Leinster’s lineout has been an Achilles heel for quite a while now. Many’s a time I have harped on the sheer frustration of having dominated our way from one end of the pitch to the other, winning a penalty to put us deep in the opposition 22 only to make a pig’s ear of the dart, the lift, the catch or combinations thereof. So obviously if our goal is to earn a fifth star on the jersey, this is something that needs to be fixed.
But how do you fix it? Those yips are really difficult to sort because there’s not a whole lot you can do until the next time you actually find yourself with such an attacking lineout where you need to knuckle down and get the job done. And often it can be knowledge of the problem that causes it to remain one, as you almost try to force the ball into the receiver’s hands which can make it even easier for things to go wrong.
Well I think we saw something very different from Leinster’s forwards on Saturday at the RDS. The best example was around the 26 minute mark. Referee Marius van der Westerhuisen (who I thought had a decent game) had just checked a late hit on Johnny Sexton and while he did consider it to be worthy of a penalty, rightly noted that there was no need to go back for it as Leinster had an attacking lineout deep in the 22 anyway.
So here we were in that situation again, and with the score 8-8 and the Scarlets having already shown they can cross our line, we really needed something from this visit, so the set piece had to work.
Well I’ll tell you - if Kelleher had any worries about getting it to Ross Molony, he surely hid them well. That ball was fired to the desired spot with a sense of purpose, one that was matched by the Leinster 2nd rower who plucked it from the air and set up the maul. A few phases later we’ve another penalty advantage which we end up taking and Sexton puts us right back into the same boat with another touchfinder.
More pressure? Not a bother. Again Kelleher sends it towards the line with a little extra on it, and although a Scarlet jumper had a sniff, the arc is perfect for it to hang right where James Ryan this time can haul it down. Now we’re on the move again and Jamison Gibson-Park, who didn’t have an ideal start to the match but definitely grew into the game, had a little snipe which got him most of the way to the line.
Earlier on, JGP had been involved in what I could only describe as a “Russian doll jackle” situation as he got over the ball only for Andrew Porter to assume his own jackling position over him until the penalty was won. Here, he needed further help from his prop forward as having fallen just short of the line, Porter was on hand to take it the rest of the way.
So to recap - attacking lineout platform earned, lineout completed with confidence, try scored. All boxes ticked, and very little the opposition could do about it. Take that kind of form into Europe and any team will go far. And I should mention that we were equally aggressive on Scarlet throws - at one point Ryan was pinged for taking the man in the air but that didn’t stop him from also going after the next one after the penalty, and this was one we recovered.
I suppose while I’m on the topic of things Leinster have needed to fix in order to be “Europe-ready”, I may as well move on to the two tries scored by the visitors. I really don’t want to take too much away from the Scarlets because I honestly believe this final scoreline didn’t really do their display justice - they came out like a side keen to put their last outing behind them and despite falling behind they had a decent spell of defending in the second half too.
But another thing that Leinster will heavily rely on when the Champions Cup rolls around is our defence, which for the most part had been our best feature by a mile in these opening four rounds of the URC. Yet when you look at the kind of perfection required to go up against the Toulouses and La Rochelles of this continent, anything that looks like a weak spot has to cause concern.
And here’s where I have to do something I try not to do too much on these pages, namely call out a single player. James Lowe has gotten a whole lot of praise from me in his time at Leinster and I still firmly believe that all teams can do with a player like him in their starting XV, one that has “making something out of nothing” burned into their DNA.
The only problem is that when our opposition has the ball, it’s not just that he appears to be the weak point that helps them find a gap, it actually seems to be that they are actively seeking him out at this stage. Both of the Scarlets' tries were extremely well taken and needed quick thinking from the likes of Johnny Williams to get the offloads off just at the right time. But if you look at them closely you see Lowe has been drawn into moving forward too early each time, leaving more than one man available to get value out of the space.
In defence of his, er, defence, I get the sense that he is conscious of this and is trying to correct it but on Saturday’s evidence it’s not working for him yet and if I can spot it, you know for sure the opposition coaches can too. Hopefully he can work his way to a stage soon where, like Kelleher’s darts, he can handle these situations with confidence because that could make him the top tier marquee player he seems destined to be.
Sorry for focusing on negatives first - I should clarify next that this was a really dominant display by the boys in blue and that lineout thing wasn’t the only subtle change I noticed in our approach which should only get better with more game time.
What got a lot of the headlines was that all seven Leinster tries were scored by forwards and it’s true both starters and “finishers” from the pack played with the kind of dominance you want to see, especially when the opponents’ injury troubles were more focused in the backs. Best compliment I can pay to them is that if I had to pick an ideal set of forwards for Europe right now I wouldn't make any changes.
But before I get to the actual scores we got I’d like to look at the way our backs are operating. Ciarán Frawley won Player of the Match and while I probably would have given it to a forward, his role in our attacking structure was definitely worthy of recognition because although a lot of the moves and formations on show didn’t quite pay off as designed, at times we actually looked capable of creating space at will.
