Monday, February 01, 2021

Scarlets-25 Leinster-52

SYMMETRY

This writeup brings a trilogy of sorts to an end.  It was Leinster’s third win on the bounce since starting the new year with disappointment at home to Connacht and when harping on the matches against Ulster and Munster I kicked off by focusing on decisions by skipper Johnny Sexton to go for the try when kicking for touch or going for three points seemed the more likely option.


At Parc y Scarlets on Saturday evening in this fixture rearranged from last November, it was Luke McGrath leading the boys in blue.  The role probably wasn’t a whole lot of consolation for him having missed out on Ireland’s Six Nations squad despite a run of fine form but that certainly wasn’t going to take his mind off the job at hand.


When this decision had to be made, the clock was nearing the half hour mark and Leinster won a penalty right under the posts.  Conventional wisdom would have us take the easy three points to stretch our lead to seven since we were the away team and the Scarlets had already shown they could find their way to our try line.


However, like I said in those recent writeups, conventional Leinster wisdom is something else altogether, and here there was definitely a case to be made for us going for the try.  We already had two in ourselves, with the second looking pretty easy from a lineout/maul in their 22.  And even though the mark for this penalty was central, we have made a lot of hay from the “tap and go” option this season in a similar situation.


But for this decision by Luke McGrath, there’s a bit more context required.  To win this particular penalty, Leinster began with a lineout outside the Scarlets 22.  It didn’t take that many phases for us to get close to their try line, including a strong carry from James Tracy along the way.  And despite the home side starting brightly to take a 3-0 lead, all of our possessions since included a host of strong gainline busting carries from our forwards.


So while this is nothing but a hot take on my part, I reckon Luke decided to go for the three not because it was the easy option, rather for two reasons - 1) he wanted to give his pack a breather, and 2) he saw the way the winds were blowing and backed them to get us back deep into their territory before long.


I reckon the stats at fulltime show that he would not have been wrong in that determination.  Five more Leinster tries followed, with an overall advantage of 55% of possession and a two-thirds share of away territory throughout for a victory that made a mockery of my preview that it would remain close.


Russ Petty is a great source for stats on the Twitter machine, although Leinster fans may not have been happy about his pre-match reminder that you had to go back to the first competitive outing of the Matt O’Connor era for the last time we tasted victory in Llanelli.  I tried to mitigate by pointing out that what with the Pro14 conference system and COVID19, we hadn’t the opportunity to get that particular monkey off our backs since September 2018.


Yet although the Scarlets struck back with a penalty of their own to make the score a very competitive 13-17 after 33m, there was something about Leinster’s attitude with the ball that made victory...I want to say “inevitable” but that doesn’t look good...let’s go with “very, very likely”.  And this was despite the completely different starting XV to the previous weekend, although of course Ireland’s opening Six Nations opponents Wales had also drawn heavily from the Scarlet lineup.


All of which meant we had to rely on a mix of youngsters who had already impressed this season, some who are just breaking into the squad now, and also a smattering of experience to get the job done we certainly did that, despite a few uncharacteristic blips along the way.


With all their heavy lifting the Player of the Match award had to go to one of the forwards, although while Jack Conan did have a good outing, so did our entire starting back row and I would have gone for Dan Leavy, it’s marginal and Josh Murphy also impressed throughout.  


In the backline it was another example of the Harry Byrne/Ciarán Frawley axis showing the way forward for Leinster - both have an excellent mix of strength and creativity to keep a series of phases rolling deeper into opposition territory while keeping even this Scarlet defence, which never made things too easy for us despite the final scoreline, incredibly honest.


Also in Harry’s case, as well as the game management, strong running and missile passes, it’s worth noting that the reason we achieved a “fifty burger” on the night was that he was able to effortlessly guide the ball over the bar six times following our tries, only being denied a chance to make it seven because that was a penalty try.


So as I often do when there are as many as ten tries in a match, I reckon the best way to proceed with the writeup is to go through the timeline of scores…


3m Sam Costelow penalty 3-0


17m Dan Leavy try (Harry Byrne conversion) 3-7


Given the result it’s hard to believe we spent so long behind on the scoreboard, but as I said it took a while for us to open the floodgates.  In actual fact we were a bit lucky with this first try since having won a penalty close to their line, James Tracy failed to tap the ball yet rather than awarding a scrum to the home side, ref Mike Adamson gave him another go.


After being held up over the line, Jack Conan took the ball from the base of the scrum only to be tackled just short, with Leavy in good support to bring it the rest of the way.


19m Dane Blacker try (Sam Costelow conversion) 10-7


No doubt the Monday morning video session will be harsh on certain individuals for the gaps that led to each of the three Scarlet tries, although for this one I reckon it was just a case of some pinpoint accuracy, timing and technique that allowed Uzair Cassiem to take the ball in full flight and charge into the Leinster backfield.


