Monday, September 27, 2021

Leinster-31 Vodacom Bulls-3

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE...

If I had a time machine and could travel back to meet myself as I was sitting down to work on my writeup of Leinster’s 2019/20 home opener against the Ospreys, the younger me would of course be curious about the result of the 2021/22 version.


Naturally, before I replied I’d say something like... 


“First things first man...here’s a list of sporting events for you to put bets on!  Oh, and be sure to go big on the one about an Italian team winning a trophy...” 


...but then I’d be sure to tease the requested information by first saying... 


“As for Leinster in the future, yeah also a bonus point home win for the boys in blue to start the season”.


“Ah, great stuff...so I guess nothing really changes in the next two years, right?”


“No, no, not at all.  Except of course for, you know, a global pandemic, complete rebrand of the league with some teams dropping out and others joining, Sexton and Ringrose able to play because neither went on the Lions tour, Porter playing loosehead, Church as tighthead and both earning penalties in their first go...apart from that, yeah, sure, nothing has changed at all.”


“A global WHAT now????”


But joking aside, as wonderful an occasion as it was in the Aviva Stadium with plenty of good things for me to harp on, I’d be lying if I said I felt like celebrating as Mike Adamson blew the final whistle.   The rugby gods with their never ending sadism somehow organised things in such a way that even though the Irish Women’s qualifier against Scotland kicked off 15 minutes ahead of Leinster, the two matches were coming to a close around the same time.


And with Leinster’s bonus point wrapped up as the Scots began putting immense pressure on the Irish defence when the score was 18-13 in our favour, how could I not turn all my attention to cheering the girls on to the end.  So as you can probably imagine, the closest word I can find to describe my emotions at full time is “bittersweet”, since you’d have to be without a soul if you didn’t feel for the girls who had clearly given their all.


Obviously this is first and foremost a Leinster writeup so I will get to that in a paragraph or two, but although I have covered opinions on the Women’s game quite a bit this year (opinion piece during the Six Nations, writeup of their win over Italy last week, podcasts here and here, to name just some of it) I do have one more thought I’d like to add.


Much has been said about what needs to be done and most of that is from people way more qualified than I am, but one thing I notice is that more and more members of that great Irish team from 2013-14 are getting into coaching and other administrative roles in rugby.  Niamh Briggs is coach at UL Bohs, Sophie Spence took a job with the Welsh setup while Lynne Cantwell became South African Women’s High Performance Manager.  Surely positions can be found within the Irish Women’s structure to get these heroes involved in shaping our future?


Right...sorry again if I seem to be digressing but like I said, this article is meant to be about what happened to me at the Aviva on Saturday and all of the above was a big part of it.  When it came to the boys in blue, well they really did signal their intent to hold on to their league title no matter what new teams were involved or how the branding of the competition may look.


In my preview although I was confident of a Leinster win, I was also in complete disbelief that the bookies had us at one stage 25-point favourites, which I know now wasn’t even enough as it turned out, but my problem with it was that not only were our guests probably being underestimated, we were also trying out a lot of new things ourselves which needed to pay off.


By far the most eye-catching change was in the front row, with both Porter starting and Healy on the bench sporting new jersey numbers.  And you simply could not have written a better script to open the match.  Bulls 10 Johan Goosen kicks off and puts it straight into touch, giving us the first Leinster scrum before the clock has barely gotten going.  After one reset, Adamson’s arm goes straight up in the air for a penalty to Leinster on Porter’s side - just how satisfying must that have been?


And from there Sexton put the ball to touch at the 22, we win the set piece, go through a few phases before winning another penalty, which our skipper slots over the bar to get the scoreboard moving nice and early.  


We weren’t done there...from the restart our guests made an early attempt to get past our famed defence by stabbing one through but we not only tidied easily but went on to show them how it’s done.  First a long testing kick into space in their 22 before a good chase kept them pinned there and when we win it back, some slick running and passing through the backs before Keenan pops one up to the all-conquering Josh van der Flier who busts his way to the try line, sitting down the full back in the process.


Again we keep the pressure on next time we’re down their end minutes later - this time Sexton opts for a cheeky chip while already in their 22 - our centres are clearly well ready for tactics like this, and it’s batted down for Ringrose to quickly fire it to his left where it’s that man Andrew Porter there to grateful receive it and dot down - you can see from the pic what this amazing first quarter meant to him.


So just like that we’re 17-0 to the good and the evening Ballsbridge sky seemed to be the limit for what we could achieve, although to be fair to the recently crowned Currie Cup champions, they barely had a chance yet to show what they could do, such was our determination to get off to a (van der) flyer.


And it has to be said for the remainder of the first half the Bulls had something of a “purple patch”, one where they were probably unlucky not to get at least one try.  But you could also say we earned a lot of that luck with our standards of organisation and ruck resourcing absolutely where they needed to be.  They definitely had several different methods ready to break us down and had a decent stab at all of them, yet each time James Ryan would pinch a crucial lineout, or Hugo Keenan would make a last-ditch tackle, or JVDF would burrow his way to a critical jackled turnover.


