Monday, April 12, 2021

Exeter Chiefs-22 Leinster-34


So their winger skips his way into your 22 and shortly after he’s eventually tackled, his team wins a penalty.  They stick it in the corner, setting up a situation which helped them achieve the Premiership and Champions Cup double only about six months ago.

And although your team was spending a good part of the week preparing to defend their tightly organised maul, they still find the sweet spot on the very first drive to crash over the line for a try.

None of the above looks like a good outcome for your team, does it.  Yet as I watched, I actually managed to see Dave Ewers’ try as a positive for Leinster.  Hear me out…obviously context is everything.  First, the skipping winger in question was Tom O’Flaherty who terrorised us with two early tries so to actually stop him on this occasion was always going to be something of a result.  

But more importantly, when it comes to that lineout in the corner, I wasn’t only worried that they would wipe out our 6 point lead with the score, there was also the strong possibility that our defence was going to hold them out for multiple phases on the line, shipping further penalties in the process, which could very well have led to a yellow card on top of the try. 

And although they missed the conversion, it wasn’t long before yet another O’Flaherty break led to an opportunity for Joe Simmonds to take three points and put the Chiefs back in front.  But even then, I wasn’t overly concerned.  Why?

Well as I said in my preview, one of the principal motivating factors for Leo’s men on the day was always going to be those two defeats to Saracens in recent years.  Having had things pretty much all our own way in the majority of contests in between, we showed an Achilles heel in that when a team fronted up to us either tactically or physically in the opening stages, we didn’t have the ability to adjust, and we had to find a way to do this because every team is bound to challenge us somehow given the target we've drawn on ourselves.

If anything was going to test this on Saturday, it was going to be two early scores for the home side.  Another feature of that Ewers try was that it came off their first lineout opportunity after all of 42 minutes.  If you weren’t watching the match and heard we’d gone 14-0 down, you'd be forgiven for assuming we’d shipped two early penalties around midfield which had been put to the corner.

But to say Rob Baxter has simply achieved his success on the back of a well organised maul would be well wide of the mark.  He would have known he needed something else for this opposition, and on early attacks his players weren’t simply aiming to set up opportunities for us to give away penalties, but they were also looking to get O’Flaherty free and they did really well to catch our defensive structure off guard.

The first try came directly off a scrum which was called after referee Mathieu Reynal blew for a free kick after our lineout refused to close a gap.  Quite the decisive call you’d have thought and it looked like a sign of things to come. From there, the space was made for O’Flaherty and I’m sure he couldn’t believe his luck when first Hugo Keenan and then Johnny Sexton failed to lay a glove on him allowing him to get all the way to the line.

All of that Chiefs possession came directly from the restart - we had been pinged offside on their exit kick and when they put it to touch we had the lineout that led to the scrum.  So questionable tackling aside, it was hardly a major cause of alarm for Leinster just yet as we hadn’t shown what we would do with the ball.

Sure enough when we finally did have something of an attacking platform at midfield, we were able to work it wide very well as far as James Lowe, although my pre-match concerns about him looked to be justified as his offload in the tackle might have been unnecessary giving possession back to our hosts.

From this scrum they continued to be more direct than we may have expected and eventually it was Henry Slade breaking into the 22 where he found himself a perfect mismatch - even the twinkletoed Tadhg Furlong wouldn’t have been able for the strong candidate for a Lions centre jersey as he ran around him and slipped it to O’Flaherty who made Jordan Larmour miss him this time before going over.

14-0.  Far from the ideal start against the reigning champions.  But even then there was hope for Leinster fans.  Just seven days before Exeter themselves were down by the exact same score at the exact same stage in the exact same ground yet still managed to find their rhythm.  If they could do it, so could we, and don’t forget we actually had that exact same weekend off completely.

And sure enough we did manage to start forcing our way back into the match, and we did it by persevering down Lowe’s wing as well, which showed the kind of faith a player like him can thrive on.  He tried another offload on his next carry but we still managed to retain possession and even got it over the line only to be held up.