Once there it was clear he didn’t back himself to go all the way and although his hesitation to ship it to Blacker on his inside looked like it would be costly, in the end his pass was on the money and it really did look like we could have a game on our hands at that point.


23m James Tracy try (Harry Byrne conversion) 10-14


But it wasn’t long before Leinster were enjoying front foot ball once more and when Harry Byrne got tip tackled by Steff Hughes (thought it might have been worth a look by TMO for more than the penalty that was awarded), we went for a lineout 10m from their line.  Ryan Baird rose to take the dart, Tracy set himself at the back of the maul which broke before reaching the line but still managed to get him over.


31m Harry Byrne penalty 10-17


33m Sam Costelow penalty 13-17


36m Leinster penalty try/Uzair Cassiem yellow card 13-24


The Scarlets’ inability to cope with our carries led to them shipping a lot of penalties, and this time a deliberate knock on allowed us to go back to the same corner as the Tracy try.  Again our maul was heading for the line only for Kassiem to enter illegally and bringing it down giving Adamson no choice but to award the double whammy of yellow and automatic seven points.


40m Cian Kelleher try (Harry Byrne conversion) 13-31


It takes a long time for the fat lady to sing at the end of a first half which involves Leinster and this was no exception.  A bit like Thomond the week before, it was the home side in possession as late as the 39th minute only for a big hit from Josh Murphy to wrest the ball free with an offside call allowing us to return it to the corner.


Luke McGrath took full advantage of the understandable Scarlet expectations for another maul to break away and put Kelleher through.  The winger needed a step to get over but made it look easy in the process, allowing for an easier conversion to give the halftime score a nice symmetrical look to it.


55m Luke McGrath try (Harry Byrne conversion) 13-38


Although the bonus point was already in the bag, this try and build up to it kind of summed up the match.  The Scarlets defence started the second half reasonably well as they had the first and it took us over ten minutes to get a decent set of 14 phases in their 22.  


Luckily for us the ref deemed a breakdown to be a ruck which meant the scrum went to us, but even then, their first up tacklers were on the money in snuffing out our set piece move.  Yet despite all the resistance, we remained patient with the ball and eventually Luke McGrath found a gap to easily fall over the line and under the posts.


64m Will Homer try (conversion missed) 18-38


Now we were into the benches and Leinster had a debutante in Jamie Osborne (one of our few standout performers in the the recent A fixture against Ulster) who is the latest in a long line of new blues to start his senior career with a bang - literally in this case as his first contribution was a big hit driving the opposition back where they came from.


Still, it was the Scarlets who scored next and this one looked like a poor man’s version of Johnny May’s try against Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup.  Tyler Morgan ran from deep having spotted a mismatch ahead of him in the form of Jack Dunne - to say the lock, who was only on for a few minutes, got caught for pace was an understatement and Morgan was able to get deep in the backfield before offloading to Homer who brought it the rest of the way - to be fair to Dunne, young Max O’Reilly seemed a bit late with his chase at the end of it all.


67m Max O’Reilly try (Harry Byrne conversion) 18-45


Almost as if they feared the prospect of criticism on these very pages, Messrs Dunne & O’Reilly quickly found a way to make amends, with the former providing the block for the latter to sail through for a score within minutes.  O’Reilly did show some good touches on the night to be fair and will hopefully see more game time before the season is out.


72m David Hawkshaw try (Harry Byrne conversion) 18-52


Another youngling to see action right after entering the fray was Hawkshaw.  Aengus O’Brien wasted a penalty kick to touch by putting it dead and from the resulting scrum, Hawkshaw was chosen to provide the crash ball and he duly obliged.  7 phases later it was his turn to charge through another gap in the (by now surely knackered) defence for try number seven.


79m Aengus O’Brien try & conversion 25-52


Once more there was fault to be found in Leinster’s defending and this time it was Scott Fardy that was the most conspicuous as O’Brien stepped by him.  This gave the home side a sniff of getting something from the game in the form of a 4th try.


However, although the final quarter defence seemed to be lacking on the night, after the restart it appeared to wake up, keeping the Scarlets pinned back in their own 22 and ironically it was Fardy who won the ball back spotting it loose at the back of a ruck to allow us to put the game to bed.


So much like the end of the first half the final score was also "reversible" and the maximum match points puts us back on top of Conference A, four ahead of Ulster with five matches left each, one against them at the Kingspan.


And speaking of symmetry, the other four teams we both must play are also the same - Dragons, Glasgow, Zebre & Ospreys so while of course the meeting in Belfast will be key, every match will be significant, assuming only the winners are going through to knockout rugby.


Not a bad place for Leinster to be considering how the year began, I must say. Time to put the blue jersey away for a couple of weeks, as always these days we just live in hope the season will be able to continue because it has been a most welcome distraction from the the day to day everything! JLP


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