2020 was a crazy year for sure, then 2021 gave it a decent run for its money. But as I write it is the last day of January 2022 and when it comes to Leinster Rugby anyway, we surely have another contender already.
What else can you say about a calendar month which is traditionally full of interpros and seeding-deciding Heineken Cup encounters yet instead had weeks without any action at all before a three-match set where Leinster outscored their opponents 180-43, including a try count of 26-4, while only managing to win two of them.
“But you only had your thirds!” was one tweet of (I presume) consolation I received from a Welsh fan afterwards. There may be an element of truth to that, but while I appreciated the positive comments I got last week from Bath fans for the “balance” in my writeup, for this match I think it might be a good time to take out ol’ reliable blue goggles again because there is definitely a uniquely Leinster way of looking at this result.
Success over the years has brought a certain level of expectation when it comes to standards. However arrogant this may sound, the fact remains we go into a season with a plan to be involved at the business end of both competitions when May and June come around. So when matches are scheduled at a time when we are without our internationals, we still need to be putting points on the board.
And not only that, we also want the players entrusted to those starting jerseys to be competing with those they are replacing, and over the years we have seen countless examples of this happening, leaving us with an embarrassment of riches at certain positions.
What I want to do with these writeups, especially for a match like this one, is try to pinpoint which parts of the defeat were down to our side of the equation, and which ones couldn’t really be helped because of things like the bounce of a ball, a questionable decision by the ref or, the one that is more often than not the truth, the fact that the other side was simply better.
FIRST QUARTER - Defences on top
As Jarrod Evans took the kickoff, little did he know of the symmetry there would be as the same boot would later also bring the match to a dramatic conclusion. He certainly wasn’t thinking about that result when a few phases into his first bout of possession, the ball went to ground and Seán Cronin gratefully recovered.
From this possession Leinster were able to win a penalty in the Cardiff half allowing Ross Byrne to settle us in nicely with a penalty to put us 3-0 ahead. Many times we have gone straight for the jugular in situations like this but away from home this was absolutely the right call.
There followed a long spell where it’s safe to say the two sets of defences were in charge, although Leinster were winning the territory battle in that time only for various things like strong jackling, a scrum penalty, a clumsy knock on by Luke McGrath at the base of a ruck, and another time it was just a good exit from the home side keeping us at bay.
Eventually when Jamie Osborne tried to put us back down at that end of the park, his kick was a bit overcooked and went out on the full and a tidy Cardiff maul led to a penalty which allowed Evans to level the scores just as the clock was hitting the 20 minute mark.
SECOND QUARTER - Wingin’ it
On one Cardiff possession in the first quarter, Evans attempted a chip over the top to beat the onrushing defenders and the result was a very lucky bounce which went straight to Ben Thomas. Nothing came of it in the end, but it did show that this was the way to go if the home side were to have any success on the night.
After Ross Byrne’s restart from the first Evans penalty was (again I’m afraid I have to use the word clumsily) knocked on by Devin Toner, the home side retrieved and went straight back to the boot again, first recovering a Lloyd Williams box kick at half way and then Evans bamboozled three Leinster defenders out wide (Osborne, Ruddock and O’Loughlin) by kick-passing perfectly into the stride of winger Owen Lane who belted home almost sevens style putting Cardiff ahead for the first time.
My first thought after seeing this try was that we had plenty of talent on the pitch to equal or even better those chips over the top. Ross Byrne certainly knows how to be accurate and our starting back three all knew how to finish.
But on our first possession of the restart, off a lineout around halfway after Cardiff exited, we went a more traditional route to the line when last week’s four-try hero Jimmy O’Brien offloaded out of the tackle right into the excellent line picked out by Adam Byrne who, like Lane moments before, wasn’t going to be stopped.
The rest of this quarter was more defined by who was going off the pitch than what was happening on it. On Leinster’s side we were delighted to welcome back Will Connors and his return was also timely for Andy Farrell who could well require his services over the next couple of months.
