Although Glasgow were only 7 points down with just 3 minutes gone in the 2nd half, there was still a real “now or never” feel about their attacking lineout 10 metres into Leinster territory.
Even the most die hard Warriors fan would have known they were lucky to be so close at this stage, but with an increasingly vocal Scotstoun crowd behind them and an extra man on the park to boot, this was a perfect chance to claw the champions back to parity for the first time since the match was but 4 minutes old.
The set piece seemed to work perfectly as Rob Harley rose to pluck the dart out of the air and a few passes later the crash ball broke the gainline to get them a further 5 metres or so up the field. But then the Leinster tackles came raining in.
It was never more than two men at a time but they were sure to make it count as their team mates showed no interest in a ruck and instead fanned out to prepare for the next wave. A few phases later, a pass went behind the intended receiver and hit the ground, allowing the onrushing Leinster defenders to swallow up the eventual carrier close to the halfway line.
The wonderfully-named Rufus McLean tried to get something going again but at this stage we were treating that 10m line as though it were the try line, going all Gandalf (“You shall not pass!!!”) in the process. Eventually it gets to their other winger Kyle Steyn who runs straight into James Lowe.
Last week in my writeup of our convincing win over the Scarlets I had a bit of a go at our winger for his defence. And in my preview of this match, I said I would happily eat my words if he showed an improvement. Well serve up me a double helping folks. He not only stopped Steyn in his tracks, he did it with so much determination that he ended up lifting him up and had to be careful not only returning him to planet Earth, but also releasing him on instruction of referee Craig Evans.
Thankfully he did both and got up again to return to the line looking for his next target. That turned out to be Zander Fagerson and despite being a prop, his line plus a well timed pop pass made it look like they had finally found a way though...until Lowe got his mitts on him and hauled him down. And as he hit the ground, who was there to greet him but Caelan Doris, our actual top tackler on the night with 15 made and none missed, who gratefully got over the Warrior and jackled until the ref blew for a penalty.
WHAT A DEFENSIVE SET#GLAvLEI— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) October 22, 2021
I can’t speak for Danny Wilson’s men but that must have really felt like a try conceded in that situation. And when they had one final chance to attack before Jack Conan returned to the pitch, they tried a bit more innovation to move the ball forward and actually got all the way to our 22, only for a combination of Doris and Ronán Kelleher to counter ruck their way to yet another turnover.
As things turned out we probably didn’t need such a heroic stand, but if there’s one aspect of Leinster’s play from the opening five-match block of URC matches that stands out the most it has to be our defensive organisation, with that little passage I’ve harped on above right up there with the most impressive. And what really makes it significant is the fact that we have made several changes to our matchday squads without losing integrity - 9.2 points conceded per game is a quality average regardless of opposition.
But of course if you’re going to keep their score down you’ll struggle to win if you don’t put points on the board yourself, something Leinster know all too well after what happened in Newport. Since then however, we have gotten much better at turning chances, particularly early ones, into scores and this match was no exception.
There has been a notable shift in our approach with the ball over the past 18 months or so, with the role of our centres, especially Ciarán Frawley, being at the, well, centre. And we displayed this with just three minutes on the clock, showing an ability to whisk the ball quickly through the hands to find space almost at will, drawing a penalty at their 22 allowing Ross Byrne to put us into an early 3-0 lead.
When it came to creating try-scoring opportunities, much like I pointed out last week against the Scarlets, it was important for our lineout to function and after Ryan Baird successfully clutched a dart at halfway (actually quite a similar situation to that one I said Glasgow were in later in the match), we set ourselves up nicely by getting first Jack Conan and then Tadhg Furlong to barnstorm their way over the gain line.
Then we needed quick hands to get the ball out into the wide channels where we had some forwards stacked ready to create some two-on-ones and it wasn’t just our backs able to get the job done as Dan Leavy managed to get the ball away from two Warriors a they were bringing him down to get it to Adam Byrne, who had some open real estate ahead of him until he shipped it on to Ronán Kelleher.
I really don’t think anyone would have held it against him if he didn’t score from here, but I can’t help but wonder if it was the two-try cameo from Dan Sheehan the week before that drove our starting hooker to fend not one but two would-be tacklers before allowing the third to cling onto him as he forced the ball over the line. Just like that, we’re up 10-0 after just 8 minutes.
That it took around 20 minutes for us to score again was to be expected, as Glasgow were on a winning run themselves after running Ulster close on opening weekend, and with the likes of Richie Gray able to put our own lineout doubts back in our heads, they managed to at least get the duck egg off their side of the scoreboard in that time.
But it was another lineout around halfway that led to Leinster showing just how effective and potentially unstoppable this new attacking approach can be. Again it was Baird getting the ball rolling by firing “one off the top” down to his scrum half and skipper Luke McGrath and again it was Jack Conan doing the rampaging to get us on the front foot.
Through the hands the ball went, back and forth across the 4G surface, with the likes of Kelleher and Adam Byrne making little runs forward when they thought it possible but with support runners at all times to keep the defence guessing too and McGrath on hand each time to keep the tempo high.
Eventually the quick hands plus the barging got us to within 10m of the line and a Ross Byrne pass to Lowe allowed him to get an offload out of the tackle to meet a perfectly timed run by full back Hugo Keenan and hey presto, he was over the line. He still needed to think fast to avoid running over the very short dead ball line and get the ball down.
