ulster weren't beyond catching us in Conference A, this result plus that from Swansea makes me much less so.

Even though we're only just beyond the halfway point in the regular season, if we blow a 15-point cushion (not to mention an advantage of 158 in points difference) from here we certainly don't deserve to win anything, let alone a home semifinal.

Still, there are some tricky enough matches ahead; the Ospreys have just had a confidence-boosting win and Glasgow are never shy coming to Ballsbridge, but of course the big one is at the beginning of April.  We may have made relatively light work of the Pro14's Cheetahs, but whatever the weather, things won't be quite so straightforward against the Premiership's Cheaters.

Cheap shot?  Perhaps.  Pun I could possibly let go once I thought of it?  Never. 😜 JLP

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