From the scrum we won a penalty (the set piece has been amazing for us this season) and as has been our tradition of late, we went with the tap n go.  This led to us being held up again, with Fardy in possession this time, but there was another penalty which meant another tap n go.

Now these options for close penalties are fine, but with one caveat - if you manage to get yourself jackled after the very first carry then it has been a disaster, and this is exactly what happened as Johnny Hill got over the ball.  

I have to be honest, NOW I was worried.  That outcome seemed as good as an extra 7 points to the Chiefs, and when Conan offloaded straight into touch leading to an Exeter lineout which was so crooked even the heavily-biased-towards-the-Premiership BT Sport commentators spotted it without it being called by the supposedly-overly-finicky-referee, I was starting to think this just wasn’t our day.

But while my faith may have had its limits, that clearly couldn’t be said for the Leinster players.  They stuck to their guns with our back row of Ruddock, van der Flier and Conan taking some monumental carries and Sexton doing what I assumed he’d do by kicking for territory when possible, one of them being an absolute beauty right in the corner

And when we won a free kick at a scrum, Luke McGrath showed great confidence with a quick tap to get us on the front foot.  Again we went for Lowe’s wing, again he forced his way into their 22.  From there we brought it into a more central position before sending it wide once more and when Stuart Hogg and Olly Woodburn grabbed Hugo Keenan short of the line, neither thought to hold his arms so he was able to make amends for that early missed tackle by offloading to Lowe who not only crossed the line but also made Sexton’s conversion all the easier.

Needless to say my faith was restored even though there was more catching to be done on the scoreboard.  We had already showed them that we were able to both create chances and convert them.  But there was to be another setback of sorts in the first half as not for the first time, Johnny Sexton’s day came to an end early.

Look - he’s always going to be targeted.  We shouldn’t be surprised.  Does he deserve better protection from officials?  Possibly, though rugby’s Laws don’t go quite as far as American football's which include a particular “roughing the passer” sanction.  Referees don’t seem to be on the lookout for special attention reserved for a specific player.

Yet going back to the specifics of this match, Sexton going off would only be a problem if his replacement wasn’t up to the job.  And right after Ross Byrne was called into action, Brian O’Driscoll had a couple of interesting comments within a minute of each other.

“He has nothing to be afraid of, but he’s not quite Johnny Sexton…”

“The timing of that Ross Byrne pass...not overplaying his hand”

To set the scene, as Sexton was going off for the HIA from which he was to never return, Robbie Henshaw had just jackled a penalty around halfway (luckily I thought as his hands looked to be on the ground beyond the ball) so Ross’ first job was to quarterback a lineout set piece.  

We could have kept it in the forwards to let him bed in I suppose, but we have such confidence in him that we chose instead to send it straight out through the backs and as BOD points out, Ross had just the right amount of delay on his pass to Keenan who did the same himself in shipping it to Larmour and the winger made light work of what looked like a tricky finish.

As if to underline the point that Leinster fans need not worry about Sexton’s departure, Byrne made the touchline conversion look like it was directly in front and all of a sudden, we had ourselves a “new ball game” at 14-14.

I’ll be honest and say we were also lucky to win the penalty which put us in front for the first time.  Reynal seemed to have his whistle ready to blow as Jack Conan tried a jackal with his hands on the ground but he chose not to until the next phase when he pinged the home side as Rónan Kelleher got over the ball himself.

So that gave us the lead and just before the break, a challenge by Johnny Hill needed a ruling from the team of officials.  Here are by my thoughts on this tackle and the very similar one towards the end of the match by Jannes Kirsten.  As both were on the same player, and that player was Ross Byrne, I have to assume they were a continuation of a “targeting” ploy intended for Sexton.

In both cases, we see a classic case of “one ref’s ‘attempt to wrap’ is another ref’s ‘swinging arm’”.  The way I see it, in today’s climate, surely when the first results in contact with the head, it should automatically become the latter.  I agree with Reynal that both deserved the same sanction and I reckon there was mitigation to prevent red in each case, but yellow cards had to be an absolute certainty under the current guidelines.

