Monday, April 18, 2022

Leinster-56 Connacht-20

THE LOWE SHOW

Rugby is very much a team sport, making it very difficult for any one player to stand out too much, especially one that is playing like it has designs on winning the to prize for a fifth time.


But there will always be players like James Lowe who find a way to put themselves forward, which is very much a good thing, and this match was no exception for him.


Now don't get me wrong - I'm not suggesting for a moment he's anything but a team player. Everything he does is for his fellow boys in blue or green; what makes it noticeable is the degree to which he not only exudes the confidence to do more than is what is expected of him and his position in pretty much any given match situation, but also his ability to back it up.


It's not as though he was the only Leinster player to impress on the day by a long stretch - as I was watching I listened to the superb (and also very fair) radio commentary offered by GalwayBayFM's Rob Murphy and William Davies and throughout the second half they were convinced the "Star of the Match" award should go to Jamison Gibson-Park.


Meanwhile I was marveling at the contribution of Josh Murphy - in my previews for these matches I harped on how close our starting XV was to our ideal one for Europe based on our current squad and I pointed to our second row where I felt James Ryan and Ryan Baird were the only "missing links", which of course was a bit of a slight on both Murphy and Ross Molony. As it turned out, both were key in the success of our set piece with Josh, himself bound for Connacht next season, performing well in the loose at critical moments as well.


But a hat-trick of tries is always going to put your name in the running for the gong, and as the clock was ticking through the 80th minute it had already been awarded to Lowe, so there was no need for him to do anything else, right? Wrong.


With the margin on the day already at 29 and the aggregate at 34, a cheeky grubber through from Ross Byrne seemed to be under Lowe's control right after it left the boot as it took a bounce that looked erratic at first but ended up arcing right into his path at the corner so all he had to do was place it down where he stood to bring his personal tally to four and it was a perfect end to the match, right? Wrong.


Don't forget the conversion, mate! Ever grateful to his out half for setting him up, James made sure the placekick was that much easier by skipping around towards the posts to provide the vanilla glaze on the crushed walnut sprinkles on the cherry on the icing on the cake.


To the Connacht fans, of course it was a disappointing end to both the tie and their European campaign, and to the neutral fans, it was quite possibly a moment not even seen as it's likely they had long since turned their attention to something else. But to the Leinster faithful, it meant a hell of a lot.


It seems a combination of disappointments against the likes of Saracens (twice) and La Rochelle plus that EPCR ruling against Montpellier have made us determined to show the rest of the competition in every minute of every European match we play this season that we are very much in contention for the prize. And I'm pretty sure the rest of the competition has gotten the message.


What is important to remember when reviewing this 2nd leg is just how the tie was poised back at kick off - like I said in last week's writeup, while many were complaining about the jerseys being difficult to tell apart, it was on the pitch where it was most difficult to separate them and I'm sure Leinster would have felt a lot more comfortable with more than a 5-point margin to bring home to Dublin.


So let's go back through the eighty minutes and see how things went...


0-20


Last week, Connacht threw the kitchen sink at us from the kickoff and we expected nothing less than that again here. Sure enough, as we tried to settle into a phase or two after Jack Carty's kickoff to prepare an exit kick, a determined jackle from Cian Prendergast drew a whistle from referee Luke Pearce and with just two minutes gone Carty was already knocking three points off of that lead.


It wasn't long before we had another pivotal moment. When it was our kickoff Connacht wasted no time sending it back to us and Johnny Sexton's first contribution to the match was one of his trademark high kicking measured perfectly to return to earth just outside the 22 for Tiernan O'Halloran to catch. On our podcast during the week, our Leinster Fan Panel singled their full back out as someone to target and that's exactly what we did.


But not only was he up to the task of making the catch, he was also challenged by his opposite number Hugo Keenan and while both the ref and the BT commentary team thought it was nothing more than a penalty, I felt it probably should have been more as Keenan was never in a position to catch the ball and actually grabs the player in mid air.

Whether or not they had the extra man, they still made the most of the lineout, immediately putting Keenan under more pressure by grubbering one through giving him no choice but to take the ball into touch giving the visitors an attacking lineout in our 22.


