Monday, December 13, 2021

Leinster-45 Bath-20

"LEINSTER!!! LEINSTER!!!"


Two successive penalties marched Bath all the way down the pitch to a lineout just 5m from our line, and they had already shown they had some tricks up their sleeve at this set piece so with just ten minutes left on the clock, Leinster’s “finishing XV” still had some work to do.
We’ve been pretty good on defending mauls in these situations of late and it looked like we had sacked another one here only for referee Pierre Brousset to be told by his assistants it was done illegally, so when the play broke down the visitors had another penalty which soon became another lineout opportunity.

Full disclosure, I was in a really grumpy mood at this stage.  My bus taking an age to get past the Ranelagh triangle, making it conceivable that I could miss the kickoff despite having set off in plenty of time, was most of the reason.  Only the prospect of Leinster breaking through the bookies spread as I had hoped in my preview would be likely to get the glass looking half full again for me at this stage.

Yet when these lineouts were happening, I had already noticed that the atmosphere around the Aviva Stadium was deflated to a point where it was like the majority of the 25k crowd were on the same bus as I was.  That was until a distinct minority of young voices started emanating from that corner of the ground where the lineouts were being taken, as North Stand meets East.

“LEIIIIIIIIN-STER!!!!!  LEIIIIIIIIN-STER!!!!!!”

By rights, my grumpiness should have had me annoyed even at this, since I have been moaning for a long time about our lack of a decent battle cry, with nothing really to match “SUAF” or “SUFTUM”, only a long drawn out reminder of the province's name, but this was different because it was clearly a large group of youngsters doing the shouting and the rest of the sound in the stadium was so quiet that I could even hear them from high in the West Stand, though it doesn’t come out on the TV broadcast.

And right from the setting up of that first lineout they cheered and repeated it over and over, and the way this final quarter in particular had gone, it had to serve as motivation because the boys in blue continued to hunt in packs on Bath’s second go at our line until Max Deegan jackled his way to the turnover, thus snuffing out the immediate danger.

Yes, I’m leading off my writeup with the tale of that portion of the Champions Cup opener.  I know there were nine tries, seven of them from my team giving us maximum points, and some of them very impressive, but while I will harp on them, that spell towards the end was still the highlight for me, because it reminded me of the broad spectrum of fans we have following the game, ranging from nerds like me who keep looking to say things like “finding soft shoulders” and “using overlaps” at every turn, to those who just want to enjoy singing their hearts out and enjoying the fact that our guys ended up with more points than the other guys.

And in that spirit of looking for positives first, I’ll start recalling the tries by looking at my favourite, which was our second.  To set the scene, the scoreline was just 5-3 in the 12th minute after Bath took the lead with a penalty, before what was pretty much our first decent possession saw us cut through their defences like a hot knife through butter allowing Jamison Gibson-Park to celebrate his return by dotting down.

Now we were back down at their end of the pitch pushing for a second, and after some lineouts and phases in their 22 we won a penalty in a central position just over 5m from their line, with Bath getting a warning as well for their trouble.  No doubt their coaching staff would have assumed we’d take the “tap n go” option here as we have done pretty much exclusively in this situation lately, but instead Ross Byrne kicked it to touch.

Clearly this decision would have had the Bath forwards expecting us to maul towards the line and set things up from there.  Yet Kelleher sent his dart to Ryan Baird and it was “one off the top” down to skipper for the day Rhys Ruddock who was already in full flight to take it to the line almost exactly where he would’ve done had he tapped the penalty.

Only this time the opposition forwards were trying to scramble back from the lineout while ours were poised to make the most of the confusion, and sure enough on the very next phase Tadhg Furlong met little or no resistance as he barrelled over the line.

Not the “flashiest” of tries maybe, but again I’m a self-confessed nerd who really appreciated the thought that went into that score, and if we continue operating at that strategic level it will serve us well for the rest of the competition.  

But then the wonderfully-named Bath outhalf Orlando Bailey, who I actually think had a better day than his opposite number despite the result, pulled back a penalty making it “only” 12-6 and although we crossed the line again shortly afterwards, I firmly believe Hugo Keenan’s final pass to Lowe was forward though as Leinster fan obviously I’m glad the officials did not agree.

