Monday, April 04, 2022

Munster-19 Leinster-34

SWITCHED ON

So, Munster had just taken the lead for the first time and the clock read 37:22 as Ross Byrne sent the restart into their half. Much like the opening kickoff, he tried to make this one contestable but it was caught easily enough by Alex Kendellen.


Joey Carbery then launched a clearance straight down the middle but it was returned by Hugo Keenan so well that it went to touch just about for a 5022, a rule which the Munster players seemed to forget for a moment as they went for a quick lineout.


Eventually the officials set things straight via the TMO and it looked like Leinster had a really good platform to launch one more assault on their tryline before the break, and when Devin Toner took a clean catch allowing James Tracy to sweep around and gather before sending it to Henshaw on crash ball, it looked like we had set ourselves up nicely on the front foot.


And Toner got involved again taking the next carry for a few more hard yards, with Ed Byrne next in line before Jamison Gibson-Park gave it back to Toner once more. This time he was met by a trio of Munster tacklers in Kendellen, Niall Scannell and Peter O'Mahony who proceeded to go for the "choke tackle".


The aim is to hold the carrier up so his knee won't reach the ground, and since this was Toner, there was a variable or two to factor in. First, he was leaning forward as his opponents grabbed him which meant trying to keep him up was going to result in effectively lifting him into the air. This made it even more difficult than it already was for his knee to get down, so the net result was a scrum to the home side.

Obviously this brought a huge roar from the fans in Thomond Park, because with the clock at 38:52 as the scrum was given and 39:56 as the ball was finally fed in by Conor Murray, it seemed to a simple task for them to see out the half with not only a lead but also renewed confidence in being able to snuff out our attacking set piece.


Naturally I was hoping for a big shove from our pack, but truth be told I did not expect one. In my preview I said this : "I might have some concerns in the Front 5 - while both Messrs Toner and Dunne are more than capable of doing a job neither has had much game time this season" and with our "elite" front row on the bench it didn't look like we should expect much from this situation.


But like I always say when I have reservations over my team, I'm delighted to be proven wrong and what followed was a really good 8-man shove from Leinster which had our hosts under pressure, so much so that when Kendellen reached down and grabbed the ball, he was met by Caelan Doris.


On a sidenote, for all the harping we do on the skills displayed by the three back row positions in any given match, I reckon we don't spend enough time mentioning what is arguably the most fundamental role for 6s and 7s, namely breaking their bind at the right time and challenging either the first carrier or first receiver after a set scrum. To be fair, the tendency of those pesky 9s to get away with feeding the ball any way but straight down the channel could be a big factor here.


Well in this case, Messrs Doris & Conan played their roles to near perfection. They pounced to force Kendellen sideways a few steps before being joined by Jack Dunne and Josh van der Flier and the sheer weight of numbers to the breakdown meant we counter-rucked our way back into possession and now Gibson-Park was able to launch another attack.


At the very next breakdown, the ref put his arm out having caught one of the scrambling Munster defenders offside, meaning we had the free-est of free plays you'll ever get. To their credit, they held us out for 5 or so phases but that didn't really matter - seeing how the match was poised back when the scrum was under way, this easy placekick for Ross Byrne under the posts was worth a heck of a lot more than three points to us in real terms.


Had all of the above happened the opposite way I would have been furious with my team so I can only imagine what it was like in their dressing room during the break. But what that passage showed is the degree of readiness this Leinster side has for whatever challenge lies before them, and to be able to do it in the first match after the bulk of the internationals were returned to the lineup bodes very well for what comes next.


Now let's go back to the start of the match and look at how things progressed to that pivotal moment...


0-20


Last week against Connacht there had already been two cards dished out in the first two minutes. Thankfully this time it was not only all rugby, but we also got a good sense of how both teams had set their stalls to play.


First we had the visitors probing with phases round midfield before shifting it quickly out wide to James Lowe, who had time to kick ahead towards their 22 only to find the ball go out on the full. From the resulting lineout, Munster's approach was similar only when they went wide it was with shorter passes and thus they got drawn back towards the centre where eventually it was intercepted by Leinster skipper for the evening Garry Ringrose.


A breakdown penalty gave us an early lineout within striking distance but when James Tracy's dart was judged crooked, it looked like one of my pre-match fears had come true in which case it would have been a looooong 80 minutes. But when we got another chance a couple of minutes later in the same spot, the safe option of Doris jumping at 2 was found and we had ourselves a platform.


