The pre-match weather reports from Newport were that it had been raining off and on all day but when Ross Byrne was lining up his conversion kick at the 14 minute mark, it started for the first time during play.
I’m not trying to say that distracted him or anything, but when he put boot to ball it looked very “touch and go” whether it would make it over as it seemed drawn towards the far upright, yet thankfully although it found the woodwork, it did so at enough of an angle for it to drop over the crossbar anyway, allowing the assistant referees to raise their flags.
And that’s how Leinster got their winning score!!! Huzzah for another victory, on to next week!!!! Right???
Yeah, ok, I guess I should do a lot more harping than that, shouldn’t I. But this was one of those matches which was hard enough to watch as it was being played without having to go through it again and then find around 2000 words to scribble on the subject! Still, I’ll give it a shot…
I’ll start with the positives. “You’re saying there’s more than one?” I hear you cry. Well I reckon I found as many as three, though that’s probably stretching it. First, obviously, any win is a positive, so there’s that.
Next was the try that led to Ross Byrne’s conversion. Although the shakiness in attack which was to plague us all afternoon had already started before Max Deegan planted the ball down over the line, the actual move that led to it was very much Leinster being Leinster.
It started with a shocker of a territory kick from Dragons outhalf Sam Davies that went out on the full, giving us an attacking lineout around their 22, or to put it another way to suit Leinster’s standards, “prime position”.
For my preview I singled out Conor O’Brien as one to look out for, suggesting he had the potential to be a good alternative for Henshaw in these situations. Earlier he had tried to crash through a wall of tacklers only to have it stripped so for this move, we cleverly tried something a little different.
He did take the ball from the first receiver but instead of charging ahead, he shipped it on and did a “wraparound” of sorts, going for the crash on the second wave and making good headway given this was more of a mismatch. That provided good front foot ball and we proceeded to go at their line as we’re known to do, winning a penalty in the process that led to another lineout, a maul, and more phases within 5m.
This time we got it to the line where starting Dragons outhalf Lewis Jones was adjudged to have killed the ball thus earning an instant yellow card from South African referee AM Jacobs. Despite now having the extra man, we chose instead to go the more direct route with the penalty and a tap n go, phases, and eventually Max Deegan, who clearly hasn’t lost his knack of finding the scoresheet, forced the ball down.
So on a day like this that does count as a good thing, although the assumption was that we would manage to repeat the achievement a few times afterwards, which as we all know never happened. But before I get to why we failed to add to those seven points there is the biggest positive of all for Leinster - the defending.
You could say that the home side were just as wasteful with the ball as we were, but still our standards of line speed, tackling and counter rucking were right where we needed them to be, and in the end we had that to thank for finishing ahead on the scoreboard. Possibly the most head-scratching moment of the match, that of Rhodri Williams kicking the ball away cheaply as the clock was going red, was probably down to a knowledge that our organisation would be just as good in the 80th minute as it was in the 1st.
The bottom line that made us able to come away with four match points on the day was that not once during the 80 minutes did the Dragons look even remotely like they were ever going to cross our line.
Of course I have to get to our own attacking issues eventually so it may as well be now. First, to be fair, you have to credit the Dragons D as it was every bit as good as our own. They had 9 tacklers in double figures, showed excellent line speed which was well targeted, and they too went right to the final minute. Even the try we did get have to be forced over, and of course their biggest boost in confidence came when they saw out a 16-minute spell where there were 1, and sometimes 2, men down.
But a lot of the fault still must lie in our side of things. Our critical starting 9/10/12 axis just was not firing at all, and you could almost make a case that the timing of the Deegan try gave us a sense of complacency that the three further ones required for a BP were going to be a formality.
I was particularly disappointed with Jamison Gibson-Park. On this very weekend last year he was Player of the Match against the same opposition which was the start of a very good season for him which included test caps and keeping Luke McGrath down the pecking order. But here he was very much behind the pace of the game. A senseless knock on here, a needless high tackle there, but most of all just delivery that wasn’t quick enough - all very unlike him.
Then there was Ross Byrne. Some say he probably kicked and grubbered too much but based on past performances I really don’t think he could be blamed for backing himself. It’s just on this day, the execution just wasn’t there and the little stabs through the rushing defenders were too often overcooked.
Finally from this trio there was Conor O’Brien. I still firmly believe he’s an amazing prospect; it's just this wasn’t the day for him and more often than not he was probably guilty of forcing his way to extra yards that just weren’t there; that will come with experience.