But between the jigs and the reels, Byrne was able to pop over a kick right before the break to send us in with a 6-point lead we would have killed for after 10 minutes.  So our challenge now was to be able to withstand the guaranteed onslaught from the home side once play resumed.

Which leads us nicely back to the events I laid out at the start.  Yes, we did have a storm to weather in the so-called “Championship minutes” but in the context of not only this match but the overall mindset Leinster have been forced into by previous experience in this great competition, only a fool would bet against us staging yet another great recovery, and this one only took a few minutes.

Our dominance at setpieces (multiple penalties at scrums as well as stolen lineouts) was matched in the area of box kicking.  It was always going to be an important skill on the day despite the windy conditions at Sandy Park and throughout it was clear that Luke McGrath’s radar was working much better than Jack Maunder’s, and at this crucial stage when the Exeter 9’s exit kick didn’t go far, Ewers was eventually pinged for a tackle off the ball which allowed Ross Byrne to restore our lead.

We continued to put the pressure on and after a scrum for what looked like a deliberate knockon by O’Flaherty (though tbf that might have been my blue goggles eager to see him off the pitch for 10 minutes) James Lowe was again trying too hard to beat his man on the outside and got bundled into touch, though it should be said he did have a great game overall and I would definitely want to see him in the lineup for the semifinal.

Ryan Baird rose to pinch the Exter lineout putting us back on the attack and this time we were not to be stopped.  And even better we weren’t so determined to pick and go our way over, instead we knew when we had earned the right to go wide and sent to Larmour who had an even more difficult finish than before yet still wrestled himself away from the valiant attempted tackle by Joe Simmons to get the ball down.

Ross Byrne couldn’t replicate his earlier touchline conversion so the crucial 8+ point margin still eluded us, but while I didn’t think this while the match was on, the rewatch showed me that as the clock ticked into the final quarter, even with just a 6 point lead it looked like another Exeter recovery was all but impossible, as our defending got stronger with each passing minute.

Eventually that Kirsten shot on Byrne allowed him to push the lead to 9 and from there, the Chiefs couldn’t even convert possession in our 22 anymore.  A bit like England’s decision not to quick tap against Ireland in the Six Nations and Munster’s not to challenge our lineout in the Pro14 final, I was very surprised to see the Chiefs copy our “tap n go” method with a short penalty when they had enjoyed 100% success with the lineout (albeit from one chance, but still…) and it resulted in an accidental offside which allowed us to get out of the sticky situation.

Another scrum penalty in the 78th minute probably brought the biggest celebrations from the boys in blue as Ross Byrne pushed the lead out even further, and although a Rory O’Loughlin run to the line from his own 22 ended up being called back right at the death, I certainly wasn’t complaining.

Player of the match went to Robbie Henshaw.  Again it’s hard for me to argue, but again, I think I just might.  Ross Byrne’s contribution certainly put him in the frame but I’d have to go for anyone from our back row, probably Josh van der Flier who not only terrorised the breakdown area but also did more than his fair share of heavy lifting when required.

Obviously the shaky start was far from ideal, but taken as a full 80 minutes, this was exactly the kind of performance that gives us hope for our overall chances in this tournament.  Could we have done with the match against Toulon the week before to get some extra rugby in our legs?  Probably.  Could the standard provided by the Pro14 be below that required to prepare us for these big European clashes?  Probably.  (Apologies to the tournament sponsors if I’m borrowing a catchphrase from a rival there…)

But what we have seen over the past couple of knockout rugby outings is that Leo, Stu & co have this squad, which don’t forget has a fair amount of injury issues, more than ready to face all that lies before them.  In many ways it didn’t really matter how the draw went for the semifinals as the evidence suggests we’d have been up for any challenge.

Yet it was ROG’s La Rochelle that came out of the hat and it definitely promises to be a belter of a contest.  The only sad thing is that we can’t travel to watch it, but that said, with all that has been happening, watching Leinster Rugby play this season has been the perfect distraction in many ways.  Stay tuned for the podcast this week when I’ll have 3 fellow fans on with me to revel in the successes of the campaign so far.  JLP



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