Monday, September 07, 2020

Leinster-13 Munster-3


THE UPPER HAND

A try that possibly should not have been, box kicks that were possibly done more than they should have been, and three-point scores that definitely should have been, all leaving Munster wondering what might have been.


Sums up the match nicely, doesn’t it?  Or at least it does if you go by the majority opinion on the “social meeja” since the full time whistle was blown.  And it all makes sense on the surface, but for the fact that it leaves out one tiny element which I feel it is my duty as a Leinster blogger to point out in this writeup.


Before I make that point, just to put things in context first - I don’t blame the rest of the ruggersphere for feeling that way about this result.  Any team on a 24-match winning run is bound to be on the receiving end of voodoo doll stabbings and such from supporters of other clubs throughout the sport, so when analysing yet another victory, it’s easy to cite “what went wrong for the losing team?” as a starting point.


So here’s where my admittedly bluer-than-blue goggles tend to see things differently.  Having watched this match twice as always, once as a fan and a second time as a blogger, I came to the conclusion that even if the Rónan Kelleher try had been disallowed, or even if Conor Murray hadn’t box kicked like there was no tomorrow, or even if JJ Hanrahan had made those two very kickable second-half penalties, Leinster would still have found a way to win.


I guess I had better start making a case for that theory, hadn’t I?  


Right - let’s start with the try, since it was the only one on the night.  First it’s important to note that although it came near the half hour mark, this was pretty much Leinster’s first serious attacking opportunity.  We’ll get to the reasons for that later, but the way we got from one end of the pitch to the other is what has been missed most in all the discussion.


First we had a clearance from our own 22 by Luke McGrath.  It wasn’t the best connection, and it failed to find touch - it was heading towards Conor Murray around halfway and before he even had the chance to consider setting up another box kick, er, I mean, coordinated attack, he was smashed by Hugo Keenan, who thoroughly justified his eyebrow-raising selection from start to finish.


A knockon came from the hit, and from the scrum we worked our way through a series of phases in the Munster half where we were making good progress until Johnny Sexton, who possibly should have been Player of the Match with all due respect to Caelan Doris, launched a high crossfield kick into their 22 which was heading towards Keith Earls.


This is why I had to mention the hit from Keenan on Murray, because it was clear literally from the kickoff that the 24-year-old from the Blackrock College stable had been showing a proficiency at chasing kicks like this one, and having witnessed a couple of them first hand it had to be on Earls’ mind (even though Keenan was a good bit away from him this time) as someone of his quality doesn’t drop a catch like that for no reason.


So now we have an attacking scrum deep in their 22 and when Andrew Porter wins a penalty against Jeremy Loughman (who hadn’t the best night as he was often the culprit for poorly-timed pings), now we’re in an even stronger position with a lineout just 5m from the line.


This set piece has been a banana skin for us even throughout the winning run, but although two of our twelve on the night went askew, Devin Toner called a really good game for us, keeping the opposition guessing each and every time as to whether or not he was target.  On this occasion, the dart found Jack Conan, and with very little resistance the maul made its way to the Munster line.


You don’t need to be an expert in body language to appreciate the turmoil in the head of referee Andrew Brace.  From our TV angle as it happened, we couldn’t see what went on over the line.  He seemed to have a side-on view but he must have seen something as despite the fact he made no signal, his on-field decision was to award the try to Kelleher.  It still, however, definitely had to be “sent upstairs” to the TMO Brian McNeice.

The controversy comes from the fact that the Leinster hooker went to ground through the maul and clearly fell short of the line before placing it on the whitewash.  What was in dispute was whether or not he was entitled to make a second "dynamic movement".  The Laws of the Game allow a lot of verbal wiggle room for a player in this position to have some actual wiggle room.


We can debate the rights and wrongs of this incident all day long but what I don’t understand is why was the grounding looked at 7 times, none of which were at actual speed?  Sure, if you play it slowly enough, it’s going to look more and more like a “double movement” each time, especially to the majority of viewers who didn’t want to see a Leinster try.  But the ref had called it a score, and apparently he saw it in real time.  So perhaps just the one look at the same speed from behind the try line was needed?  


Anyway - however bad the slower version looked, McNeice couldn’t see enough to over-rule Brace’s call, so the try stood.  And despite the long wait for confirmation, a fine strike by Sexton from the “wrong side of the pitch for a right footer” added the extra points.


OK - so that was the try.  How about the constant Munster box-kicking?  Again I reckon the debate is missing some key elements.  


Kelleher’s try made the score 7-3, and it cannot be forgotten that our southern cousins actually had the lead in this match for over 20 minutes.  And much like the early stages when the same two sides met a couple of weeks ago, Munster had a lot of the early possession.


Now when it comes to box-kicking, I have often harped on how I don’t see it to be the horrible strategy many make it out to be.  Certainly when Murray was in his heyday under Joe Schmidt, it was less of a “last resort” and more of a productive attacking option as we seemed to find the perfect blend of hang time and kick chase aggression to at least put the opposition under serious pressure, if not to actually win the ball back.


Much has been said about Conor’s dip in form in recent times, but even if the accuracy still wasn’t there, I could definitely make a case for his team going for the box kicks, at least in the early stages.  For one thing, the Dublin heavens opened about half an hour before kickoff, providing just the kind of slippery conditions to make you want to find ways to force a mistake in a knockout contest.


