Monday, March 29, 2021

LEINSTER-16 MUNSTER-6

CELEBR8

It’s for matches like this one where places like Harpin On Rugby can have the most value for Leinster Rugby fans.  


Maybe I should have been annoyed that the prevailing narrative in the wider discussion in Ireland for the past week or so has been heavily Munster-leaning; before the match, it was “will they win their first trophy in ten years” and after it has been “what can they do to finally get to where Leinster are”.


Yet it’s far from annoyed that I’ve been feeling - in fact, my reaction has been mostly understanding.  Of course their perspective was always going to be the starting point, especially with the added news of the impending departures of CJ, Billy & JJ.  A Munster win would not only have been better overall for the game on the island, it would have also been really good for the Pro14 competition itself; even I can see that.


However I do have to be careful that all my understanding doesn’t end up morphing into guilt.  What have I to be guilty about?  While I want to respect the levels of disappointment that Munster fans must be feeling, at some stage you have to allow yourself time and space to be happy that a team you’ve devoted so much time to supporting over the years has won a major trophy - isn’t that why we do so much of said devoting?


Which makes this the perfect place to use as a safe haven for fellow Leinster fans who simply want to celebrate before the next challenge comes along, and let's face it, with all that's going on, we need all the opportunities to be positive we can get.


So for that reason the theme for this writeup is very simple.  Leinster won the league, and I am happy.  I’m not rubbing it in, I’m not making any declarations that this success means anything about what else is going to happen in the future, I’m just letting everyone know that as sporting weekends go, this was a really memorable one.


Because it’s not like we barely squeaked over the line, was it.  If anything we should have won by more, but considering it was cup rugby and there were no bonus points to be chased, you can’t watch that 80 minutes go by without being impressed that one team was in control throughout.


And since I believe that very control led to our success, I’ll start harping on the match by pointing out why I disagree with the choice of Player of the Match.  Naturally I mean absolutely nothing against Jack Conan whatsoever.  Back to his best after a dreadful run of injuries, his carrying was excellent and not only did he score the game’s only try but his catch in a sea of players is what led to the 3 points that finally stretched the margin over the critical 2-score barrier, so it’s not like he wasn’t a leading contender.


But that’s the point - he wasn’t the only leading contender.  You could go several different ways in looking to award the gong.  For one thing, others were busting through gainlines like there was no tomorrow - Rhys Ruddock, Robbie Henshaw & Ronán Kelleher to name just three have been doing it all season and certainly earned further recognition at the RDS on Saturday.


Then there were setpieces, especially the scrum, where we got the edge in the early stages and held onto it throughout, and with Andrew Porter also excelling in the loose his name deserves to be floated as well. And you can never ignore Devin Toner's lineout prowess as he broke Gordon D'Arcy's record for provincial caps.


Of course we also have to marvel at the standards in defence - Leinster have now gone 156 minutes in Pro14 finals without conceding a try and as I have said several times before on these pages, I get as much joy from watching our blue wall deny a 20+ phase stand as I do a try scored from our own 22.


However, on this day, we had a tough defence to crack ourselves.  You can’t go into a match knowing the likes Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander, Gavin Coombes and Damien de Allende will be sniffing snaffles without having a plan to get it past them.  And even more importantly, you also have to be patient with your plan.


Which is why I can’t look any further than Leinster’s halfbacks when it comes to awarding the top honours for this performance.  First, there’s Luke McGrath who couldn’t possibly have responded better to seeing his team mate Jamison Gibson-Park leapfrog him into the Ireland set up.  Whether captaining or not he has fine tuned his all round game to his highest levels yet and this match was no exception.


For this final, if there was a way the stats people could come up with a percentage number to represent the amount of times a 9 picked the correct option on each phase, his could well be in the high 90s for this match.  For all the metres gained by Jack, Robbie & co on the day, it was generally a result of Luke’s speed of thought and accurate distribution.  


There was one scrum in the second half where we had been under pressure from Munster following the Conan try.  There were substitutions and resets before Luke finally got to feed the ball so while waiting I sent a message to a WhatsApp group I’m in that read like this : “Need to boot the leather off this from the scrum keep it down their end.


Sure enough, not only do we comfortably win the scrum, but Luke doesn’t hesitate to take responsibility himself by kicking it towards the touchline, and despite being in a central location he gets it well into their half and the bounce evades Keith Earls to roll perfectly into touch.  But even Luke doesn’t get my award!


Pretty much every player in every position in every team sport begins life at the highest level in someone else’s shadow, yet few arrived in a longer one than Ross Byrne.  And for good measure, he now has his little brother nipping at his heels too, with many seeing Harry involved in the line of succession for jerseys both blue and green long term.


And this wasn’t the first time Ross has started a match for Leinster knowing he would have to hand the reins over to his much-decorated club captain at some point, yet it has never been a match with so much at stake.  So add that pressure to all the talent and determination that was ready to come at him from the men in the red jerseys, and it’s clear he had his work cut out for him as he set to drop kick the ball to start the proceedings.