And it was something else about that particular move that I noticed, something that would continue for the rest of the match.  Our first try by JGP was simple because we created an overlap, and we used it, prompting this quote from Brian O'Driscoll in the BT Sport commentary box :
"It's important for Bath that they number up on both sides as Leinster will take advantage of that all day"
Yet for the rest of the match it seemed like we tended to go for the more difficult option when putting it through the backs - yes, I know all about “Leinstertainment” and I have enjoyed many a highlight reel moment at the Aviva Stadium over the years, but I really felt in this particular outing our remit was more about racking up a score and maybe it’s the grumpiness talking but I really felt we unnecessarily left a good few points behind.

A classic example of this was right at the very end.  Not long after that Deegan turnover, Bath were going in for their second try anyway and in many ways, they deserved it as despite their current situation (well laid out by their fan Matt “@BathBytes” Price on our podcast during the week) they really tried to play rugby when they could, and they twice caught us napping off lineouts when nobody would have expected them to get 20 points on the board.

Even more to their credit, they kept pressing as the clock went red in each half, although in the 81st minute a turnover at midfield left us with the overlap you see below.  That’s a try to James Lowe all day long, and I don’t want to pin everything on Ciaran Frawley because he was one of our better players overall, plus of course you want to see players backing themselves, only it really wasn’t necessary here and it wasn’t the only chance we left begging throughout the match.



Is this nit-picking on my part?  Definitely.  But that’s how I saw the match, especially around the full time whistle.  As the weekend wore on and the other three provinces all passed their opening tests with flying colours to make it an Irish “clean sweep”, I definitely saw more forest than trees.

One other thing I had a problem with on the day, namely the notion that our tempo decreased when Luke McGrath came on for Gibson-Park, didn’t seem so bad on the second watch.  I think we should appreciate more that he’s a different type of player - the photo you see below is moments before we missed another overlap, only to give this some context, the reason Luke has his hands up in the air is that he had run a great support line (which he excels at) to receive an offload from Dan Sheehan that never came.  Instead he had to scurry around to the breakdown and thus didn’t see the better set-up in the opposite direction.



So as you can probably see, I have gone on quite the journey trying to work out where I land on this win, and before I stray too far back towards "the dark side", how about some harping on the rest of our tries.  

We had the bonus point wrapped up by the 25th minute, with super quick hands from James Lowe bamboozling the Bath backs letting Keenan through and just four minutes later it was Ronán Kelleher skipping away from a load of tackles and sending it to Ross Byrne who shipped it back inside to Gibson-Park for his second.

Having the extra man during that spell certainly didn't hurt us but we were caught napping by a straight forward lineout play towards the end of the first half, although we did look to apply more pressure after the break and eventually Josh van der Flier, arguably our top crash ball option at this stage, set us up in their 22 before Rónan Kelleher went on the full rampage, breaking through the first tackle, giving their scrum half no chance making the second before reaching the line meaning their 3rd and 4th options couldn't stop him either.

This brought us to the final quarter, which Bath won 7-0 thanks to another lineout move where Will Butt tempted Frawley to go for the decoy runner while Gabe Hamer-Webb stormed past the flailing efforts of Tommy O'Brien for the consolation score.

On the subject of Frawley, his late cameo at out half certainly made a strong case for him needing more game time there and he did show flashes of what he can do at times, but now that we're deep into the season I wonder if we can afford to look outside our three dedicated 10s assuming they are all available.

Personally I think if we are talking about Leinster's top matchday squad, I absolutely mean this as a compliment when I say Frawley's a perfect option for us at 22, and possibly more so at 23 if we go for a 6/2 bench split which is very possible at the business end of a Champions Cup campaign.

As for how the wider tournament looks after the opening weekend, well I have to try not to look at the standings too long because the sight of Exeter and Racing, neither of whom we will get to meet at this stage, ahead of us on the table on points difference makes me rue our missed chances even more, because in the final reckoning seeding will be important.

It's much better to look ahead to our trip to Montpellier this Friday, which despite their drubbing at Sandy Park still could be tricky given they seemed to rest a load of players ahead of their home opener, and on this week's podcast I'll have Illtud Dafydd, an English-speaking expert on Top 14 matters, on to discuss how things are looking from their side.

Meanwhile I'm going to do my best train myself to stop and take a deep breath whenever I'm getting too annoyed when my beloved Leinster doesn't achieve perfection in absolutely everything they do, instead remembering the chants of those faithful younglings from Saturday.  We could probably all do with watching sport that way more often.  JLP


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