You could argue that it was a credit to Munster's defending that it took us 17 phases to get it about 20m from that lineout, but I reckon it was more a credit to our cohesion with good ball handling by the carriers, decent decoy lines and most of all, quality clearing out by the support arriving to the breakdown (I know one particular clear out became a talking point and I will get to that). Eventually a Munster defender was going to stray offside and we couldn't resist the easy three from under the posts to take the lead.


It wasn't long after the restart that Munster had a kickable penalty of their own - as they tried to settle in to some midfield phases a late tackle by Conan on Carbery gave the outhalf a chance to level and while it was much further out, he made it look easy.


Although Murray's trademark exit found a good touch at halfway, our strike move off the lineout clicked even better this time as James Lowe had more space and got us straight on the front foot well into their 22. Once more the defensive line was strong to hold us out for over 15 phases, once more there was a penalty advantage, but this time a perfect long miss pass from Ross Byrne was able to find Ringrose in the clear and we had a well worked opening try.


20-HT


I totally expected a strong response from the home side and I got it. Now it was their turn to work through a long series of phases in our 22 only to win a penalty although I reckon they probably wanted more than three points as they continued to press after the referee's arm went out but the play broke down meaning Carbery had to resort to the place kick making it 6-8.


There was to be an exchange of penalties over the next few minutes to bring the score to 9-11 but I want to focus on the first one because there seems to be some issues over it. The whole situation began when we embarked on another long series of phases around the Munster 22, and remember, the previous two such visits had brought points.


So it's all about one particular carry by Ed Byrne which led to a Leinster penalty. The referee called for it based on the slow roll away by Stephen Archer from the breakdown, and after this decision, Toner spots Gavin Coombes in a really good jackle position and thus went to clear him out.

What makes jackling very risky is that you must lock your legs on the ground meaning a player trying to clear you out can cause an injury if you're not in a favourable position and that is exactly what happened here, which is really unfortunate for anyone but especially so for someone like Coombes who is literally on the brink of the Irish team and could do with a run of games now to help him move up.


And if you're looking for me to try and defend the angle Toner is using to clear him out here, well, you'll be a long time waiting. Possibly there's a case to be made that Archer was preventing him getting back around to the gate but even so he shouldn't have launched into the clear out from where he was.


But where you will get push back from me is if you call this a "cheap shot". I've even seen the term used as if to suggest that phrase doesn't mean there's any intent. To me, using the term "cheap shot" is in itself a cheap shot. Toner does come from a bad angle and I get it's extra frustrating that we actually came out with points from this, but it's pretty obvious there is an attempt to wrap and pull the player off his feet.


Unfortunately as a result Coombes had to go off and of course I hope he returns to action soon, but what I do object to is the notion that a) this was the only example of a questionable clear out angle in the match by either side, b) that if the ref had sanctioned Toner it should be anything more than a penalty and c) that it had anything to do with the final score given Coombes' replacement Alex Kendellen was arguably Munster's best performer on the night.


Literally at the first breakdown on Munster's next possession, Carbery got another opportunity to pull back three points and again he took it well. The next ten minutes or so were mostly about some cagey kick tennis around midfield and shortly after Conor Murray fielded a box kick clearance around halfway, JVDF was pinged for an illegal jackle which allowed for another three points to nudge them into the lead.


Next was the amazing sequence I chose to lead off this writeup with which brought us to halftime.


40-60


I was being really sincere about it being all to play for in the second half as despite how well we finished the was every chance Munster could seize the initiative and it was always going to be about who got the next score.


And often when things are that close a match can devolve into a kicking contest, which it quickly became apparent was one that Leinster were much more able for as between them our back three of Jimmy O'Brien, James Lowe and Hugo Keenan were not only accurate and lengthy with their own kicks but were also well able to field what was sent in their direction.


When Munster 15 Matt Gallagher was the first to blink in this exchange, knocking on to give us a scrum outside their 22, Leo Cullen had the luxury of unleashing his 16-17-18 combo of Healy, Sheehan and Furlong to pack down for the first scrum of the half. Might have been a tad harsh on the starting trio given how well they did before the break, but still a powerful move.


From the set piece we quickly settled back into the routine of slick passing to the wide channel and punishing carries up the middle until we forced yet another penalty advantage which once again was quickly used to find Lowe who as ever used his feet well to allow himself to plant it down as you can see in the lead photo.


