Let the records show that I really, really tried in my preview for this match to drum up some interest in the Rainbow Cup for my readers.
Fans from across the five nations appear to be united in their sense of “meh” towards the competition but when I looked at the standings after two rounds and realised if Leinster could sneak back into the top 2, something that would be tricky but certainly not beyond us given we’ve won tournaments featuring the same set of teams four years in a row, we could possibly get some payback for Munster’s recent result at the RDS.
I should’ve known better, shouldn’t I. Already this season the format of our domestic tournament had changed several times. At first it was to be the conference system we’d all come to know and complain about the past few years. Then it was to be a shortened season, with the same playoff qualification rules, with “something” to happen involving the new South African clubs in 2021.
Next was the playoffs being abandoned in favour of a one-off final to make time for something called the Rainbow Cup, yet it was to be ages before we knew what that was about. Finally we were told - all 16 teams playing six matches each with the top two in a final, only for COVID to force another change meaning two separate groups for two separate hemispheres leading to two separate finals and trophies.
Yet I still found a way to hop on board and if I do say so myself I think I did a decent job of finding a path for Leinster to follow to reach the final. And it wasn’t until about just before kickoff at the RDS when I learned they had only gone and made another change again - now, only the top team in each group will have a shot at silverware.
So now our task was made more difficult yet again, and I’m pretty sure Ulster fans won’t have a whole lot of sympathy for us given how earlier chopping and changing went for them. And to be fair, despite the confusion caused by all the back and forth, it will be good for the competition to have at least one match between the hemispheres to give a taste of what the league might look like in the future.
Sorry for the long lead in but I felt it was needed to help explain some of the craziness that took place right at the end of the match in question. When it comes to a starting point for discussing what happened overall, there is only one place to go and that’s the hit by Robbie Henshaw on Robert Balacoune after 29 minutes.
Just to set the scene for this pivotal moment - Ulster had most of the possession up to this point yet the score was only 7-7; I’ll go into that in more detail for the next heading but it’s important for this incident because the visitors were having a really tough time getting past our defence and needed to make the most of even the tiniest opportunity.
So when Sean Cronin tried to shoot out of the defensive cordon after a lineout around halfway only to see the arc of Shanahan’s long miss pass sail over him, it left a rare gap for Billy Burns to sail through and it got him all the way into our 22, and but for a superb tap tackle by Dave Kearney it would have been a try.
But it’s not like the chance was gone altogether and Ulster knew they had to act quickly, so when Stuart McCloskey followed up he shipped it to winger Robert Balacoune who had scored his team’s only try so far in a similar quick front foot ball situation.
Then it was, well, BOOM.
On first look I honestly thought it was a definite red card, and I have the receipts to prove it. But Ulster still retained possession so the play went on and bizarrely while referee Mike Adamson did announce a penalty advantage, it was actually for Jordan Larmour being offside. McCloskey tried a decent crossfield kick to find Nick Timoney over on the far wing but the number 8 had a foot in touch so the play was brought back. Now the “fun” begins.
Like I said, I was convinced that the collision was head on head and the reason for this was that from the original angle Balacoune’s head whipped back as if it had been struck. But the second angle, from the other side of the pitch, told a different story. In actual fact Henshaw both wraps the player and makes contact with the chest with no coming together of heads at all.
In the eirSport commentary box as the first replay is being shown, Stephen Ferris says “Yes it’s slightly high but I just think that’s a colossal hit, perfectly timed”. My own views are complicated to say the least. To the letter of the law, I would tend to agree with Fez. But while there’s generally a lot of online disdain from Leinster fans for the views of Liam Toland, I actually found myself agreeing with his assessment.
“...forget the law book, you don’t want young kids making tackles like that”
What concerned me most was the whipping motion of Balacoune’s head. He seems to have been ok after the challenge and if anything Henshaw came off the worst, but that’s not the point. That kind of whip can lead to concussion as well as contact so if it’s caused directly by the hit, then there should also be some consequence for the tackler. This is too important an area to allow provincial allegiance into it.
