Monday, December 21, 2020

Leinster-35 Northampton Saints-19

THE TOUGH GOT GOING

It started with a Leinster lineout around the halfway line after 36 minutes.  Our early 14-point lead had been cut to just 3 and the Saints had their tails up.


We did get possession from the set piece, but it was a bit sloppy as our guests were really twisting the knife.  Jamison Gibson-Park was forced into chucking a pass that was way too high for Robbie Henshaw to take in his stride and before we knew what was what, we were all the way back on our own 22.


Then it started.


At first the gains were small enough, though when put together, the carries from the likes of Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock were more than enough to steady the ship, coming as they did with the right amount of clearing out support to keep the hungry Northampton forwards at bay.  Next came a sweeping move through the backs all the way to Henshaw out wide; now we had made it to our own 10m line, with carries from Ruddock and Cian Healy to cement our presence there. 


Enter our two marauding locks.  


First Ryan Baird comes to the breakdown and spots that only the opposition halfbacks are in his path, so he doesn’t hesitate to take the ball himself and barge through the gap.  They try to get him down but his leg drive comfortably brings him a dozen or so metres; now we’re into their territory.  Gibson-Park quickly takes it and fires a pass right into the path of James Ryan going at full tilt...now we’re at the Northampton 10m line after 9 phases.


Cian Healy took charge of distribution this time and, well, let’s just say he’s much better as a prop and leave it at that, but we still had possession and by phase 17 we were back at the 10m line, changing our point of contact every time and moving the Saints defence around until Gibson-Park spotted his opposite number Tom James in a woeful position so he threw the ball at him to win the easy penalty.


Now there were just 30 seconds left in the half.  Some amount of points for Leinster were an absolute necessity from this position, and under normal conditions the mark would have been in a kickable area for Ross Byrne, but with the wind against us for the past 40 minutes it made more sense to thump one to touch in their 22 and work from there.


There was nothing sloppy about this lineout; Ronán Kelleher found James Ryan and just as the maul started walking forward, Gibson-Park set the backs in motion and Ross Byrne found himself in a load of space only to be in two minds when he got 5m out - the support was there to finish but he couldn’t decide where to send the offload.


Not to worry - that same support was able to adjust and clear out the scrambling defenders and a couple of phases later Andrew Porter got it over the line only for it to be held up.  Trouble was, the Saints were offside before grabbing him so with the clock now a minute into the red, we went back for a penalty in a central position.


Of course most teams would now pop over the easy three points and “head for the sheds” but then again, most teams don’t fully expect themselves to be still involved at the final four stage of the Champions Cup and beyond, so with Baird and Ruddock either side of him, Kelleher tapped at the 5m line and headed towards the posts.


He got just short of the line as Northampton forwards used every trick in the book to slow the ball down, with the one attempted by number 8 Shaun Adendorff spotted by the referee who held his arm out for an advantage.  By rights, this probably should have put the visitors in yellow card territory whatever the outcome.


Anyway, knowing he had a free play, Gibson-Park went for one of his trademark long high passes towards the wide channel.  Saints winger Ryan Olowofela looked like he’d intercept but all he did was help it on its way before it bounced ahead of the touchline where Dave Kearney kept his wits about him, gathered and planted it down in the corner.


For the second week in a row, I’ve been able to start my writeup of Leinster’s latest Champions Cup clash with a detailed account of Dave Kearney nabbing his side’s third try in the corner just before the break.  And for the umpteenth week in a row, the boys in blue have had an 80 minutes where most are saying they can certainly play better, yet they still emerged with a maximum-point victory.


This match did have something different about it, however.  The “Leinster are massive favourites” narrative began in earnest over a week earlier after Northampton had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Bordeaux in their opening match at Franklins Gardens.  In his post match interview, coach Chris Boyd suggested he’d be sending an understrength side to the RDS.


It really was a perfect running of the “talk up the opposition” playbook by Boyd & co.  While it’s true that their starting lineup was missing a lot of recognised names like Biggar and Lawes, even as we built our early double digit margin there were signs that they hadn’t come to Dublin merely to escape the multi-tiered COVID19 confusion back home.


Then on our side there were a litany of changes for much different reasons.  I generally don’t even consider writing my match preview until the teams had announced their lineups, but come kickoff time Leinster’s was so different to the one announced that I needn’t have bothered with the article!  And the changes weren’t only in personnel either - the 6/2 split on the bench had been abandoned for a more traditional 5/3, meaning a lot of numbers needed to be swapped around.


For posterity, Caelan Doris’ withdrawal meant Ruddock went from 6 to 8, bringing Josh Murphy to blindside flanker and shifting Dan Leavy from 23 to 20 on the bench.  This left 23 open for Ciaran Frawley, which made me feel a lot better as we had scant cover should injury befall players from 11-15, which ended up actually happening.


But that wasn’t to be the end of it - tragically Harry Byrne was denied his first European start after limping off during the warmups, meaning his brother Ross had to go to 10 forcing Cian Kelleher to tog out at 22.  Quite a lot of chopping and changing in a squad that had only been formally announced 24 hours before.


