Monday, September 13, 2021

Leinster-40 Harlequins-21

WELCOME BACK

“COME….ON….YOU….BOYS IN BLUE, COME ON YOU BOYS IN BLUE, COME ON YOU BOYS, COME ON YOU BOYS IN BLUE…”


Obviously with no big crowds able to go to watch Leinster Rugby since Feb 2020, the sound of that song filling the Friday night air around Ballsbridge was going to seem like a novelty.  And to be honest, even before COVID, that wasn’t something you’d usually hear after a match anyway.


But even if this was just a one-off case of a group of lads having the craic on their way to the pub from the Aviva, it served as perfect punctuation after a great night’s Leinstertainment.


I mean, what with all that has gone before, the actual rugby itself didn’t have to be breathtaking for the night to be memorable, and to be fair, the scrumfest that was the final quarter wasn’t exactly pleasing on the eye, but it has to be said that both sides went out there to play and showed signs of what to expect from them this season, with Leinster doing it that bit better which was reflected by the final score.


By far and away our catalyst was none other than Johnny Sexton.  That may seem obvious given how his name stood out on the team sheet as we rarely see him in action at this time of year, but the way he presented himself for this match really does have to be commended.  He was on top of his game, showed the very leadership we’d expect from our club captain, and clearly inspired those around him to rack up four quality tries before halftime against a Harlequins XV not a million miles from that which won the Premiership a few months ago.


The game was barely two minutes old when we got the scoreboard moving.  Quins were coming at us with a series of phases but as we have come to expect from the Leinster defence, they found it increasingly difficult to break our blue cordon at our 22.  Eventually Danny Care attempted a cheeky grubber through but it was spotted by his opposite number Luke McGrath and the deflection fell perfectly for Sexton to run on to.


He offloaded to you Rob Russell who proceeded to jink his way into the Quins half.  His progress was worth nothing without support and he had it in the form of Luke McGrath who, as always, found a perfect line to be in the right place at the right time.  Also following up was Sexton who offered a big clearout at the breakdown.


From there we had developed something of an overlap on the left wing but it had to be used properly.  McGrath shipped it to Jamie Osborne who in turn sent it on to Scott Penny.  He had two men out wide but it needed a good miss pass to find them - it was nothing to the still young flanker.  Now it was in the hands of Conor O’Brien who had Lowe outside if needed but after being out with injury so long there was nothing going to stop the Mullingar lad from finishing the score.


Now like I said, Quins weren’t there to make up the numbers and after that first attack failed to get anywhere they were able to find other ways to hurt us.  First Jack Walker, newly signed from Bath, jackled a penalty which put them at our 22 and from the lineout some fast tempo rugby kept the ball alive enough for outside centre Luke Northmore to go over and level things up at 7-7.


It didn’t take long for Sexton to take back control of the proceedings - his own grubber through found space under the posts and when it was gathered by Quins fullback Tyrone Green (one of their better performers on the night I thought) the Leinster skipper caught him trying to run it out from behind his tryline only to drag him back in and force a 5m scrum.


Nothing came of that in the end (although it took way too long for the scrum to take place IMO; I can see why they have tweaked the law) but a few minutes later there was another defining moment when it looked like we had created space out on the left once more only for young Chris Cosgrove to be hauled down by Andre Esterhuizen.


Perhaps there was a smidge of mitigation in that Cosgrove wasn’t exactly standing upright but everything else about the challenge suggested that it needed some serious examination before a sanction was decided.  It was around the neck with a swinging arm and the match was delayed for over five minutes while he received attention before being taken off the pitch on a stretcher.


Rather than use the TMO however, referee Andrew Brace clearly made the decision to flash a yellow card immediately and leave it at that.  I suppose it’s a debate that could go on for ages between those who don’t want to see a match “ruined” by an early red and those who don’t want to see player safety put at risk, and most who read these pages will know I’m in the latter camp, but the net result was Esterhuizen sitting down for 10, Cosgrove’s night being over (although he was up and about by FT acc to Leinster twitter) and Liam Turner coming on to play the rest of the match.


All of this while the score was poised at 7-7, so it remained to be seen whether or not Leinster could capitalise with the extra man.  I think we could safely say we managed that!


The resulting penalty put us in their 22 for a lineout and from there we battered their line with a series of phases, winning more penalties (which might have tempted another yellow on another more competitive night) and with the “tap n go” still very much on Leinster’s menu of penalty options it was in the end Rhys Ruddock (not Scott Penny as announced) who got the ball over.