But even without that, you have to factor in the Leinster defence.  Statistically, it was a “bad night” for Will Connors in that he “only” had the 14 tackles.  However he still had more than anyone else on the pitch (even though he went off at 74m) and besides, like I have said many times on these pages, it’s more about the team effort from Leinster, with the primary  strike runner being greeted at the gainline by multiple tacklers on multiple occasions.


And look what was happening when they did try to find a way through, starting with the sequence I outlined earlier leading to the Kelleher try.  McGrath’s clearance from our 22 came after JJ Hanrahan had dinked one through following a long sequence of phases that were going nowhere.  It wasn’t a bad idea, but Jordan Larmour was able to tidy it up before Luke cleared his lines.


Then there was an earlier time when Scott Fardy (quiet enough night by his standards) was pinged for offside giving them an attacking lineout in our 22.  Even Munster were never going to box kick from here, and choosing to hand it to Damien de Allende to put them on the front foot was definitely a decent option.  But again, we handled it; brilliantly so this time as Sexton proved himself more than a match for the rampaging Springbok, holding him up (with a little help from his friends Henshaw and Kelleher) to kill their momentum with a choke tackle.


So with those planned plays going awry and the Leinster D having the tendency to keep the Munster attack patterns going sideways more often than not, the only real question is why WOULDN’T they box kick to try and force a mistake?  Well, as it turned out, we were handling that too.


It was almost as though Munster had our back three ranked in the order in which they thought we were likely to cough the ball back to them.  The first three were sent towards Larmour, who had issues the last time but as you can see from the lead photo, was more than able to catch them all.  By the by, shortly after his second catch he found himself isolated enough for CJ Stander to work his breakdown magic, earning the penalty that led to their first (and only as it turned out) points on the night, so there was another good reason for them to keep going for it.


Next on the checklist was Keenan, and much like the kick chasing, and tackling, and running with the ball, he more than merited his selection by coming up trumps.  Then we had James Lowe, and just to show the kind of night Munster were having, while he caught most of them, even one that he let drop ended up with Jack Conan - much like I said for the Ulster game last week, sometimes the rugby gods give you the bounce and sometimes they don’t.


Finally there was the place kicking.  The penalty count on the night is still high since the COVID19 break, and it was 13-11 in Leinster’s favour here, but still you couldn’t really say one team was getting favoured over the other (well, this match being what it is, of course loads were saying that anyway).  One thing Leinster were doing to good effect was having the ball carrier grab the tackler as they went down to help pin them in the breakdown - both Larmour and Lowe managed this at key times.


But when it came to slotting them over the posts, like I said JJ got the first one and Sexton managed the tricky conversion before getting another chance just before the break (even as good as Leinster are at scoring tries after the clock goes past 40, I couldn’t believe they took so long to go for the three) meaning a 7-point margin which meant the race to the crucial next score was on.


The second half was scrappy to say the least, which naturally suited the team that had the lead.  There were good things happening for both sides, like Toner stealing a lineout and Tadhg Beirne jackling a penalty, and there were bad things too, like Luke McGrath kicking out on the full, and Peter O’Mahony not hearing a call from the ref to roll away.


Munster were still getting nowhere with the box kicks and more bad luck on the injury front was headed their way as another of their star performers of late, Andrew Conway, was forced from the action, making a mockery of their decision to opt for a 6/2 split on the bench.  When they went the other way last time, they lost two forwards in the first ten minutes.


But as long as the margin remained at one converted try, it was always a contest and a series of three penalty awards gave them every chance to pull back, only for them to go a-begging one by one.  The first ironically came from another Munster box kick which Lowe was unable to handle and Keenan was pinged for not releasing, it looked like 3 points were on the way...until the TMO spotted Shane Daly impeding Lowe.  An unlucky call against the former sevens player who has been one of Munster’s highlights during these interpros.


But fear not, that Beirne jackle I mentioned earned another opportunity; this one was a bit off centre but definitely kickable, only for JJ to push it too far to the right.  For the third, which came after Sexton tried to repeat his earlier choke tackle on de Allende only to get pulled into an illegal breakdown position himself, while it was right in front, Munster fans can look to eir Sport’s Connor Morris for his textbook commentator’s curse uttered as the Munster 10 approached the ball…


He is the golden boot winner and his kicking percentage is just over 90%...”  And with that, naturally, the kick also sailed wide.


Just a few minutes later, Caelan Doris jackled a penalty of his own.  (*goggles off for a moment* Or did he?  I thought he may have been “involved in the tackle”.  *goggles firmly back on*).  This gave Sexton the chance to push the lead over 7 with just over 10m left, and no doubt he saw Ross Byrne ready to replace him. No curse to be seen here - he nailed it. 


Some rugby happened from then on; Casey finally replaced Murray (locked stable doors spring to mind), Baird stole a lineout, van der Flier earned a “team yellow” after being on the pitch for five seconds...but the game was over at that point.   And like I said back at the start, I actually think the game was over long before that. 


I really don’t think Munster were as bad as many are making out and will be a force to be reckoned with next season, I just believe we always had the upper hand and would have found an extra score had we needed one.


Now after Mad Dog’s heroics on Saturday we head back to the Aviva to face the Ulstermen again.  The week before a final is always an exciting one, even if we’re unable to go in person.  I’ll have the wise words of Iain Frizzell on the podcast during the week to discuss how the final is shaping up from their side of things, so stay tuned for that!


Wow - almost 2500 words for a match that was anything but a classic!  Fair play to you for staying with me this long!!! JLP


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