Not 14 seconds later, his kick chasers had earned us an attacking lineout and already the theme for the day was set.  Between himself and Luke we were to have a near perfect table set on every possession - Munster were never going to make it easy for us but while there was no doubt a lot of Contepomi and Sexton in the thinking behind the sequences of variation, the levels of execution still had to be top notch and they were.


“All” that was missing from each attacking set in that first half was a try.  The early 6-0 lead was hard earned, but that kind of margin was never going to be enough so when passes were going directly into touch and Fardy was going over the line without a latch to find himself well held up by Stander & Coombes, a pair of Carbery penalties which brought them back to parity before the break made it look like we could have blown our chance.


For the first few minutes of the interval I have to admit I was apprehensive, but then I thought “hang on - have I really seen anything to suggest we’re not going to just continue where we left off?”  That period after the restart has often been one where we put matches to bed and when a wave of double tacklers around halfway forced Kleyn to knock on, followed by another scrum penalty which got us back into their 22, the try really did look inevitable.


Munster wouldn’t be Munster if they didn’t offer strong resistance but our forwards were not for being denied again.  We were held up over the line a second time but from the resulting scrum, Conan struck straight from the base, Porter followed up well and soon after it was that number 8 getting low enough to drag it over.


Obviously there wasn’t a single Leinster fan who was going to feel comfortable with a seven point margin, no matter how strong our bench was.  So when Ross Byrne needed attention shortly after the try, stayed on anyway and then misjudged the conditions for a rare miss with his next penalty attempt, you might think another chance had been lost, and also his limping away from the kicking tee didn’t look too good for him either.


It was still a few minutes later before Sexton came on and of course with the lead intact that was still a great way for Ross to hand things over.  He could now take his seat knowing his work had been done.  Or could he?


Before I go on, a word about the breakdowns.  Mike Adamson isn’t the best communicator of a ref I’ve seen but to be fair to him, for the day that was in it I reckon he was doing his best to keep the game flowing.  Naturally everyone watching could see through their coloured goggles infringements that were being let go, yet the only criticism I could make of the officials were that perhaps more high shots could have been called for safety's sake - it wasn’t a case of either side benefitting from the policy, that's for sure.


Anyway - at one particular breakdown Johnny Sexton took a stray accidental boot to the face which meant Ross Byrne had to return to the pitch.   So basically having put in a great shift and thus easily handling all the pressure piled on before the kickoff, he now had to return and see the lead home himself, with a suspect leg thrown in for good measure.


Not three minutes into this second spell, Luke sends one high into the Ballsbridge evening sky, only for it to fall to Jack Conan who proceeds to charge into the Munster 22.  We then go through a few phases and I for one didn’t realise Adamson had given a penalty until he said “you still have the advantage” so when the move broke down and we went back to the mark of the offside call, there was a decision to be made that looked pretty straightforward.


Or so it seemed...when Adamson asked Ross what he wanted to do there was absolutely no hesitation - “shot called”.  You can bet your life that every Munster player was going to be fired up should he have missed it, and given his limping after his earlier attempt from around the same mark (if anything this was tougher) the odds were stacked further against him.


But here's the thing - Ross has hit many a similar pressure kick for Leinster over the years.  Hard to believe he made his debut way back in 2015 against Edinburgh; he’s just 2 shy of his century of appearances at this stage and as cool as you like he was able to slot it as if it was nothing to him.  


While I’m on the subject of nerves of steel, honourable mention has to go to Jordan Larmour following the Conan try.  To let the restart bounce and continue to roll over the line so he could dot down for a scrum back didn’t do my heart many favours for a few moments there, but the end result was definitely a further blow to Munster.


Much like the reaction of the English players after winning a free kick while chasing Ireland last week, the Munster lineout jumpers deciding not to go after a dart towards the end was an indication that they knew they had been beaten.


Anyway, back to Ross - the fact that it was he who kicked the ball out of play after the clock went red is what finally made me believe he was destined to be player of the match.  Now of course I hope you realise that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter who got it so I won’t mind if you disagree...I just used my argument as a means of telling the story of the match.


The important thing is that we won our 8th league title and 4th in a row with a fine display from a group of 23 players, with dozens more also involved in the 17 matches who will be clambouring for places in the resumption of the quest for the fifth star to come.


But even though it’s a tight 6-day turnaround before we’re back in European action, as well as speculation over players who might be staying or going, as fans we should still allow ourselves a day or two to celebrate this achievement, these players, these coaches, this fine organisation.  They have approached yet another tournament with a championship-winning attitude and reaped the rewards.


Here’s hoping we’ll able be able to bring the #SeaOfBlue back to the RDS to watch them display the silverware in person before too long.  JLP




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