Monday, September 21, 2020

Leinster-17 Saracens-25


Ugh.  Do I really have to write this?  I guess I do.

If nothing else this writeup should act as a safe space for Leinster fans looking for at least a hint of sympathy, because after 25 wins on the bounce, we sure won’t get it from anywhere else!!!  And that’s not a “us as victims” thing, more of a human thing - we’d probably be equally unforgiving if another team saw the same record come crashing to a halt.

Ye gods, was that a crash.  Trust me, while you will find some mitigation here as promised, the bulk of the narrative is that we were properly beaten by a better squad on the day.  There can be no doubt about that.  

Also, so we’re clear, it is just those 80 minutes I’ll be harping on - I’m not too wild about the way some fellow Leinster fans are using a word that starts with “c” and ends in “t” in relation to Saracens since the match was over.  No no no - not THAT word, I mean the one that has to do with the club’s off-field antics.  Rhymes with “three-peat”?  Yeah, that one.  I’ve addressed all of that on these pages already and it plays absolutely no part in the analysis of what happened Saturday afternoon.

“They’re a very very good team, we are by far and away the huge underdogs, but we’re not going over there without fight, you know? And we’ve got a couple of plans up our sleeve…”

Such was the party line being spun by Sarries assistant coach Mark Sanderson a week before the match, but I reckon the fight WAS the plan.

You could say this was an ambush of sorts, given Sarries have had literally no other match to worry about since the fixture was known back on January 19, when the quarterfinal lineup was decided.  But then again while our own final pool match was the day before against Benetton, you could say we’ve been planning for this for twice as long, going all the way back to May 2019 when we played this same Premiership (for now anyway - sorry had to get just the one little dig in!) outfit.  I reckon each of those 25 successes was born from that day in Newcastle, but alas it still wasn’t enough to produce that all-important 26th.

So here’s my own plan for the rest of this writeup - normally I watch the match once as a fan, a second time as a blogger, then I do the article.  This time, I’m just going to type as I rewatch.

0-10 : Things were going wrong literally from the kick-off.  While we Dubliners had been basking in warm sunshine the previous weekend, conditions at kickoff were chilly enough and more importantly, breezy towards the Aviva Stadium’s South Stand.

When Alex Goode, in for the suspended Owen Farrell, took the kickoff, we had Devin Toner positioned to catch it but we badly misjudged the wind and it sailed over his head only for it to be knocked on by Jack Conan.  If anything we were lucky it was only a scrum in that Dev played it when it went back to him.

And although the scrum was to be a big area of influence later, despite their also having a nudge on this one, they had to play it and five phases later, Andrew Porter got himself trapped in a breakdown leaving ref Pascal Gauzere no choice but to call it a penalty.  Easy kick for Goode, 3-0.

No need for panic yet; we conceded the first score in both semifinal and final of the Pro14 in previous weeks and played shutout rugby the rest of the way each time.  And while Sarries did much better on their restart as Wigglesworth’s first of many box kicks was hauled down by Alex Lewington, he was instantly bear hugged by Caelan Doris, winning us a penalty allowing Sexton to quickly level the scores, albeit against the wishes of the wind.

We cleared the next restart to touch quickly enough, but on the first play from the lineout, Sexton was told to release Billy V as the assist tackler, he duly did, yet still got pinged.  This was central for Goode, and he slotted it.  Another kickoff, this time brilliantly kept in by Lewington before some kick tennis back and forth until Luke McGrath threw an absolute shocker of a pass in his own 22 that ballooned over Sexton and went to a surprised Jordan Larmour right under his own posts.

Here we saw the first real sign of the jump from Pro 14 rugby, which in fairness gave us the bulk of our wins in that streak, to European knockout rugby, which is essentially test level.  In the former, you’d probably get away with a pass like that.  Here, not so much.  Sarries quickly smelled the blood in the water and shortly after it got to Ringrose, he was pinned by a deadly duo of Itoje and Koch - now it’s 9-3.

I hadn’t intended to go into such detail but that opening spell really set the tone for all that came after and I also feel it’s very important to point out that we were already 6 points down before a single scrum penalty was called.

10-20 : Larmour was able to catch the exit box kick this time and we quickly won a penalty of our own, giving us our first attacking situation.  It was critical that we came away with points from here.  You and I both know what happened but sadly I still have to describe it!!!