Fair play to Quins who weren’t for simply seeing out the sin bin spell, they were still keen on finding a way past our blue wall.  Sadly for them when Northmore chose to go the “cheeky little chip over the top” route at one stage, he somehow didn’t realise he was sending the ball towards Mr Devin Toner who grabbed it like a pineapple from a tree.


What happened next was simply magical, even when you consider we had an extra man.  First remember that at this point, to a man, Leinster’s focus is on defence.  Now all of a sudden Big Dev has it for us so we need to make the most of this transition phase and the extra space available.


Luke McGrath is quick off the mark to get things going and he fires a pass towards Peter Dooley.  You’d think 99 out of 100 props in that situation would say their role was to drag the ball a few more hard yards and let their teammates recycle, but not Dooley.  With precise technique and lightning speed he fashions a pass to Sexton, who in turn sends it on to the wide channel where we’ve two men ready to storm into the overlap.  


Neither of our halfbacks were done there.  They sprinted diagonally side by side so that when Conor O’Brien sent a cheeky little offload to Lowe on the touchline, both Sexton & McGrath were perfectly positioned to take it once the winger fixed his man and shipped it on.  It got to Sexton and he provided the finish, which was fitting as he was comfortably Player of the Match in my book.


I’m not sure if there is such a thing as an Exit Kick Of The Season award, but if there is, you can lock it down for James Lowe already, and for me it should also count as an assist for try number four.  Shortly after the restart, he launched one by the left touchline, with his left boot, that not only made it into the Quins half before bouncing into touch, it actually reached into their 22 which under the new laws meant Leinster had the throw in the lineout.  I still feel the same about his intentions now as I did at the time...

From that attacking situation, Leinster went for the jugular and this time the link up between Sexton and his young centres had a more “training ground” look to it although the Leinster skipper needed a sublime delay on his final pass to put Osborne through for the score.


Here I’d like to thank Harlequins for supplying the broadcast coverage via their YouTube channel.  It saved me from doing a “live blog” and also gave me the pleasure of being able to rewatch.  I might even forgive their commentators' frustrated cry of “come on Johnny it’s preseason get on with it!” as he went through his motions for conversion number four.


Anyone who has been to these preseason matches before will know that the bulk of the serious action comes before halftime.  After the break both sides see all kinds of chopping and changing  - in fact some Premiership sides have sent on a completely different XV although not Quins this time.  Ross Byrne was on for Sexton and started the half, and once again it only took us two minutes to score.


This time it was Ryan Baird with ironically a near carbon copy of one he got the last time a big crowd had the pleasure of watching Leinster; against Glasgow at the RDS - his line first crashed through a would-be tackler at the gainline and once in the backfield he ran at a pace which, while enough to beat the entire backfield, still eerily didn’t seem like his quickest.


So now the score was 33-7 and full credit to the visitors they weren’t for giving up.  Tommy Allan was their outhalf and although he may have been keen to impress his new club ahead of a season where he’ll be needed now Marcus Smith is Lions-quality, he never really stood a chance here against someone who is also very much Lions-quality.


But with our defensive systems being challenged by so many substitutions, more gaps started to appear and after a couple of interceptions were called back (Danny Care’s was obvious though I can’t for the life of me see where Brace saw a scrum in the build up to the second one by Marchant), in the end it was appropriate that a Care stab through for Marchant to run on to and dot down finally got them their second try.


It seemed to take forever for the next twenty minutes to pass as there were zero scores and a gagillion scrums, but eventually Quins got their third try when young hooker Sam Riley broke away from a maul to find no blue jersey covering allowing him to saunter over the line.  A deserved score for the visitors maybe, but it will still probably draw some scrutiny in the Leinster DVD session on Monday morning.


But if that was calamitous, our sixth and final try was even more so.  First the ball squirted free from a scrum, then it’s kicked over the line, Quins (to their credit it must be said) did their best to keep it alive but once swarmed by Leinster tacklers the ball eventually fell under the posts for Liam Turner to dive on and that was it for the night.


So as I said back at the start, the Leinster faithful went home happy in the knowledge that the team seems to have had a good preseason and also their legendary skipper is hungry for yet more success down the road.  Since Friday night there may have been a couple of PR issues for the organisation but when it comes to the actual rugby on the pitch this was as perfect a performance as you can expect for a match like this and we’ll all be counting down the minutes until the Bulls come to town on the 25th.  Who knows, maybe we’ll all be singing as we head back up the Landsowne Road afterwards. JLP


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