We generally call it “kick tennis” but when it’s done properly I’d rather we used “kick chess”, with the new laws helping us see more of the latter this season.
Take as an example a goal line drop out Connacht had at the 37 minute mark, when the match was evenly poised at two tries each, with Leinster having gotten one more conversion. Jack Carty chose to take the kick from a spot towards the Anglesea Stand touchline, sending it in the direction of the tramlines into Leinster’s half where it was gathered by Luke McGrath and shipped inside to Robbie Henshaw.
He’s not really much of a kicker, more of a crasher, and he did just that though a few passes afterwards it got to James Lowe who grubbered one back into the Connacht 22 where it was met by Carty and sent back out again. This time he found the grass he was looking for, making Harry Byrne go into his own half and retrieve, and then he too was able to find a gap as Connacht left just two men covering so he split them with a kick up the middle.
Next up, we had full back Oran McNulty sending one from 22 to 22, where Harry was again waiting, only this time he noticed an odd formation in their backfield, with Kieran Marmion having pushed forward leaving acres of space behind him which was found by the Leinster starting 10. I reckon it’s the 50:22 law that has teams shifting their positions around more than they used to, which I guess was one of the intentions of the change.
A good chase from Jordan Larmour and Ryan Baird meant the Connacht scrum half was felled in his own 22 making his side the first to “blink” in this exchange. Eventually they tidied somewhat and Carty was able to clear, finding a decent touch under the circumstances, though still 10m inside his own half.
Pretty boring passage of play for me to start harping on? Well, sorry if you think so, but my oval ball nerdery has reached a point where I’m starting to love that stuff. And in a closely fought match, these little battles for territory can really make a difference, with Leinster definitely getting the better of this one. All that was needed now was for us to get something out of it.
“Harry's role at 10 will need to be very different to what he will have gotten used to…he has to be able to check himself and use those around him wisely without trying to take too much upon himself.”
In my preview I really hoped Harry Byrne would make the most of not only this match for decent minutes, but also the elite talent that was around him and this was just one of many examples where he did just that. From the lineout we tested the Connacht backline with two or three quick passes this way, then that, then back again, patiently waiting for the right time to strike.
And when that moment was identified, it was Luke sending it to Ryan Baird first, just at the halfway line, and then on to Harry. Nothing fancy from him as I’d hoped; he ships it on to Devin Toner who knows exactly what is on. He takes the contact as he sends it to Hugo Keenan and on it goes to Rhys Ruddock. Now there’s a sliver of space and the experienced backrower dances his way into the Connacht half.
Luke McGrath spots two teammates in the wide channel with really just Kieran Marmion in their path, so in the next phase on it goes quickly to Harry Byrne who again does nothing fancy, sending it to the man outside him, who would be Mr Dan Sheehan.
A mere mortal would have known Jordan Larmour was with him and simply fixed his first tackler and put his winger through. But not this guy. Instead he does a little shuffle step putting Mack Hansen on the deck (remember, big hooker vs pacy winger…not crashing through him, rather actually skipping around him) before powering to the line for a wonderful YouTube clip-worthy try just before half time.
The most disappointing aspect of defeat to Ulster last weekend was not so much that we lost, rather we were unable to respond to a team that was standing up to us from kickoff. This time, Connacht came out exactly as we expected them to, showing us not once but twice that if we let them into our 22 they were going to come away with points, so once again it was a question of how we were going to respond. This entire sequence I have described to open this writeup demonstrates how we managed to fix those gremlins in the six day turnaround.
Now it didn’t hurt our cause that the visitors came out from the break a little undercooked, with a very uncharacteristic error on the restart from Carty sending it out on the full, plus Oran McNulty being unable to handle a long James Lowe kick after the scrum that gave Leinster another strong attacking lineout chance in their 22, but again we needed to show we could make the most of it.
Once more, we kept it simple. Big Dev with the take; Ala’alatoa helps it to McGrath who powers ahead before firing one through all the decoy runners to Harry Byrne. He sends it back at a sharp angle to Lowe and hey presto there’s that space again. On to Keenan, then to Larmour who seems to have an easy sprint to the corner but no, if you don’t mind I’ll step inside instead and crash past Carty’s despairing tackle to clinch the bonus point try in an easier spot for the conversion.
If we are to have hopes of silverware this season, we will definitely need teams to test us and if we continue to show we can rise to the occasion like we did on Friday, we will definitely put ourselves well in contention.
Of course not everything was rosy; there were those two Connacht tries in the first half, with a perfectly weighted kick pass from Carty finding Mack Hansen way more ready than Larmour in the corner, before the same Leinster winger was unable to stop Arnold crashing down the middle, although that time Luke McGrath may have committed to tackling Carty a little early allowing him to offload.
Then there were our own problems with the ball, with several visits to the Connacht 22 in the first quarter leading to knockons and turnovers but we kept sticking at it until the 23rd minute when Big Dev hauled down yet another lineout, Henshaw provided yet another crash, and the pack powered through yet more phases at the line until Rhys Ruddock got over.
