Monday, March 02, 2020

Leinster-55 Glasgow Warriors-19

First I should probably explain the title.  In some ways it explains itself since both players featured prominently on Friday night at the RDS, but also when you rearrange the words you get "Fardy Locks And The Two Baird"...


Yeesh, tough crowd.  Right, best get on with the rugby before I lose them altogether!

I've harped on Leinster's emerging talent at 6, 7 and 8 a lot this season.  The likes of Will Connors, Max Deegan, Josh Murphy and Caelan Doris have been so good that names like Leavy and van der Flier are almost forgotten when discussing the boys in blue, not to mention names like Ruddock and Conan.

Yet while all our back rowers performed well in this comfortable victory, it was very much an occasion for our second rows to shine.  Both starters played 80 full minutes, both produced stellar performances and even those facts are eclipsed when you point out that they find themselves at opposite ends of their careers.

Before I elaborate on that, we must start on the visiting Warriors.  When the Pro 14's new Conference alignment was announced for this season it looked a safe bet that they and Leinster would be slugging it out for top spot throughout the campaign.  However a lean spell for them while the test stars were away at RWC2019 put paid to that notion early on, while Leinster began a winning start that included a 23-10 win at Scotstoun at the end of November.

In my writeup of that match I gave outhalf Peter Horne a lot of stick - not because he's a bad player overall, rather when playing 10 he's not up to the standard required for this league, especially against Leinster.  Yet his selection for this return fixture suggests that alternatives to Adam Hastings are few an far between for Dave Rennie.

That said, it's not like they came to D4 without a gameplan, and that was evident from the very start.  Harry Byrne kicked off deep into their 22, and rather than clear to touch giving us an early attacking lineout, their exit strategy was to rumble through the phases to move the ball forward.  That's hardly a crazy notion, since the Warriors have developed a culture in recent years of technical excellence when it comes to maintaining possession.

But here's the thing - Leinster have developed a culture too, and it's in many different areas, not least of which is defence.  As our guests persisted with long sets of phases, we persisted in keeping them out until a knockon gave us an early attacking setpiece anyway, namely a scrum well in their half.

Now it was our turn to roll through the phases, and with a penalty advantage from the first scrum we got it as far as the line where it was Ryan Baird barging over for his first senior try.  Sean Cronin was latching on - we'll leave to the rugby gods to decide whether or not his help was needed to get over.  Just like that we were 7-0 up.

So that was the Warriors' Plan A out the window before 5 minutes were on the clock, and when we exited well ourselves from the restart ensuring their next possession was also in their own half, they chose to give Plan B a go.  Now it was kick passing to the far wing they were trying, and this wasn't going a whole lot better for them - one went straight into touch.

The resulting lineout was an early indicator of what kind of night Glasgow were to have - we lost the dart yet they knocked it on and from there we were able to play it all the way back to their try line.  From here we also changed our approach as Harry Byrne found Dave Kearney on his own out on the wing for try number two.

So for the Warriors this was now resembling Ireland's recent Twickenham disappointment in that an early double digit deficit made an already high mountain even more difficult to climb.  But to their credit, they never gave up and it was like they had a gameplan for every letter of the alphabet.

When they eventually found themselves in scoring position deep in our 22, rather than cranking up the phase counter again it was the mixture of a disguised inside pop pass from George Horne and a devastating line by Tommy Seymour that got them through.  At 12-7 approaching the half-hour mark, this looked like the kind of contest that we would have expected back at the start of the season.  However the breakthrough only served to get Leinster even more determined.

A lineout at halfway was followed by some strong carries by our front rowers until Harry Byrne spotted what could only be described as 'half an overlap' on the touchline in front of the Anglesea Stand.  That was all we needed as his quick hands got it to his skipper Scott Fardy before a superb offload around the back of his tackler put James Lowe through for a score that looked way easier than it was.

(Speaking of Glasgow tacklers, their numbers for this match were insane.  Matt Fagerson led the way in tackles made with 31, while 5 overall broke 20 and 9 missed 3 or more.)