We won a free kick from the lineout and quickly tapped to get some phases going.  With some barreling forward carries from the likes of Lowe and Ryan we made great progress for about 12 phases to their 5m line until Itoje intercepted a pass from Luke McGrath.

Of course when watching as a fan he looked a mile offside.  Turns out he wasn’t because the ball was out.  The thing is, there was no way he could have seen the ball, so he must have gotten a call from a team mate, which meant Luke probably heard it too (there sure wasn’t any crowd noise to drown it out).  So maybe the pass shouldn’t have gone?   Anyway - they cleared, we tried to run it back but Lowe got himself bundled into touch and the chance was gone.

There followed some back and forth at midfield, including the 2nd Sarries scrum put in from which they also played on, with the only incident of note being Jordan Larmour being tap-tackled in the act of kicking by Michael Rhodes.  Definitely could have been a penalty, but neither the ref nor the BT Sport commentary team (mentioned it but no replay to be seen) seemed to be too bothered.

20-30 : The box kicking continued, with Wigglesworth’s more on the money than McGrath’s, until Larmour took a good catch at halfway only to be “Koch blocked” on landing before knocking it on.  Here is where the scrum problems began.

Look - I’m going to spare you the deep dive analysis on each and every set piece.  No doubt they were up to some skulduggery in the front row but it was our job to first be ready for it, and then to fix it.  Not sure what we could have done - the threat of Billy V played a big part in keeping our flankers from doing much in the way of  counter-shoving, but whatever the answer was, we couldn’t find it.

Many compared our predicament to the 2011 final, but I was reminded of a visit to the Rec in 2015 - that was much closer in the end but Bath’s scrum dominance was magnified by the fact that they had 12 put ins to our 3 - this time the tally was 4 for us (all won), 13 for them.  Let’s not forget the massive psychological boost afforded to the reigning champions’ squad on each and every penalty award.  Would it have been different with Tadhg Furlong in blue?  Probably.

And as I said in my preview, with Elliott Daly on the park, this being at halfway made it in 3-point range and not only did he nail it, but with Sexton falling short in an attempt to get the restart go the minimum, we were quickly back with another scrum in the same spot, with exactly the same result - all of a sudden, we’re down by a whopping 12.  

30-HT : Our next attacking chance led to a series of lineouts in their 22, the first two of which led to penalties at the maul and even a warning to skipper Brad Barritt only for the third to be wrapped up by Itoje to force a choke tackle, which of course led to a scrum, which of course led to a clearing penalty.  Should we have taken the three points on offer?  I’m not so sure - given the score I reckon we needed a try so I guess the real decision up for debate was whether or not the Sarries pack should have had a third crack at disrupting our maul.

From the resulting lineout suddenly we were the ones trying to cope with a maul that quickly trundled its way towards halfway before winning another penalty, forcing another lineout only this one was attacking, and they were clever enough to try something different with the next one.

Barritt provided the crash ball, leaving Billy V poised in the backline to provide a second wave.  Or so they’d have the Leinster defence think...instead, when Goode had the ball the England number 8 threw a killer block on Will Connors which not only let the out half by him, but also allowed him to receive a return ball from Matt Taylor and just like that Goode was clear to go over the line.

Even though this was their only try on the day, this particular 10 minute spell defined the match for me, as it highlighted the fine margins which make the difference in this great tournament.  The half even ended in another scrum penalty which surely resonated in the dressing room even though Daly’s attempt at another monster kick fell short.

40-50 : So...did this Leinster team have it in them to invoke the spirit of 2011 and turn this around, even though it was a bigger ask in every respect???  Well we certainly got off to a good start when we won a penalty following the kickoff.  From the lineout we went straight into phases and were doing well until the 9th one when Cian Healy went to ground with no one to clearout Maro Itoje.  Gauzere whistled after just a couple of seconds but I doubt anyone would have budged him anyway.

On their next possession Daly had a snipe at a drop goal only for it to also fall short although while on a “normal” day Larmour would always run following a catch under his posts with space ahead of him, he was still spooked enough to quickly call a mark, another sign of the effect Sarries’ fight had on us all afternoon.

Finally in minute 47 a bright moment for Leinster.  McGrath’s pass off a scrum on our own 22 was perfect and from there a neat inside ball from Henshaw had his skipper Sexton sprinting into the Saracens half, getting all the way to their 22.  Sarries got pinged for offside and we put it into the corner.