Although Will is good in many aspects of the game, his trademark is his daisy-cutting yet still somehow legal chop tackles, and I swear I counted as many as three from him in just the opening few minutes, plus I noticed other players were having a go as well like Scott Penny and debutante Joe McCarthy.
Connors also thwarted a Cardiff attack with a steal at the breakdown, but after we marched down to the other end and had some decent front foot ball in their 22, his attempted clear out came from a bad angle to say the least and in this challenge not only was he pinged and our chance gone, he seemed the worse for wear afterwards and eventually had to be replaced by Max Deegan.
We had more than one visit to their 22 before the half was over but were denied by a couple of Will Boyde jackles (the first was a bit suspect as you can’t really be supporting your own body weight if you’re pushing your hand on the ball while it’s on the ground…) plus another frustrating knock on.
Meanwhile on our opposition's side of things, apparently after that Connors clearout challenge, Jarrod Evans was forced off with an HIA that meant centre Ben Thomas had to assume outhalf duties for the remainder of the half and it has to be said he did reasonably well, especially the placekick he nailed to give the home side a 13-10 lead going into the break.
HT scoreline looks spot on. Both set defences in good nick in 1st qtr, but Cardiff doing a much better job of adapting and exploiting space in behind. We need to mix things up with the ball too, and soon, if we're going to get back in this.#CARvLEI #URC#FromTheGroundUp— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) January 29, 2022
THIRD QUARTER - Leinster forge ahead
There’s no doubt that Cardiff profited from a couple of lucky bounces on the night, but even when one went against them shortly after the restart when another Evans kick over the top failed to get into Thomas’s stride forcing a knockon, they still managed to win a penalty from the scrum allowing Evans to stretch the lead to 6.
From the restart Leinster’s chasers got to where the ball landed quickly enough yet they proceeded to grab everyone but Sam Moore who actually had the ball and he burst out of the 22 to make it all the way to halfway before winning a penalty that put them back near our own line.
That lineout led to an energy-sapping 17 phases which only ended when we shipped another pen that meant we were now a whopping 9 points behind and it really did look like a mountain more than a hill we had to climb unless we upped our game.
And sure enough the next restart also went to Moore yet this time our chasers were much more focused and our hosts were forced to clear to touch outside the 22. James Tracy was on for Sean Cronin at this stage and he was heavily involved in the next batch of possession including lineout throws, taking the ball at the back of a maul, taking a tap n go, and after James Botham saw yellow for a stray hand in a ruck, our reserve hooker eventually got the ball over the line and just like that we’re back within two points.
It was the turn of Cardiff’s chasers to do well off a restart and it helped kill a decent portion of the sin-binning period but a penalty around halfway put us back down their end and straight from the lineout a massive gap opened up beside the maul for Scott Penny to waltz through and touch down.
The conversions for these two tries were definitely in Ross Byrne’s range but as we were chasing the game there was no room for error and it has to be said he did well to get both over comfortably, putting us in what has to be considered a winning position going by the standards I mentioned earlier.
FINAL QUARTER - Bouncing back
The next ten minutes were really scrappy around midfield, which would have suited Leinster but what definitely did not suit us was Jamie Osborne being forced off. He wasn't perfect on the night but still was more used to playing in the centre and with Adam Byrne already replaced by Tommy O'Brien, it meant that Harry Byrne had to come on while his brother Ross was still on the pitch giving our backline an unusual look going into the final minutes.
When we won a penalty around the halfway line, I actually thought referee Mike Adamson gave us a few metres in the placement of the ball but it was still in our territory when Harry was nominated to have a go at the posts for what would have been a crucial 8-point cushion.
He definitely gave it a good thump and from the central position it stayed straight but the rugby gods were definitely not kind to us and it died just at the last second, came off the crossbar and back into play where the home team did well to clean up and clear.