Now we were 19-7 ahead and thanks in part to a mistake from Huw Jones (kick from his own half that went dead bringing the play back for a scrum, though Keenan was lucky not to have touched it on the way) we kept pressing until we won a penalty just as the clock ticked past 40 minutes.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that you should take the relatively easy three points to establish a 15-point (three scores) lead before the break.  Leinster wisdom, however, dictates that you should wrap up the bonus point instead, and that's exactly what we did.  After a lineout win and maul got us close to the line, there was that man Fardy again crashing over.  Again there was help if needed; again it probably wasn't.

So I guess by this stage Glasgow had reached about Plan M and to be fair it worked well for them at the start of the second half.  It was very similar to the James Lowe try only this time it was the quick hands of Ryan Wilson putting through his winger Kyle Steyn for the score.  Just like that we were back at a 12 point margin.

But once more our defence was able to close ranks and with half an hour left, great work from Connors at the breakdown turned the ball over before a strong carry from Baird put us squarely on the front foot.  Harry Byrne was keen to take advantage so he looped a pass over some Glasgow defenders aimed at Jimmy O'Brien.  Had Niko Matawalu looked up, he might have pinched it for 7 points down the other end but he was too busy lowering his head for the tackle so O'Brien was able to recover the situation.

From there it was more quick hands that saw the ball end up with Lowe in space again, albeit with a lot more to do than his earlier score.  It was still no surprise that he was able to get the finish done though, strongly handing off Jones first before cleverly spinning around Wilson to get the ball down.

The next try provided the game's most iconic moment, and there's little doubt that the sight of Ryan Baird rampaging to the tryline from halfway is one that all in attendance at the RDS will remember for a long time.  Yet just as a sidenote I'd like to point out the involvement of Harry Byrne, who was one of several non-try-scoring starters who also impressed on the night (centres Tomane and O'Brien among the others).

First it was Harry's tackle that forced the turnover which gave us possession leading to this try, but also the space Baird had to embark on his unstoppable journey wouldn't have been there without a perfectly-timed quick pass from his outhalf.

And Baird wasn't done yet.  In an almost identical position to that of his fellow lock earlier, he took charge of a series of attacking phases on the line to complete his hat-trick and ensure the man of the match award.

There were still two more tries to come for Leinster on the night, and the supposed "Keystone Cops" nature of Dave Kearney's right at the death (also from a mistake from Huw Jones as it happens) which completed his hat-trick might make you think I want to mock them for this spell of the game yet in actual fact, they deserve nothing but credit IMO.

At 41-12 down going into the final quarter anyone would be forgiven for throwing in the towel and even if they were straying close to Plan Z at this stage, the Warriors never let up in their pursuit of a consolation bonus point, which would have some value in their chase of Ulster for second spot in the conference.  And they actually did manage a try in that time; in many other matches it would have been the best one as Gordon got clear up the middle before some decent support and offloading put Allan through.

But that was just try number 3 so chasing the fourth was always going to come with risk and after a strong run by Rhys Ruddock got us into their half and a quick tap from a penalty by Jamison Gibson Park brought us into their 22, once more it was those seasoned quick hands from Fardy in the widest channel that put Dave Kearney through for his second.

I can't speak for all Leinster fans (though I suppose with this site I'm giving it a go) but I'd wager that most were pleasantly surprised by a "fifty-burger" from this particular match, and while Glasgow were far from awful, it was still very much deserved.

As for those starting locks, two thoughts spring to mind.  First, Scott Fardy has long since earned himself a place in the discussion over Leinster's greatest ever imports, right up there with Isa, Rocky, Brad, Nathan, etc.  If, or surely when, he gets his t-shirt from the OLSC I'm picturing a side-on silhouette of his head providing the G in the phrase "Great Scott" or something similar.

My second thought is about Baird.  If this is how he plays at 20, imagine how good he'll be when he reaches Fardy's vintage!!!  From the raw talent he displayed on Friday I can foresee a night at the RDS Arena ten years down the line where he is the one waiting in the widest channels effortlessly slipping passes through for his wingers to score.

Obviously threats to a rugby schedule are the very least of our fears regarding COVID-19, but whatever happens in the near future, this will be remembered as an amazing time to be following a rugby club with so much talent all the way down to the third string and beyond in so many positions.

All Leo, Stuart & co can do is prepare them for each match as they come.  All we can do as fans is enjoy them.  JLP

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