Monday, February 22, 2021

Dragons-29 Leinster-35


I have written up so many Leinster matches over the years where our opposition claimed the opening score only for the boys in blue to go on and win, I’ve lost count of the amount of times that I’ve lost count of the amount of times.

My theory about why it happens so often goes like this - teams are so motivated to put one over on us that they would come out of the gate strong from the kickoff, but once we get to settle into our own attacking plan then we are generally able to overturn the early deficit.

Yet one feature of that common occurrence is that we would only concede the first score.  Most of the time it would be a penalty but it has happened over the years that we'd be 5- or 7-points down before we clicked into gear.  So althought when the Dragons went 3- and even 6-points ahead in this one I wasn’t too concerned, even I have to admit I was starting to be when Sam Davies kicked a third penalty in the 21st minute to stretch the lead to 9.

A lot of the concern came from the fact that we were shipping so many penalties, but there were other factors like the way the third three-pointer was directly linked to the second - Harry Byrne put the restart out on the full and we were pinged at the resulting scrum.  The match was starting to look like one of those where nothing was going to click for us.

Of course the state of the pitch certainly didn’t help so I’ll address that here.  Did a bit of research and as you can see, there were three Football League Two matches played on the Rodney Parade surface since Connacht played there at the beginning of February.  Both teams have to play on it I know, but whatever the reasons it definitely was below the standard required for the league, no matter what’s falling out of the sky.

But everything can’t be blamed on that so we had to find a way to play our way back into this one, and straight from the restart after our deficit reached 9 we managed to dig deep and get into it.

Max O’Reilly is definitely growing into his full back role and he set this impressive Leinster sequence in motion by taking the ball into contact around the halfway line.  Then there were strong carries by Scott Penny and Josh Murphy before a neat spin by Rory O’Loughlin broke past tacklers and his offload to Jack Conan got us deep in the 22.

We’re entering that zone where the Irish provinces say ‘we get here, we score’”, said Eddie Butler in the commentary box, as I was noting that this was our first serious attack in the match so far, and sure enough a few phases later, with a penalty advantage in the back pocket, it was Peter Dooley crashing over the line to put us on the board.

Sidenote - I thought it was interesting that Ross Byrne was taking our conversions.  When you hear so much about how important it is to bring Harry on, you tend to assume that’s reflecting where the coaches are coming from, but clearly there were reasons for big bro doing the honours on this occasion, possibly to “keep his eye in” for next weekend’s trip to Rome.

It was like we were able to flick on a switch, only this time we did it without flicking off the one that had us filling out our “shipping penalties bingo card”.  Michael Bent was a late removal meaning young Tom Clarkson had to step up - while it was his carry that led to this latest whistle from Ben Whitehouse, it was more the fault of a lack of the support plus the quick work by the Dragons’ industrious flanker Ben Fry.

So now it was 12-7 and we needed to find a way back into their 22 to see if we could further test Mr Butler’s theory and when their prop Brok Harris took out Luke McGrath at a breakdown we were able to set up another attacking lineout.  Sure enough we managed to rumble through another dozen or so phases and force another penalty advantage before it was Scott Penny’s turn to go over.

A word on the young 7 - with such immense talent from the province already impressing in the test set up, it’s easy to forget that this guy looks like someone who won’t be keen to wait in the wings too long either.  And his knack for finding the try line is surely something that could get him pressuring those above him in the pecking order soon - this was a big test for him as his opposite number Ben Fry, not that much older, also had a stand out evening and as you’re about to see, was unlucky not to get on the score sheet himself.

Sadly we were not done giving Sam Davies further kicks at goal and he put the home side back in front towards the end of the first half, and IMO he should have taken a further opportunity when Ross Molony caught hold of a jumper’s arm in a lineout just before the break.  Instead they decided to go for the jugular and for a minute or so there it looked like Fry had justified the decision when he peeled off the maul to dot down.  Instead the TMO showed the teammate who cleared his path to the tryline broke away at the wrong time and the score was scratched off.

Was that a lucky escape for us or would we have overturned the deficit regardless?  I guess we’ll never know but we certainly came out for the second half determined to get the lead back.  Our first couple of attempts ticked more boxes off that penalty bingo card, with first Cian Kelleher shouldering an opponent in the back then Fry jackling his way back into positive attention.

But we weren’t for giving up and Ross Byrne, also doing more of the kicking from hand, pinned them back with a neat touchfinder into their 22.  We continued to target their lineout throw and Ryan Baird swatted down another for us so off we went on another series of pick and goes towards the Dragons line.  