The one time they did seem to cross they were called back for a knock on by Elrigh Loew in the build up, definitely the right call and more just reward for our tenacious tackling.  All of this left 17-3 as the halftime score, although the Bulls did a decent job letting us know that if we had designs on the bonus point there was still a decent amount of work to be done.


We started the second half determined to get to the four tries but this spell went the same way for us as it did for the Bulls before the break - lots of invention while just falling short on the execution.  At one stage we put together an excellent series when Ryan pinched yet another Bulls dart around the halfway line before first Sheehan, then Ringrose and finally Ruddock made impressive gains getting us all the way into the 22 where Harold Vorster came through and fell on Luke McGrath.  Since the ref saw fit to award the penalty, given the momentum of the play it should probably also have been yellow.


James Lowe, being James Lowe, took the quick tap and would definitely have gone over if his studs didn’t give way underneath him just before the line.  We continued to press in their 22 and we went through the phases, I glanced at my laptop to notice Lindsay Peat going over the Scottish line to put Ireland ahead, letting out a “YES!!!!” which had to be heard all around the media box though nobody seemed to mind.


And back down on the pitch, although we were still having problems bringing the ball that final metre, the Bulls were unable to clear properly until finally a high tackle from Vorster on Jamison Gibson-Park got us back into their 22 via a penalty which we put to touch.


From here, although Janko Swanepoel nearly pinched Tracy’s dart, it still got to its intended receiver in Rhys Ruddock, who set up the maul perfectly for Tracy to get on the end and fall over for what was a very timely third try for us if we were to push for the valuable fourth.


By the final quarter, Cian Healy had been introduced and on his own first scrum there were more immense celebrations from the Leinster pack as he also earned a penalty in his maiden attempt at a new position.  Obviously there are still no guarantees this switch will prove a long-term success but if the early indicators are anything to go by, it certainly offers a wide range of possibilities for Leinster this season.


Lowe was still doing everything he could to make things happen for us; as well as the nearly-try, he had earlier made an incredible attempt to keep a Bulls penalty from finding touch only for his toe to barely flick a blade of white touchline grass, and while most of the time his cannon of a left boot served us well, on one occasion his punt was a smidge overcooked and went dead bringing a scrum all the way back to our own 22.


But on this day we didn’t actually need any of his trademark YouTube moments to pay off as the Bulls continued to have zero success against our cordon of defenders whatever they tried to do.  Garry Ringrose in particular had an excellent second half in reading their plays but it was the team effort that was most impressive.


My eyes were now drawn to the action in Parma as the Scots seemed to be pressing and pressing even more with the clock ticking down.  But the bonus point was still to be secured and having gone the aerial route several times earlier on, with Ross Byrne now pulling the strings for Leinster it looked like we were hoping to take advantage of tiring defenders by going for a more “KBA” style approach and it eventually got us a reward.


Ciaran Frawley, half of a centre partnership with Ringrose which looked creative with the ball yet also solid down the middle without it, set us up nicely for try number four thanks to a neat little dummy kick that got us to halfway and although later in the move both he and Ryan Baird saw passes go to ground, such was the support that we got some deserved luck in the bounce to keep things going.


In the end it was a sublime trio of offloads from Gibson-Park, van der Flier and finally Ringrose which resulted in Ross Byrne going over for the line for the bonus point.  A TMO check looked for a knock on amongst the dropped passes but there were none to be found and the job was done.


From there, like I said, I have to admit I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to events on the pitch.  I did catch van der Flier deservedly being named Player of the Match for his constant high standards of skills and workrate, although there were fine displays all over the park - Porter’s early success, Sheehan’s strength, James Ryan’s dominance at lineout time, Ross Molony with workrate and demeanour that makes the loss of Scott Fardy a lot more bearable, our backrow including Deegan from the bench coping very well with their esteemed counterparts to name just the forwards.


Behind the scrum Luke McGrath kept the ball moving quickly and also made some decent line breaks while Sexton absolutely bossed the opposition defence and if anything will probably be disappointed the final margin wasn’t wider.  The back three were steady for the most part and from the bench young Jamie Osborne caught the eye despite the brief cameo.


As for first impressions of the new competition, well I like definitely like the branding, graphics and what-not it really works, assuming that is actually something important!!! The Bulls haven't exactly had things their own way in two matches against teams from this league, but they have plenty of quality and will definitely improve, and while I wasn't in the actual crowd I did see a lot of Bulls and Springbok jerseys among the attendees before and afterwards which was great to see.


So an impressive opener to the campaign for Leinster, one which definitely had to please the big crowd in attendance, mostly blissfully unaware of what was going on in Italy.  As we always say after big wins at this time of year, “nothing is won in September” but it does have to be said there was a definite attitude about this Leinster squad that these are standards which need to be not only maintained but actually improved upon right through to the business end of the season.


Hopefully when we get to that stage (unless my time machine dream comes true, unfortunately we'll have to wait) we’ll be able to talk in equally emphatic positive terms about all forms of the senior game on these shores.  JLP


Later this week - I'll have Munster & Ulster fans on the podcast to discuss what their own home opening nights were like as well as to review Week 1 of the URC, then we'll be counting down to Leinster's next URC fixture, a Sunday away day in Newport. Do stay tuned!


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