Straight from this set piece they got it right to our line where they may not have breached our defence but they did draw another penalty after six phases, meaning Jack Carty had a perfect opportunity to not only stretch the lead on the day to six, but also to put them ahead on aggregate score for the first time.


The tee was 15m in from the touchline and for a player like Jack definitely from a kickable position, yet he pulled it wide. I have said many a time on these pages how much respect I have for Carty and I believe he should have more Ireland appearances, but there's no denying this was a very bad miss at a very bad time, although from the kick off he did put a nice touchfinder pinning us back in our 22.


And when you consider that Leinster's possession in the opening seven minutes amounted to one breakdown and one high kick by Sexton, we were still yet to see what our attack had to offer and it was getting closer to the tenth minute when a good leap and catch by Keenan earned us our first spell with the ball outside our own 22.


From the very next breakdown it went from JGP > Sexton > Lowe > JOB > Henshaw so quickly that before the Connacht defence knew what had hit them, we had created a 2v1 situation out wide which meant when it got to Josh Murphy on the touchline he had acres of space to run into.


Now it was up to what team mates were tracking with him and first he sends it back inside to James Lowe who, team player that he is, knew to fix his tackler and ship it to Gibson-Park (who you may recall started all of this), and now there was nobody to stop the scrum half running to the line. And so we had our answer on what kind of attacking mood Leinster were in.


But just being able to strike from our own half wasn't going to be enough for us - on Connacht's next possession we cranked up the line speed and counter rucking to such levels that before Carty to go for more territory, there was Andrew Porter, a very welcome returnee from injury, jackling us to our first penalty of the evening.


From the attacking lineout which followed we went for a variation on the "quick hands" move to get it wide only this time a perfectly timed tackle by Bundee on Jimmy O'Brien meant the ball went to ground and into touch, except crucially a replay showed that the Connacht & Ireland centre had knocked it on.


This first scrum saw an ominous shove from the Leinster pack which earned a penalty advantage, yet rather than go for another one it was put to touch and it didn't take long to see why. The dart from R贸nan Kelleher was taken by Josh Murphy and with another penalty advantage coming from the maul, JGP gave it to Lowe, then on to Henshaw who proceeded to crash through a set of tacklers to get it down over the line.


As you can see I have been very detailed with my description of the first quarter, and this was for good reason. Like I said in my preview, "Connacht are likely to hit us early so we need to stay within ourselves and look to take the chances when they come...and hope to extend the (aggregate) margin to 8 and maybe 15 where possible."


Now we had it at 16 and I'm pretty sure even the most die hard Connacht fan would acknowledge that the writing was on the wall at that point, so all that is really left for me to do is describe the remaining tries, with maybe a disciplinary issue or two as well.


20-HT


For all my harping on James Lowe at the start, I couldn't ignore the very similar star factor that Mack Hansen brings to Connacht's game, and he definitely showed flashes of it on Friday, if not quite enough to trouble a very determined Leinster defensive cordon.


A penalty for side entry around halfway put us back to their 22 for a lineout and the move of choice from here was a neat little forwards/back collaboration between Josh van der Flier and James Lowe which got us right to the 5m line. From here we had another pen advantage but we didn't needed after a few pick and gos led to Tadhg Furlong bouncing off his tackler before falling over the line.


Next off another penalty advantage at a scrum in our half we worked it all the way into Connacht territory before earning a second, and the referee was asked about a potential ate hit by Bundee on Sexton - his initial reply was "We felt the timing of the tackle was good, Tom has already boxed that off" but when TMO Tom Foley had another look it came back out of the box.


It wasn't the lateness of the hit that was in question, more the direction and height. There is clearly head on head contact. It is a different scenario to Marmion v JGP from last week because in this case the only person in motion is the tackler. I reckon the officials probably got this right, a "low level of danger but no mitigation" which meant a yellow card.


All of which meant that with already a 23-point aggregate lead, we now had a 5m lineout and an extra man...it's Conan's turn to be lineout target, the maul seems static so JGP takes it and quick hands from Henshaw and Sexton gets it to Lowe who somehow manages to wrestle free from his tacklers over the line to touch it down for his second.