So I guess my final ruling would be that Adamson probably called it as Ferris did and was technically correct, yet perhaps the guidelines need looking at to better reflect the point made by Toland.
But we’re not done with this topic yet. There’s the matter of the “Captain’s Challenge”. I actually like the idea as a concept but its implementation has been a shambles so far in this competition and this match highlighted that more than anything.
Iain Henderson was Ulster skipper on the day and only a few minutes earlier he had considered using his challenge to overturn the Cian Healy try yet thought better of it. Here he was in no doubt and approached Adamson, who unbelievably didn’t know what tackle he was talking about.
Then his TMO Olly Hodges got in his ear to tell him “we have it”. For me, the officials should have told Henderson he didn’t need to use his Captain’s Challenge for this. It was clearly a hit that needed looking at and IMO it’s worth persisting with the law trial with a few tweaks including one where the referee can claim the challenge himself.
As for Iain’s vocal frustration after the eventual decision, well many are complaining that he was “trying to get Henshaw sent off” but I reckon he deserves a bit of understanding given how the hit looked in real time, and with no big screen available on the night, only Adamson would have had the benefit of the replays on the pitch side monitor.
That’s a lot of words for one incident I know but there were a lot of elements to it with a lot of implications for what might happen in future matches so I felt I had to get finicky with it. Now to the rest of the match...
A bit like last weekend in Galway, Leinster were under the kosh for most of the opening spell. Yet unlike last weekend in Galway, our opposition were finding it extremely difficult to turn possession in our 22 into scores.
Twice it was James Ryan, clearly motivated to making a statement after being overlooked by the Lions, rising to swat away Ulster lineout darts in strong attacking situations for them. Another time Eric O’Sullivan knocked on at a critical moment. Another time Shanahan reached out for a try line that was further away than he thought, (though we might have caught a break in that Cian Healy’s intervention wasn’t the most legal). Another time Marty Moore was pinged for side entry.
Finally they made some hay ironically after a Leinster scrum put in around midfield. It was of course great to see Caelan Doris back in action and overall he played well though he did have an issue or two in the basic number 8 role at scrum time, and here we ended up knocking on under pressure.
But rather than take the set piece, Ulster needed to have a go at the fact that we were set for an attacking situation so they cleverly shipped it out into the widest channel quickly where Balacoune was able to use his pace to get to the line. Tack on a brilliant conversion from the touchline by Billy Burns (made more difficult by the fact that he did it right in front of the non-involved Leinster squad players who were seated in the Grandstand) and it was a well deserved seven points for the visitors.
Their problem was that it took the entire first quarter to get those points and for all their pressure they had to know that eventually we’d get a chance ourselves. Luke McGrath tried to kick start things for us with a high bomb towards the 22 from halfway but our chasers were denied by a fine catch from Jacob Stockdale which allowed them to set things up for Burns to clear.
However his opposite number Ross Byrne had other ideas. It wasn’t your standard charge down in that he had to reach back which meant the kicked ball hitting it must have stung at least a bit, but the net effect was that the ricochet put the ball in their 22 and it took an excellent pick up and offload from Garry Ringrose to give us our first whiff of possession, with Sean Cronin the recipient and the newly-crowned OLSC legend taking off towards the try line.
Ulster’s scrambling defence managed to stop him and in the phases that followed, a deliberate knock on by Hume seemed to have been missed (to be fair so was one from Ringrose in the opening minutes) but they were called offside eventually so we went back for the penalty and in those situations we like the tap and go option this weather and the result was a Cian Healy try.
So to summarize the first half an hour, loads of Ulster possession & territory leading to 7 points, two minutes of Leinster possession & territory also leading to 7 points, then the Henshaw hit. Whatever your thoughts on individual incidents, it was still pretty clear which way the momentum of this match was headed.