Ross Byrne wasn't having a good night with the boot and missed another conversion here so the lead was still only seven and we needed at least another score and we eventually got another opportunity when a late tackle by Wycherly allowed our starting outhalf to push the margin to 10.


We were still getting the better of the kicking exchanges and a penalty for offside around midfield put us back into an attacking position. With the lineout now operating without a hitch, a Doris take followed by a decent maul shove put us in position and when it went through the backs, Henshaw needed some dexterity and Lowe some quick thinking but once it got to Jimmy O'Brien, a neat step around Murray before powering over past Cloete and de Allende got us try number three.


60-FT


Away from home against your biggest rivals, you'd give anything to have a 3-score, 15-point cushion going into the final quarter but when Thomas Ahearne plucked the restart from the Limerick sky which led to a Munster scrum outside our 22, it showed we still very much had some work to do.


From the scrum, Munster proceeded with pretty much the same attacking pattern they had shown from the start only with one major difference; now at scrum half they had the nippy Craig Casey and he was giving them that extra bit of pace to the breakdown plus a quick tap from a penalty which meant it wasn't long before they were attacking close to our line.


If there was any stage of the match where Leinster were lucky not to ship a card it was this one, only for the fact that our hosts had also shipped some penalties while we were on the front foot earlier. Eventually the new found determination bore fruit as Ben Healy, also on the pitch with Carbery moved to full back, put De Allende through and it was great to see how much the try meant to the soon-to-be-departing Springbok.


At this stage, I would have been delighted for there to be no further scores so we could "get out of Dodge" with the four match points, and for the next ten minutes we did a decent job of keeping them pinned in their own half, albeit with the help of a crooked lineout dart from them in the process.


Eventually a lineout of our own just outside their 22 allowed Conan to send one down from off the top before JDVF's now-trademark crash ball got us into another strong position. Even with the 6/2 split bench now fully deployed there was no drop in the attacking cohesion as we patiently worked the ball towards their line with great variation and accuracy.


Once it was decided it was the right time to get it to James Lowe in space out wide, he may have lost his hairband but he lost none of his finishing power and down in the corner the ball went again for that critical bonus point try. Ross missed another conversion but it really didn't matter at this point the job was very much done.


The match kind of fizzled out from there, although Munster pressed our line and Kendellen certainly would have deserved the consolation try if his attempt had been allowed, but we managed to hold them out (again maybe a tad lucky not to have shipped a card) right to the very end.


HARPIN POINTS


As confident as I am about this Leinster squad, never in a million years would I have dreamed of us getting maximum points from trips to both the Sportsground and Thomond Park. And while the former may have had a lot to do with an early red card, the latter was all about how switched on the boys in blue looked right when they needed to be.


Player of the match went to Caelan Doris, definitely a worthy shout though it could have gone to anyone in the starting pack given how that key moment happened, and you know what, the backs and the bench weren't too shabby either. It really was an all round impressive team display that was a joy to rewatch.


For Munster's part, obviously this will be a devastating loss in every respect and when you put all the banter aside, I certainly don't wish it on any fan especially Irish ones. But their problems definitely do seem to be in their own camp and whether or not you want to put all the blame on Mr van Graan, I have always said that I don't like the practise of a sporting organisation announcing a coaching change mid season and I don't think it has helped them at all.


There was also the fact that they were missing many key players like Tadhg Beirne and Dave Kilcoyne, and now with Coombes possibly out long term it doesn't bode well for the rest of their season. Hopefully I come across as genuine when I say I hope they will be able to regroup sooner rather than later.


WHAT'S NEXT


Next stop, Europe. Although it's not often that has us travelling due west!!! Obviously recent for will have us as heavy favourites against Connacht, especially over two legs, but we all know that anything is possible and we will have to remain at our best because you can bet Andy Friend will have his side filled to the brim with belief on Friday night.


During the week I plan to talk to Connacht fan Padraig "@the2ndrow" Kelly on the podcast about his thoughts for the next two weekends, then we'll be giving the match our usual treatment with team announcement, preview, post-match reaction and finally of course the writeup. Do keep coming back to HarpinOnRugby.net to follow our humble offerings and thank you as ever for sticking with this writeup to the end. JLP


Click here for a selection of online comments posted after the fulltime whistle


PS - We're toying with the idea of starting a regular TikTok account so we made a video of that end to the first half to kick things off...if enough people subscribe we'll do more and I assure you they will get better!


@harpinonrugby

First TikTok go easy on me will ya

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