There were a few injury concerns for Leinster during the half, most notably Jack Conan who had to be replaced by Rhys Ruddock, hopefully that was only a precaution.


40-60


It certainly didn't help Connacht's cause when Tom Farrell chose to exit from the restart by running out of his 22 only to offload straight to Jimmy O'Brien. The yellow card was still in effect so it wasn't long before R贸nan Kelleher was storming through a gap up the middle and a few phases later JOB was on hand again to take it close to the try line. From here the inevitable came in the form of Robbie Henshaw taking it over from close range.


Although Connacht won a penalty shortly after the restart which gave them a rare attacking opportunity, their luck was still out as they lost prop Finlay Bealham to a head knock. Still, another penalty or two came from the attacking lineout (which tbf could've had us in card trouble ourselves yet didn't) until eventually a fine line by O'Halloran (who played much better than our podcast predicted it must be said) got him over for their first try.


Their next possession was starting to look promising as they were now finding ways of pushing our defence back with the ball in hand until the 9th phase of the set when Jack Aungier needlessly charged JVDF who didn't have the ball and had stayed away from a breakdown.


Again I think the officials got it right as although it was head to head again, it wasn't quite in the red category but since it was their replacement tight head with Bealham not returning, we were now in a situation similar to that which happened at the same venue when Ireland played Italy in the Six Nations. The next scrum meant Connacht were now down to 13 men for a spell.


It took a while for us to press home this advantage but eventually Sexton managed to slip Ringrose through up the middle and the centre then threw an absolute treat of a pass (not going to argue on the "forwardness" of it, I've seen all the videos at this stage enough to know it's nowhere near as clear cut as some make out) to Lowe, who had plyers outside him but of course didn't need them as a little feint was enough to give him a route to the line for his second try.


60-FT


Connacht's biggest set of phases came towards the end of the third quarter with a whopping 17 getting them to our 22 before Leinster were pinged at the breakdown and they were of course always going to go for touch at this rate. From here pretty much all the work was done by their bench as Marmion directed traffic, Buckley, Papali'i and Murphy did the heavy lifting before Sammy Arnold got the try.


But this just seemed to anger Leinster's own bench and they proceeded to get in the face of Connacht's exit strategy forcing a short-ish clearance and from the lineout, a sweet little show and go from Ross Byrne managed a break into their 22 only for the offload to get to, yes, of course, James Lowe, to complete his hat-trick.


The one thing that Lowe was unable to do on the day is something I'm sure most would forgive him for. Because I certainly wouldn't be able to stop Abraham Papali'i running at me full pelt on the tryline. He might call me a "bollix" for sharing this photo but I reckon Connacht deserve it for sticking with a match that was lost early on to rack up 20 points and besides, I think I've harped quite a bit on the good things JL did on the day, including the try right at the death with which I led off the article.


HARPIN POINTS


So just to make this overall point one more time...could JGP have been sent off last week? Yes. Could we have maybe gotten a card or two at stages of the second leg? Yes. But would have made a difference when it came to which team advanced to the last eight? Absolutely not.


Leinster's overall win loss record this season is impressive in itself, but there has been something about our European-level performances, and I include our recent trip down to Thomond in this category, which suggests this is a coaching staff and senior squad on a mission. On this day, the symmetry of two converted tries in each quarter made it look like we could almost turn on our A game at will.


The levels of accuracy in both open play and set pieces have been such that we are looking like a team that is ready for challenges beyond Montpellier, Bath and Connacht, with all due respect of course. And guess what - we now have that challenge in the form of an away trip to the Premiership leaders, which also doubles as a rematch of the day we earned our first star, something I'm sure the TV broadcasters will be reminding us of in the weeks to come.


WHAT'S NEXT


But what is immediately next for Leinster is a trip to South Africa for two very interesting URC clashes. It certainly doesn't hurt that we have a ten-point cushion atop the table as we travel but although it makes sense to leave a few players behind in some cotton wool I'd be surprised if we took either match lightly.


I plan to chat to a top South African rugby source on the podcast during the week on both the Sharks and the Stormers so stay tuned for that along with all of our regular features. Sure it's all cup rugby from here on in and I for one am totally here for it. JLP


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