There may not have been a card for Henshaw but there was still a strong attacking situation for Ulster from the penalty yet that was also repelled, this time by some Josh Murphy jackling. And just one more Robbie-related observation - it was only decided that he should go off for an HIA after we won that penalty, and what’s more, he returned to the field in an attacking situation of our own before the break. Both were extremely poor safety decisions in my book.
His HIA replacement was Rory O’Loughlin and that wasn’t the only chopping & changing to take place in our backline as Dave Kearney was also forced off with Tommy O’Brien coming in, and also while Ross Byrne remained on the pitch, Garry Ringrose seemed to be taking on more of the out half duties as the match wore on. Jimmy O’Brien has done that himself this season only he too was replaced at halftime which meant O’Loughlin returned to action.
So there we were tied at 7 at the break after an eventful half. Ulster were determined to come back at us from the restart and while our defending was still stubborn, they did manage to force a couple of kickable penalties although Burns was only able to convert one which meant their lead of only 3 was extremely vulnerable.
And sure enough following the restart after we fell behind for the second time, a couple of successful attacking box kicks were caught by Larmour and Henshaw respectively and as we attacked at the 22 it was Marty Moore’s turn to step out of the line too early which meant when McGrath’s pass found Jack Conan in his stride, his pace was able to take him from the gap all the way to the line and suddenly we’d forced our way in front.
Ringrose added a sweet conversion and from there we really started to turn the screw. Our forwards' bench was a very strong one with Ronan Kelleher, Bent and Toner introduced as well as Conan and with the likes of Doris, Ryan and Baird dominating throughout as well, it was only a matter of time before we would make another chance count.
Jumping ahead to the end for a moment, whatever about thoughts on whether or not Henshaw should have been on the pitch, I can totally understand the frustration in his award as man of the match. He did play well but I’d have gone for James Ryan or if it had to be a back, Tommy O’Brien even though he was from the bench.
Virtually every contribution he made was a positive one and after a strong counter ruck at halfway saw Conan snaffle another turnover for us, Ross Byrne kicked one ahead and it bounced in their 22 for Tommy to gather, putting us back on the front foot and we were clinical when it mattered leading to that man Henshaw getting it down, which is probably why Toland gave him the gong since it was to be our last score.
And given all I have said about how what we need to do to get into the final, we really could have done with a fourth try only fair play to our visitors they never let up and while we started to throw away our own chances down at their end of the pitch, as the clock was ticking down Ian Madigan sent off one of his miss pass rockets to Craig Gilroy for a score, which was followed up by an excellent quickly-taken conversion that led to what was a crazy final sequence.
Let’s just say that my title is “chopping and changing” for several reasons - the tournament format, opinions on the Henshaw challenge, Leinster’s backline personnel, but also possession after the clock went red. Ulster could have won it with a try and Leinster could have gotten the bonus point so even though there seemed to be a lot of heavy legs out there, they kept going all the way to the 84th minute until a knock on seemed to put an end to things.
But wait - there was to be even more confusion over the Captain’s Challenge...Luke McGrath asked Mike Adamson about a potential high tackle yet the ref was having none of it as it appeared that the Leinster skipper was only made aware of it by our team doctor. I think Adamson was less inclined to entertain us because we had been in his ear a lot in those final stages and he actually told us to shut up!
So after all of that, and all the other matches from the weekend including yet another exciting interpro at Thomond Park, Leinster can still mathematically reach the final but only with a lot of help from elsewhere. I think at this stage I’ll just be happy to see us at least go for maximum points to put ourselves in contention only with priority put on getting players like Caelan Doris and Tommy O’Brien some much needed game time.
Now there's a two week layoff for Leinster but I’ll probably still do key features like Front 5 and TV plus a podcast or two to keep things ticking over so keep an eye out for that from all the usual places! Thanks as always for staying with my scribblings to the end. JLP