By the time we got to around the half hour mark it seemed clear that we needed a more creative option in the 12 position, and we had just that available on the bench in the shape of Ciaran Frawley. For all our halfbacks’ box-kicking and grubbering throughout, they didn’t seem willing to try a little chip over the top for the likes of O’Loughlin and Russell to run on to and Frawley could have been the one to pick that particular lock.
Now to be fair to the boys in blue, for all our failures with the ball it would have been extremely harsh on O’Brien to make a switch that early, and I’d even have been surprised if they did it at half-time. A few tweaks and a look at a few charts with unit coaches could have easily been a remedy on another day.
Yet it wasn’t long in the second half before it seemed clear that nothing was working with the XV we had, and there was a key moment for us when Rory O’Loughlin went in for a tackle and seemed to take a blow to the head for his trouble. He had to go off for an HIA, and although he was later to pass and return, our 6/2 split on the bench meant Frawley had to replace him not O’Brien and thus he couldn’t switch to inside centre until Rory’s return at the 67 minute mark.
One of Frawley’s first duties after coming on was to try to keep a move going only to find himself swallowed by Dragons in their 22 for a jackled penalty. By then we were well into a constant loop which lasted for the final half hour where we’d win a penalty around half-way, get a lineout around their 22 before either losing the dart, knocking on or getting jackled allowing the Dragons to clear before the cycle began again.
However O’Loughlin’s return to the pitch did come after the home side had something of a “purple patch” as our defenders got caught offside a couple of times in kickable areas for Sam Davies which allowed him to reduce the lead to just the one.
From here, there was of course absolutely no room for any further mistakes by Leinster, at least in our own half, and thankfully they didn’t happen. But they definitely continued back down the other end, with substitute Ryan Baird suffering from a particularly bad dose of knockonitis in the closing stages.
We did cross the line once more when a series of fortunate bounces and rebounds after a high kick allowed Dan Leavy, a name more than welcome back to these writeups of course, to get to the line before offloading to McCarthy who touched it down. Unfortunately a TMO check determined Russell had knocked it on - I’m really not so sure the call was as clean cut given the on-field decision was a try, but it was ruled out regardless.
Thankfully for us, when it was the Dragons who opted for a chip over the top in the final minutes for it to actually come off and be retrieved by Aneurin Owen, this was when Rhodri Williams made the decision to kick it on again, and it was also when the rain started coming down in sheets so it was inevitable, if not also rather fitting, that the game was effectively over when sub prop Greg Bateman knocked on around the halfway line.
Speaking of wastefulness, I’ve noticed some question marks raised about our own sub scrum half Nick McCarthy kicking the ball back about a minute earlier than Williams. I actually think this was a smart move in his case - we had possession around the halfway line in a one-point game where we were being swarmed by the opposition defence. A penalty could very well have given them the win and with our kick chase and line speed in such good nick, putting it in the air seemed to be the right call.
Overall it was a day when those we would always expect to perform just didn’t, and while others like James Ryan and Garry Ringrose weren’t exactly poor, they were definitely quiet by their high standards on a day when we needed someone to lead from the front. Our lineouts were getting a bit shaky although the scrums were reasonably ok and "rookie" tight head Cian Healy won himself another penalty off the bench.
Josh van der Flier on his 100th appearance won another Player of the Match gong and was the most worthy from our side although a Dragon or two such as Will Rowlands could have gotten it as well.
So what now for Leinster? A week of reflection no doubt. I can totally appreciate how a club like ours will need to take a long term view of our campaign, one which would hope to have silverware at the end of it, and try to plan ahead in such a way as to get the most out of a big squad of players. But there will be occasions like this when our opposition’s prep will be a perfect foil for our own approach and we won’t always be able to hold on like we did at Rodney Parade.
However it’s not like we'll be short of motivation to get our performances back where they need to be. First, all Leo needs to do is print out the URC standings after two matches and pin it to the dressing room wall- Munster in 1st, Ulster in 2nd and us in 3rd - a perfect reminder of the bonus point we left behind in Newport.
And when it comes to our next encounter, well, we might say “it’s only Zebre” but just a couple of days ago many of us were saying “it’s only the Dragons” and there’s something extra special about Saturday’s match - not only are we back in the RDS, but also season ticket holders are getting priority for tickets which makes it a very select crowd the boys will no doubt be extra keen to impress.
I’ll be happy to call this display a “blip” once they can get things back on track next weekend, and I certainly wouldn’t bet against them doing just that so roll on Saturday lunchtime. JLP