Connacht had another mini purple patch to eventually snatch back the lead but we still kept at it and it was more patience at midfield that led to Josh van der Flier finding his way past the gainline, somehow also managing to avoid going into touch as he was tackled. Moments later it was his red scrum cap involved yet again as he was put through by Lowe, getting a bit of much-deserved luck with a bobble, before it got to Garry Ringrose via Ala’alatoa for try number two.
Next came the kick tennis and the tries either side of half time, and one extra element of the second half was the introduction of Andrew Porter. It’s not so much that Cian Healy’s start was poor, rather that his replacement happened to be in full-on beast mode, winning scrum penalties and jackling turnovers like they were going out of fashion.
One of those penalties put us back in their 22; another lineout, more phases at the line, and the five points going to Caelan Doris this time. Almost ten minutes later it was a similar situation, though Rhys Ruddock needed to be a little more acrobatic to get the move going, before Toner trucked it up to the line and eventually Baird somehow applied downward pressure when required.
So there we were, 40-12 to the good, maximum points in the bag, making all the scheduled substitutions, including what must have been a very satisfying handover from Harry Byrne to his brother Ross. The only thing that could go wrong for us now would be for a combination of our own hubris, the bench taking time to settle defensively, plus a determined Connacht eyeing at least the consolation of a bonus point from two late tries. No chance of all that happening, right?
Well at almost the precise moment the clock ticked into the final quarter, a double-digit series of Connacht phases around the halfway line which had been going nowhere was rescued by a penalty at the breakdown, which Carty dispatched to touch at the 22.
From the lineout Tongan international Leva Fifita took “one off the top”, Caolin Blade sent it to Carty who shipped it onto Mack Hansen before the Irish-qualified sensation blazed a trail past the lunges of Ross Byrne and Tommy O’Brien before easily putting through Conor Oliver for a score under the posts.
All of a sudden the visitors had something real to play for again, and every reason to believe it was possible. Once again it was important for Leinster to wake up and remember that this notion of responding to what your opponents throw at you applies in the final quarter every bit as much as it does in the first.
So the defending of the home side gradually seemed to return to the standards Leo Cullen and his coaching staff will be expecting, leading to all of Connacht’s attempts to nick that fourth try failing right to the very end.
I have said many times on these pages that I am a Jack Carty fan, and I’m recently on the record saying he could get more chances to wear a different green jersey. But I’m sure he’d be the first to admit this performance was a far cry from that he put on earlier in the calendar year at the same venue, with a mini-shamozzle with Ross Byrne towards the end of his shift (not sure what happened - possibly Byrne’s attempted tackle got him in his own tackle?) kind of summing up his night.
And his replacement Conor Fitzgerald didn’t exactly help his side’s cause with a penalty opportunity that went into touch 5m past the tryline rather than before it, after which Leinster managed to put some finishing touches on a margin of victory that was expected by absolutely nobody at kickoff time.
This move might have been a lot more “flash” than the build up to the earlier Dan Sheehan try, but given the respective match situations I still stand by my decision to lead off this writeup the way I did. Anyway what got this move going was the scrum which resulted from Fitzgerald’s error, still inside Leinster’s half.
Tommy O’Brien is definitely one of several on the “fringes” of our squad who is badly in need of regular game time, and he showed just why here with a powerful crash ball run off the set piece that put Blade way behind him before offloading to Ringrose who sent it on to our sub scrum half Nick McCarthy who did well to follow up from the scrum.
He proceeded to make his way into the 22 where a neat offload went straight to Max Deegan, who might be taking a while to find his top form since his own return from injury, but still has no problem finding his way to the tryline as he helped himself to our seventh of the night.
The only thing left to harp on from this encounter for me is to evaluate the “marquee matchup” that was James Lowe v Mack Hansen. If you had to name a winner, it would have to be the Connacht man for his try plus his role in their third. But since many were happy to put an asterisk beside Lowe's name for defensive frailties in the past (myself included at times), I suppose we also have to factor in Hansen in the same area here, and not just for that Sheehan try either.
But on watching the full 80 minutes, you can definitely see that Lowe does contribute in other areas - he too played a key pass leading to a try and while one clearance with his booming left boot might have gone too long, overall it’s a valuable string for us to have to our bow. Let's just say as impressive and all as Hansen has been, he can't have done enough to make us forget Lowe's November heroics in green just yet.
Now it’s time to put the URC ambitions on the back burner and turn our attention to the Heineken Champions Cup, which kicks off next weekend with our third home date on the bounce, albeit at the Aviva Stadium this time. I’ll be speaking to a Bath fan for an “Opposition View” on the podcast during the week so keep an eye out for that.
All that’s left to say about last Friday night is that I’m glad the boys in blue were able to play more like we’re used to and I hope we can carry it through the rest of a busy Christmas and New Year schedule. JLP