Now it was their tight head prop Lloyd Fairbrother drawing the referee’s whistle, first with a no arms tackle (his second of the night) and then after holding his hands up in admission, proceeded to tackle the next Leinster carrier despite being a mile offside.

Ben Whitehouse was correct to send him to the bin I thought; however, I also thought Dragons skipper Rhodri Williams was also correct to question why we hadn’t even had so much as a warning for all the penalties we had shipped.  

Anyway as we have often done on these occasions, rather than go for one of the normal “top three” options of placekick, lineout or scrum, we backed our forwards to return to the pick and go and sure enough it wasn’t long before Josh Murphy crashed over and there we were back in front, this time by 6.

In a way it was fitting that Penny and Murphy came out with scores to their name, because it was a superb combined effort throughout from our starting back row, and although he didn’t score Jack Conan was a worthy Player of the Match - it was almost like with Rhys Ruddock now back in the Ireland lineup somebody else had to play the “look at me Andy” role.

That series of passes you see in the clip on the end of that link above was arguably our best of the night, culminating as it did with Ross Byrne planting another right into the corner where it sat up allowing Dave Kearney to jackal a penalty.  Alas it turned out to be the one time we actually made a mistake in their 22 as our lineout was overthrown and the Dragons cleared.

Still, it wasn’t long before we were back there again and credit to our front row for righting the earlier wrongs by winning a scrum penalty that put us back near their line.  From there our rampaging maul looked so inevitable that Dan Baker hauled it down giving Whitehouse no choice but to award the ultimate double whammy of penalty try and yellow card.  

Again this was a justifiable trip to the naughty step but again, no matter what the offences may be for, the disciplinary stats showed a rather lop sided story with the Dragons shipping 7 penalties yet receiving 2 yellows while we coughed up 16 without so much as a warning that I could tell.  I might have been a tad miffed had those numbers been going in the opposite direction.

The automatic seven points not only extended our lead to 13 but also gave us that crucial try bonus point to help us in our scrap with the Ulstermen for first place in Conference A.  And although the Dragons didn’t have long to play with two men off the pitch, we still made them pay some more for missing one in the 63rd minute.

Arguably our easiest score of the night came when Harry Byrne went on a crash ball run on the blind side of a scrum towards the touchline before a few phases put our sub hooker Dan Sheehan in the clear.  He was faced by their pacy full back Jordon Williams yet Dan stepped around him like a veteran to secure our 5th try.

At that stage it looked to all intents and purposes that another “50-burger” was on the cards for us, especially when we were able to introduce names like Toner and Fardy from the bench, and also since we have done really well defensively in the final quarter of matches this season.

However full credit to the Welsh region because they not only started to throw it about and run at us, but also our tackles weren’t quite hitting their mark as they should.  First they got their sub scrum half Luke Baldwin over after they managed some phases around our line, and with the clock ticking closer to 80, more phases deep in our 22 led to Greg Bateman bobbling it then recovering well to set up Josh Lewis for a second try.

All of a sudden things were kind of interesting.  Sure the clock was going red, but when Sam Davies added the extras there was always going to be a restart so now within 6, they could definitely have a good go at pinching it.  As the outhalf was running back to await the restart, he could be seen looking towards the sideline probably for instructions as to what to do with their next possession.  Eh, go for the win, surely???  Especially given they had managed to crack this particular Leinster defensive cordon twice???

Well, by now David Hawkshaw was on and he rightly put his kick into their 22 where it was taken by Fry and they proceeded to set up a couple of phases.  To be fair, it was a big ask for them to go all the way to the other end at this stage but were I a Man of Gwent I would certainly want them to at least have a go.  Instead when the ball was fired back to Davies he chose instead to kill the match and be happy enough with the losing BP.  

So by the end it was a bit closer than we’d like yet with Ulster winning in Scotstoun with “only” three tries, it meant we extended our lead over them even further making it a productive night at the office all round.  I’m not so sure we learned too much about how well the Byrne brothers can work together in the same XV and there will certainly be a few things to go over on Monday morning but how could the blue-clad fans be anything but happy - indeed all four provinces finished on top this weekend and continue to dominate the standings.

Final word has to go to the Dragons - they have been making some impressive signings of late and probably missed Jamie Roberts on the night, but they are definitely showing all the hallmarks of a club that’s heading in an upward direction so we’ll see how we get on against them next season.  Maybe they’ll have also done something about the pitch by then too.  JLP



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