Saracens were called for an early push in the maul.  Remember, they were already on a warning for just this.  We were instead allowed to play on, we carried on for a load of phases until Porter got himself over the line and under the sticks.  Phase one of the fightback complete.  Could the ref had gone back for the card?  Would have been great for our momentum, and it definitely could have been given, but then again we dodged a yellow card bullet of our own at a different set piece.

50-60 : We were surely on a roll at this point, though on our next foray into their 22 we got thwarted by another choke tackle/penalty from scrum combo which knocked us back a tad.  This ten-minute set still counted as a purple patch in my book as the Sarries defence, monumental as it was, looked like the effects of the insane amount of tackles (Itoje 19 Mako 18 George 17, seven more with 12+) were starting to show.

Ryan Baird was on at this stage, having gotten an eyebrow-raising nod ahead of Scott Fardy, and he denied some Saracens danger with a great rip tackle when they showed some danger of adding to their score for the first time in the half.

60-80 : But when Sexton stayed down after a challenge during a monster 28-phase Leinster set that ended with a jackled Sarries penalty, it was up to the TMO to go back and have a look at what Michael Rhodes had done.  

the "head on head" contact happens well before the arms start to wrap

I actually think Lawrence Dallaglio’s commentary was disgraceful here.  “That was head on head” he claimed, before we the viewers had seen the replay.  As if that was somehow ok?  Yeah, sure, no need to wrap your arms lads, just go up and nut the guy, yer grand!!!  I say disgraceful not because I think he approved of the challenge, rather it laid bare his way over the top bias, given the network was the only means for Irish fans to watch as well.  Anyway the TMO rightly called it a penalty and as I’ve already said, Gauzere seemed to leave his cards back in France.

From the lineout we saw the real four-star Leinster at work.  And as much as I like Luke McGrath overall as a player, this was not his day and Gibson-Park being on the pitch didn’t hurt.  There was no maul to be seen as the scrumhalf’s long pass was true to another sub O’Loughlin; he shipped to Sexton who had buckets of time to put Larmour through for the score.  

Now we’re only five points down and at that stage, another remarkable comeback was easily on the cards.  Then Sarries took the restart.

We talk of scrums being a disaster for us on the day and they were.  But in modern rugby, restarts are also a critical set piece and in each match situation you will always be looking for a specific result.  When Saracens took this one long into our 22, had we cleared giving them a lineout around halfway, it wouldn’t have been the worst outcome.

Yet once more, we misjudged the wind.  Ryan looked to be setting to catch it but it was always going miles over him - none of his team mates reacted to it, and the chasing Duncan Taylor surely did as he caught with a jump he probably didn't even need.  Nothing actually came from this possession, but still the match was actually over for me at this point.  

The sight of Sexton limping off in the closing stages added injury to insult, and with no more strings left to Leinster’s attacking bow, it all just fizzled out and fittingly Saracens got the last score of the day via yet another scrum penalty at the death.

Michael Rhodes was an extremely cheeky choice by BT as Player of the Match I thought*.  I’d have gone for Itoje or Koch.  But in reality it was a complete performance from 1 to 23 and beyond into the coaches box that won the day.  We should have been ready for this assault.  We were not.  Sure, a few things went against us along the way, but when we got the bounce of the ball during the 25-match winning streak I always said “you make your own luck” so I guess it works both ways.

Sorry for this writeup being longer than one of Elliott Daly’s placekicks.  I probably needed it to get this out of my system.  I’ll finish by pointing out that Leinster don’t need to be too disheartened.  Loads of “experts” have had a go at bringing narratives of seasons past into the equation by way of explanation, but there were so many unusual variables surrounding this fixture, I can’t see how any of them can work.  

We’ll be back fighting with the big dogs before long, of that I’m sure.  It has been a crazy crazy year and if you’re a Leinster fan and still can’t say watching them play has been one of the highlights, then I don’t know what to say to you.  

Congratulations again to the reigning champions.  I’d say best of luck for the rest of the competition only my allegiances are now with teams yet to have a star on their jersey.  A touch of bitterness in that choice?  Meh, maybe.  JLP

* = Since posting, a video of a third Rhodes challenge has emerged and he has been cited for it. This incident happened in the second minute and the match would have been very different had it been red. What might have been eh?



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