Looks like a run of the mill win for Leinster on the surface, doesn’t it? Especially one over the Dragons - sure we can simply chuck it on the pile to go with 50-15 last season, 52-10 in 2018/19, 54-10 in 17/18, 28-15 in 16/17, 37-15 in 15/16, and...hey, what do you know, my records don’t seem to go back as far as 14/15 against this opposition for some reason. Well, I’m sure you get the idea (ahem).
So there really shouldn’t be anything for me to harp on, right? It’s just that the other guys were poor and there’s nothing to be learned from it, in actual fact it was just a glorified training session, right? Eh, wrong.
First of all, we need to appreciate how unusual it is to be able to start a new season just two weeks after a disappointing end to the previous one. There aren’t even cobwebs to brush off yet, just a burning desire to perform this weekend like you would have the previous one had you earned the right to be playing then. And like I said in my preview, the team selection looked very close to that which we might have put out for a semifinal, which again is rare for Round 1 of the Pro14(ish).
But then of course for all the motivation you take from previous outings, you still have to go out and do it and our pack in particular played as though it has spent the last two weeks enduring reports that they had been bullied off the park by their opponents.
Now don’t get me wrong, our backs also did very well, despite our having to introduce numbers 22 and 23 a lot earlier than expected. But it was the glue holding them and the forwards together that was the key to this comfortable victory, so clearly the first shout out of this writeup has to go to Jamison Gibson-Park.
I won’t go into his full three-year history with us here, but let’s just say he has come a long way from when he started, and by that I don’t mean he has changed his personal game to get here. I tend to think he was probably trying too hard to change when he first wore blue. Perennial box kicking might have been the tactic du jour back then, but he struggled with it IMO, and it’s only now he’s able to let himself loose that we’re starting to see the benefits.
Of course I’m going to describe the Leinster scores in this piece but to properly appreciate Gibson-Park’s contributions on the night I first have to offer an overall look at what he brought to the team. Another criticism levelled at both Leinster and Ireland is that we’re too predictable with the ball, and the way he sped to every breakdown only to vary the point of attack each time, with the complete understanding of his team-mates I might add, made watching this match twice worthwhile all on its own.
If anything his style was very similar to that which John Cooney brought to Ulster. A kind of “nine and a half” role that values creativity every bit as much as dependability. And we can also add versatility - I had to check the replay a few times but on our very first attacking lineout in the Dragons 22 it was the Kiwi/qualified Irishman who actually provided the crash ball run for a series that very nearly ended in a try for Hugo Keenan in the corner - instead it was denied by the TMO. Does this mean JGP is a shoo-in for Irish consideration? I think I’ll leave that debate for this week’s podcast so why not subscribe and stay tuned for that later in the week.
Next I’m going to talk about our back three since I’ve just mentioned one of them. Hugo was another who put in a fine display despite failing to make the scoresheet (though by rights, he deserves kudos for even making the early chance close as he had no right to get there first). His work rate was phenomenal, particularly when it came to running back from deep. He thoroughly justified the coaches’ decision to swap him in the back three with Jordan Larmour.
And it was one of Keenan’s run backs that set us on the road to our first try. It took us a while to get there, but while the Dragons clearly knew they had a lot of tackling on their plate eventually the JGP variation I mentioned earlier had them presenting some gaps and after James Lowe found one to get us all the way to their 22, we gradually inched our way closer to the line.
This is probably a good time to mention that Tommy O’Brien was already off the bench at this early stage. This was down to an unfortunate tackle made by our starting inside centre Ciaran Frawley on Jamie Roberts after 9 minutes. I say “unfortunate” because while many pointed out it was “poor technique” by Frawley, I’m pretty sure he knows how to tackle and this collision was more about the quality and strength of the carrier. I reckon his head was on the wrong side more out of hesitation combined with a desire not to shirk from the challenge rather than actually aiming there.
Whatever his thinking, the shiner he got for his trouble was in a very worrying part of his head and there was no way he was coming back on the night. As an aside, if there’s a decision to be questioned in this incident, it’s that of referee Andrea Piardi for allowing the play to go on when Frawley clearly had a head injury. Hopefully he’ll be back quickly from the protocols to show us more of what he can offer at 12 very soon.