And Harry's involvement in this sequence was not yet done...that clearance definitely looked destined for the touchline so he chose to let it bounce and those same gods clearly weren't done with us yet as it somehow stayed in play, was gathered by winger Aled Summerhill and brought all the way into our 22.
From there the Cardiff tails were up and they consolodated themselves down at our end until a slick series of passes Evans > Summerhill > Lee-lo > Amos allowed the fullback to beat our re-jigged backline and get over and the outhalf made no mistake with the conversion - all of sudden we went from millimetres away from an 8-point advantage to being 2 points behind.
But we were back at them again from the restart when we forced another kick to touch outside the 22 before a well executed lineout play got us on the front foot before it was Cardiff's turn to be clumsy as Lane failed to roll away after a tackle giving us a penalty.
The position was out towards the touchline yet with both score and clock the way they were, Ross Byrne bravely elected to take it on and backed it up with an excellent strike, his best of the night, that put us back in front. Again, this left us in what we should consider to be a winning position, one that even looked more secure when we won a scrum penalty that gave us an attacking lineout in their half which meant the ball returned to play with the clock reading 78:36.
We then worked the ball really well towards the Cardiff 22 until Scott Penny found himself unprotected after the carry and reserve prop Dillon Lewis jackled his way to a penalty to give the home crowd some hope.
From the lineout it was always going to be about our tackles and eventually one from Michael Ala'alatoa was definitely high and after first placing the ball on the 5m line it was rightly moved a bit further infield to the spot of the foul allowing Evans the opportunity for glory with the clock dead, and as we all know, he nailed the pressure kick.
He was a deserving player of the match although the commentators pointed out that had he missed it would have gone to Ross Byrne, which was also a decent call.
Like I said, for the most part our defence was good, Ross' placekicks were good, our lineouts were good, and some from the bench like James Tracy were good. We also had more than our share of calls going against us, we went to the bench a lot sooner than we'd have liked, and also there was the rugby ball doing very rugby ball things.
However, even without so many "recognised" players, to say a combination of the above factors allowed for the three points we were short of victory here, or more importantly the one try we were short of the full five match points, would be wide of the mark in my view.
When the two defences came out of the blocks looking stingy, the home side tried something different and it kept paying off, while we stuck to our guns and although it did get us three tries, I really think if we had taken a similar approach to our hosts we could have gotten more and even killed the game altogether up to half an hour out like I had predicted in my preview.
But we didn't and there is much to be learned for the younger members of the squad, although also had below-expectation displays from more experienced among the 23 like Luke McGrath and Devin Toner, plus overall I felt it was a question of our ability to adapt to what was before us.
The fallout from the result isn't as bad as it may have seemed as the full time whistle blew - a bonus point win with our game in hand over those above us on the URC table would return us to the top position so that is something to aim for.
As for the nonsense that was so-called #tunnelgate well, that's exactly what it was as far as I'm concerned, I only mention it here for future reference. Maybe it was someone choosing not to see what was clearly happening and getting angry for nothing, or maybe as some are saying it was "just a wind up", but neither case puts those making the claims in a good light and it's best left there.
Obviously I'm delighted for the genuine Cardiff fans like Dan Pearce who was on the podcast last week and for wider fans of the Welsh game like Paul Williams who put this diamond of a quote amongst all the dirty rubble that was going around twitter the past few days : "I'd rather be the cheerleader for Welsh rugby than the funeral director".
Next up for Leinster is a crucial series of three home dates against Edinburgh, the Lions and Ospreys where we will need all the points we can get as we still have a whopping SEVEN away matches left to play including two in the southern hemisphere.
Meanwhile it's time to turn the attention to the Six Nations so we're switching to green jersey mode this week with a multi-provincial Ireland Fan Panel on the podcast looking at our best matchday 23, plus all the usual previews and such throughout the week before the big kickoff against Wales on Saturday.
Do stay tuned won't you. JLP