Then as if that all wasn’t bad enough we had Garry Ringrose, just back from that horrific jaw injury against Italy, looking destined to literally open up old wounds as he kept getting into collisions around that area.  One of them involved him running into full back Jimmy O’Brien forcing the latter off for the remainder of the match.


Yet despite all of these setbacks, Leinster still managed to be 14-0 ahead by the end of the first quarter and seemed well on their way to a comfortable margin.  The first try was made look way too easy as a set move from a scrum at halfway led to Ringrose forcing his way deep into their 22 before eventually it was Josh Murphy in support getting it over the line.


Then after a high shot by Tom Wood (not his last of the day and certainly not his most controversial although to be fair many from both sides were at it) put us back on their line, their defence forced a knock on and when they won a free kick at the first set scrum, their skipper Alex Waller let his front row bias convince him to take another and this time we won the crooked arm sanction.


For us the tap and go was the only option and after just one phase there was Cian Healy being escorted over the line by his fellow forwards and it looked to all intents and purposes that at very least another home “fiftyburger” against this opposition was on the cards.


But just a few minutes later when the Saints worked their way to a scrum down at the other end of the park, their makeshift outhalf George Furbank found his outside centre Fraser Dingwall’s lovely line behind the onrushing Ruddock and Ryan to haul the lead back to 7.


We managed a penalty shortly afterwards to stretch it to 10 but our guests were not for folding.  Furbank planted a lovely touchfinder to 5m out and they proceeded to exert big pressure on our throw that ended up with Gibson-Park getting tackled over our line and the Saints rightly celebrated like it was a try in itself.  Eventually it was, as Tom James dummied his opposite number to dart over and suddenly we’re ahead by just three.


Now we’ve caught up with my opening sequence so we went into the break 8 points to the good as the wind hampered Ross Byrne’s conversion attempt from the touchline.  What we needed to do was both harness that cohesion we found and take full advantage of a Ballsbridge breeze which was now in our favour.


Right from the restart we put their exit clearance under pressure and James Ryan, who IMO ran his fellow lock Ryan Baird very close for the “Star of the Match” award, blocked down the clearance and eventually we won an early attacking scrum on their 22.


What followed was essentially a chess match of positioning between our backs and Northampton’s as we had seemingly infinite possibilities to go at them from the set piece.  In the end they were so busy covering the complex options that when a simple one was presented to Gibson-Park, namely picking up a loose ball and charging ahead, he was able to do just that all the way to the line and just like that the bonus point was in the bag.


But even then we weren’t allowed to feel safe as the tables were turned on us at the restart and this time it was Gibson-Park having his exit kick blocked.  In fact, the presence of Nick Isiekwe made him miscue the kick straight into the big 6 meaning the ricochet fell perfectly for him to pull the seven points straight back.


So the margin was now 10 points with a lot of the second half left to play.  That could have been something of a task for Leinster to bring the lead home, but in actual fact, despite the fact that we scored no further tries, we were quite comfortable for the remainder of the match.


Again I have to be clear that for the most part the Saints played well above their billing on the day and if there’s any consolation it's that they shouldn’t remain at the foot of the Premiership table for long.  I loved their attitude throughout and there was some real quality in their ranks, particularly in their centre pairing of Rory Hutchinson and Fraser Dingwall.


But with their never say die approach came a lot of penalties - 14 in all officially, but more in reality when you factor in the multiple advantages, and a lot of them coming in the red zone so they were perhaps lucky not to find themselves a man down at any stage even without the Tom Wood incident on which I’m about to harp.


There were 68 minutes gone and we had stretched the margin to 13 points, which meant the approach of both sides had regressed to kick tennis.  At one point Garry Ringrose and Dan Leavy looked to have the Saints trapped in a choke tackle but they managed to bring it to ground making it a standard ruck.


Josh van der Flier, being the pilfering 7 that he is, saw an opportunity to get over the ball and seemed to be looking towards referee Pierre Brousset to make sure he was legal.  Enter his opposite number Tom Wood charging in to clear him out.


Look - it won’t surprise you to learn that I reckon it was in red card territory.  Contact is made with the head, nuff said IMO.  And that’s before we look at his entry point - his team mate Proctor was at the same time returning to his feet to make the clear out from the correct place.  I can appreciate the watered down opinions of some pundits, many of whom were back row aficionados themselves.  But for me, that deserved a card of some description.


Still, as it turned out, it didn’t come near to affecting the result.  In fact, there was much irony in that despite not awarding any sanction having seen the replay himself, Brousset instead went back to award a penalty for something else and Ross Byrne managed to slot it over finally giving us a 3-score cushion everyone assumed would be a formality back at the 20-minute mark.


This leaves us on top of Pool A and in a good position to reach the final eight, although I very much doubt the Saints would roll over for their own fans for the return match in January.  Arguably they gave us our biggest test of the season, but there’s an even bigger one ahead on St Stephen’s Day as we face a Munster side that has as many wins as we do, although their record is perhaps more a result of the standing up and the fighting than ours.


It won’t be easy but if we continue to show the ability to reach down and find our A game when the going gets tough like we did towards the end of that first half, then we’re in for one hell of a Christmas cracker in Thomond Park, not to mention the interpros that follow.   JLP


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