Anyway, back to the first try - there was kind of a nasty poetic justice to the fact that a high tackle on Frawley’s replacement Tommy O’Brien was committed by Roberts. Garry Ringrose availed of the slight confusion after it to easily go over the line, and here is where I credit Piardi for going back and still awarding a yellow card to the former Lion despite the score; many wouldn’t have. The conversion looked tricky from the touchline, but Sexton made it look like it was bang in front.
Next came our score of the match in my view. The “exit” has become a key set piece in the game over the years, with teams tending to set themselves up with a particular outcome in mind, like a lineout for the opposition on or around the halfway line. Well, how many plan for the series to end in a try?
Since we got back from the COVID break I’ve noticed Leinster going through a lot more phases on exiting than before, not bothered at all to sacrifice the direct kick to touch by crashing out of the 22. When Garry Ringrose did on this series he got us a lot closer to halfway and again with JGP pulling the strings, we embarked on a bamboozling series of 22 phases which included steam-rolling carries from the likes of Ruddock, Fardy and Conan, culminating in Jordan Larmour crashing over past four Dragons.
There had been another suspect high tackle in the build up, this time on Larmour by Sam Davies. The ref had his arm out but possibly showed mercy in not checking if it was as bad as Roberts’ earlier. Also worth noting was the final long miss pass from Sexton which was on the money and actually represented our skipper’s last contribution on the night as he was taken off, hopefully as a precaution. Thankfully Garry Ringrose was on hand to nail the extras, also from the touchline. I remember him knocking them over at the same venue (same spot actually!) back in the 2013 Leinster Schools Cup final.
So that was 14-0 and we were well on the way. What were the Dragons offering in response? Well it’s not like they didn’t have their own chances. Their own backline was pretty decent and actually got them into our 22 more than once, but their forwards were being outplayed in the most part, in the loose yes, but especially at lineout time. Would the result have been different had they won all of the excellent attacking lineout chances they had throughout? Well, no, probably not, but the final margin might have been.
To be fair, our own lineout wasn’t exactly humming (although the scrums were fine - hopefully soon we’ll get them both right on the night) but after van der Flier wasn’t able to catch a dart we were soon back on the attack and this time it was James Lowe providing the finish thanks to quick hands from O’Brien at the end. Next up in the Touchline Conversion Queue was Ross Byrne, on for Sexton and equally capable of adding the extras from out wide.
So it was 21-0 at the half and realistically our only worry was the bonus point at this stage. You could call the first 10 or so minutes after the break a “purple patch” of sorts for our guests, but again they lacked our clinical nature and when James Ryan stole another lineout in our 22, we moved our way up the pitch, with JGP starting to take the piss a little with some cheeky offloads along the way.
Eventually we showed the Welsh region how converting an attacking lineout should be done, again relying on a sweet final pass, this time from Ringrose who threw a perfect long high arcing spiral to Lowe and the other Kiwi/qualified Irishman made a mockery of the would be tacklers around him to nab his second try of the night. Again Ross Byrne made light work of the conversion.
I remember one of those big victories over the Dragons from years gone by included one from them that was a YouTube moment all on its own, I think it was Jordan Williams jinking his way through our defences? Anyway while the Larmour try here impressed the most as a team effort, Ashton Hewitt got the finish of the night after his team mates recovered the restart, worked their way to our line before some quick hands of their own allowed Hewitt, who I couldn’t believe had been all the pitch the whole time as he was mostly invisible up to this point, showed incredible dexterity to plant it down in the corner.
As for our fifth try, well, best not dwell on it too much. More SNAFU in a Dragons lineout (which eirSport completely missed by the way….booooo!) and it fell to Ryan Baird (on for the very unlucky Max Deegan who didn’t last long before getting injured) who barged over the line as “defenders” around him seemed more interested in tackling each other.
To say the match fizzled out from there would be an understatement. The Dragons tried to get into double digits but we weren’t having it. When it came to us scoring more, I noticed some criticised Ross Byrne’s kicking in the closing stages. Sure, his crossfield radar may have been off a couple of times in that spell but overall his prolonged cameo with the boot was on-brand for him with several pinpoint positional punts to go with the tricky conversions.
So there we are - maybe it was a “routine” enough victory for the boys in blue but I’ve still managed to get around 2000 words on it. It’s important to take as much confidence as we can for what will no doubt be a much sterner test in Treviso next weekend. Fingers crossed the injuries to Frawley, Sexton and Deegan aren’t too serious, and congrats again to JGP on a man-of-the-match display; here’s to many more. JLP