Glorious rugby there.#GLAvLEI— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) October 22, 2021
Kelleher pretty much locked down his Player of the Match gong with multiple strong carries in the sequence to go with the earlier try, although the counter-rucking with Doris later on didn't exactly hurt his chances either.
So there we were with a decent 17-3 lead and only half an hour on the clock. This is where things started to get a little, well, weird. Our lineout continued to have problems which was giving our hosts opportunities to attack our 22 but with our defending already on song at this stage, they were always going to need something out of the ordinary to put them in a try scoring position.
First it took a nice offload out of a tackle by Sione Tuipulotu to his fellow centre Sam Johnson who ended up putting full back Ross Thompson (who some Warrior Twitterati seemed to think should have started at 10 instead of Weir) into a bit of space and his little chip towards the try line looked as though it was going to fall back into his arms.
But Hugo Keenan had other ideas and in the end what we saw was two full backs going for a high ball at the same time, only for the Leinster man to marginally get to it first before coming into contact with his opponent’s head. I’m describing it this way first to illustrate how I think the officials actually might have come to the correct decision, albeit by the “scenic route”.
Obviously my blue goggles saw absolutely nothing wrong with the challenge at the time, despite the fact that Warrior captain Ryan Wilson was actually pleading to the ref for a penalty try. But I have said several times that whether intentional or not, contact with the head was worthy of sanction and with plenty of mitigation, “penalty only” did seem to have a lot of merit once the goggles were off.
But to actually get the ball over the Leinster line before the break, the home side needed quite a bit more help. A few phases after the “tap n go” penalty, Jack Conan was judged to have payed the ball on the floor and although we were yet to receive a warning, ref Evans considered it enough to send him to the bin.
Now there was a bit more space for them on this tap n go but what their number 8 Jack Dempsey did to plant the ball down, well, I don’t even know where to begin, just look for yourself. Let’s just say he brought a lot of the tried and tested Super Rugby tactic of “celebrating your way to getting the refs to believe it no matter what actually happened” and it seems to have worked.
— Brett Igoe (@brettruganalyst) October 22, 2021
So that definitely made the match look better for the watching home fans and “neutrals” at half time but as I said at the start, we were able see off the yellow card relatively easily although it was still important for us to get our attack back on track in order to restore the margin to a more comfortable level.
Once again it was a lineout at halfway that got things going for us, only this time we went straight to the slick passing across the park until Hugo Keenan broke a tackle and brought it all the way into their 22. Then it was up to the forwards to bring the bash from 5m out and once the ref put his arm out for a penalty advantage (which possibly should have meant a yellow going on what happened at the end of the first half) we now had a “free play”.
Luke McGrath had a quick peek over his shoulder where he saw Ross Byrne directing him to allow the forwards to set up a phase or two more before it was sent to Garry Ringrose who’s body language and timing for his offload to his out half were perfect giving him the space to ship an improvised pass to Adam Byrne who was able to get the ball down. Tack on an exquisite touchline conversion from Ross and the two-try lead was restored.
But we weren’t to be happy with that, not having knowledge of what was to become of Ulster’s maximum point start at the Aviva the following evening, so we had to push for that fourth try. We were now into our bench and the lineout yips weren’t going anywhere although neither was our defensive prowess so we were able to play our way back into scoring positions.
Finally after what I made to be ten tries in a row over two matches finding their origins at a lineout, it was a scrum that kicked things off putting us deep in their 22 forcing more penalties, more tap n go’s and ultimately, more points for Dan Sheehan.
So after just 60 minutes, it was 31-10 and the match was essentially put to bed. To their credit the home side did anything but throw in the towel though they continued to struggle in breaking down our line of tacklers. There were some awesome sights in this final spell like Ross Molony bullying the Glasgow hooker to stop delaying his dart and Rhys Ruddock, who along with Josh van der Flier represented a devastating duo to release from the bench, locking himself on to an attacking Warrior to halt yet another attack.
Once again things got a little messy at the end of the half when our scrum won a penalty and Ali Price played a bit of “silly beggars” with Jamison Gibson-Park only for the Leinster & Ireland scrum half to shove him enough for his arm to follow through and hit the Scottish Lion in the face. His slightly OTT reaction, literally under the nose of the ref, prompted the TMO to have a look and in the end it was probably right that JGP was shown yellow.
Would I have been so understanding about both this decision and the earlier one involving Keenan had the scoreline ended up closer? I guess we’ll never know. But we do know that the extra man was again helpful off a set piece and it was sub Lewis Bean (who almost seemed to celebrate as much as Dempsey had earlier) that got the consolation score.
So all in all a very satisfying end to the opening five rounds by Leinster. Top of the URC pile, just the one point dropped, defenses in order, new evolution of attack starting to come good, and still with things like a creaky lineout keeping us honest. Now it’s time to fish out the green jerseys and when we return to the blue ones, there’s a very interesting block ahead with three home dates with Ulster, Connacht and Bath before three away ones with Montpellier, Munster and Ulster. Plenty to look forward to.
Here at Harpin Manor we’ll be keeping things going with one of our “mock quiz” podcasts during the week, a look at Leinster’s European rivals as our writeup next weekend, and throughout November the spotlight goes on Ireland’s Autumn Series. Be sure and stay tuned. JLP