Obviously Sexton is the puppet master for these moves and we all know how commanding he is to the troops around him when it comes to being in position. And seeing it unfold live at the RDS really is amazing I have to say. The precision in passing, the misdirection with body shape in the execution, the support lines - assuming this is only going to get better down the line, there could be a lot of YouTube moments in Leinster's future.
And with Frawley at 12 we not only have a strong runner capable of breaking the gainline, but we also have a footballing brain able to execute a Plan B on the fly when required. Which obviously makes you wonder where Messrs Henshaw and Ringrose fit into our plans. Robbie in particular just doesn’t look like someone who can be left out and on second watch I saw a hell of a lot more Ringrose involvement than I did originally so this certainly is one of those “good dilemmas” for the likes of Leo, Stu & Dr Phil.
Right - about time I got to the rest of the scores. Looking at the margin of victory it’s easy to forget the visitors actually won the first quarter 8-3. But once we started to press home our advantage with the ball, we came close to opening the scoring as a crossfield kick from Sexton was batted back by Larmour for Hugo Keenan to get a grounding - or did he? I thought so even after the replay but the ref thought not, fair enough.
We still had a penalty advantage and went for the lineout and this one also worked well enough for Kelleher himself to get on the end of a maul where we really made it look like we weren’t taking “no try” for an answer on this visit to the 22. Sexton’s “dead duck” style conversion attempt faded wide keeping the score level but Porter’s try put us in front for good a few minutes later.
The more the match went on the more we looked in control but I can’t help feeling we really needed that third try just before the break otherwise the Scarlets would have felt like they could peg us back. And in the end we seemed to pretty much impose ourselves to that penalty try to end the half because as well as our confidence in the lineout, we also really went after them at scrum time right from the off.
So with the clock turning red at the end of the first half and Leinster winning penalties deep in their 22, it made sense to keep opting for scrums until they turned into points and after giving a warning to Ken Owens and his forwards, the ref finally went under the posts for the automatic seven points. Why he didn’t also go to his pocket having given the warning I’m not sure, but still a satisfying enough way to go into the “sheds”.
As I said in my preview the bonus point was critical for Leinster and after an uncharacteristic mistake from Sexton saw a kick to touch go too long, it wasn’t long before we were back on the attack and between them JGP & Lowe managed to keep the ball from going in touch which allowed Kelleher to break through and after a couple of strong fends his offload put Doris (doing a great Scott Fardy impression by his appearance I thought) over for the vital 4th try. The TMO had a look at what I thought was a knockon by Lowe in the build up yet still called it good.
Right from the restart the talking points continued as Frawley was unable to take the catch and right afterwards got clattered by Gareth Davies. It looked really bad at first but the more the ref looked at the replay, the more his eventual call of a “rugby collision” seemed to make sense, although Frawley had to go off for an HIA.
From the scrum the Scarlets got their 2nd try which seemed to open the door open a crack, especially as their Hugh Hogan-led defence started to find a way to shut down our attack via choke tackles, but thankfully our own coverage wasn’t to have any further setbacks.
The moment that put the seal on the result for me was Josh van der Flier’s absolute monster of a counter ruck where he not only hit it but also dragged about three Scarlets with him through to the other side for us to win it back. For this alone I would probably put him just in front of Kelleher for Player of the Match, with no disrespect to Mr Frawley of course.
If I were to pen a writeup just based on the final quarter I’d probably title it “The Dan Sheehan Show”, although Cian Healy did his best to get his own name there instead by coming on as sub once more to be part of a penalty at his first scrum, albeit back on his more familiar side, before getting the ball down over the line for try number 5 after a series of attempts by his teammates.
But when a Scarlets dart sailed over everyone in a lineout on the 66th minute, it fell into the grateful arms of Sheehan who showed the 14k crowd (within touching distance of allowed capacity and much more vocal than the previous week) just how powerful he can be as he stormed into their half before further strong carries from JVDF and Ringrose got well into their 22.
Eventually it was Johnny McNicholl, who is rarely a stranger from the spotlight when he faces Leinster, who got himself yellow carded for slowing down our forward momentum (hey maybe that could be my overall title) we were well set to pad the scoreline and not to be outdone by the starting hooker, Sheehan both nailed the dart and then sheared off the maul to go over.
We weren’t done yet and here I should point out that after a pretty average display against the Dragons a while back, Ross Byrne looked back to his old self in his cameo here. After more strong running by Ringrose got us back in the 22, Byrne didn’t hesitate to go to his trademark kick pass which Sheehan just about got his hand to, found a bit of luck in it falling backwards, before gathering it to canter over which brought us to the “fifty-burger”.
So overall a very satisfying display from Leinster, and I hope I have made that clear despite pointing out one or two quibbles here and there. It’s just that while we definitely want to go after whatever silverware this new league has to offer, our focus needs to be on Europe and I can’t help watching these matches with that in mind.
It looks like we have an even bigger test up next as we must go to Scotstoun after a 6-day turnaround so we’ll see what kind of team we’ll be sending over. As always be sure to keep coming back to HarpinOnRugby.net throughout the week as we’ll have all our regular features like the podcast, Front 5, match preview and such. JLP