Monday, April 25, 2022

Sharks-28 Leinster-23

POINT TAKEN

I asked my kids if it would be worth my while setting up a Tik Tok account for HarpinOnRugby and my eldest quickly replied : "Sure, Dad, so long as you don't even dream of doing any dancing." Sage advice for sure, nobody wants that.


So I set it up, since it literally cost nothing, but I also needed to come up with a theme for regular content, ideally something I don't do on other platforms. Eventually it struck me as a perfect place to do videos on moments from Leinster & Ireland matches that caught my eye yet still got missed by the mainstream analysis.


Now you could say that's what these writeups are for, and you wouldn't be wrong, but while I personally prefer to use the written word to get my opinions out there, the realities of the social media age are such that 2000-word articles just aren't going to catch everyone's attention.


Of course what I could do is use TikTok to highlight moments where I thought there was an injustice against Leinster, like right at the very end where there was a challenge on Michael Ala'alatoa that might have been, er, "missed" by the TMO but that would make the account into an anger factory, so instead I'll harp on that further down this article.


In the end there were two scrums in the second half which really grabbed me, mostly because they helped answer a question that concerned me when writing my preview...

 ...we have to put faith in our coaches.  This brains trust knows how to get results and would have been preparing for this trip for a while.  On a day when many expect us to get "beaten up in the front five", for once Leinster are going into a match with a relatively low bar to clear.  Parity in the set pieces would certainly be a good achievement but I'll be looking for this pack to shoot for more.

...and now I had the perfect theme for a TikTok video so instead of devoting a few paragraphs to describing them in my opening section like I normally do, I'll just share the video...

@harpinonrugby It's the little things that make the difference... #SHAvLEI #URC #rugby ♬ Rock 80s mood - Vlc

OK I reckon I've made my point at this stage, time to go through the full 80 minutes and see how this scrappy contest transpired...what's hardest to believe is that Leinster were actually ahead on the scoreboard for 38 of them, and level for another 22.


0-20


Ironically there were opportunities for both sides to test their scrums in the opening minute after Max Deegan knocked on the kickoff in his own 22 and the Sharks played on, only to knock on themselves a few phases later, prompting us to clear our lines.


And this clearance by Nick McCarthy was setting a tone for the match as well early on, since not only were the Sharks expected to be heavy up front but also in Bosch, Mapimpi, Kok and Fassi they had very dangerous counter-attackers if your kicks aren't accurate.


So while the first fifteen minutes or so were cagey from both sides, there was no doubt that the Sharks had the edge on the territory battle and courtesy of a no-arms tackle from Scott Penny and the first penalty at a scrum, they could have taken the lead but Bosch was unable to convert either placekick despite both being in central locations.


The closest they got to a try in this spell was after the penalty you see awarded first in the TikTok video, which they took quickly and got to within 5 of the line only to knock on, and once more we let the advantage go and managed to get it wide to Chris Cosgrove who kicked it from one 22 to the other where Tommy O'Brien's pace got him there fast enough to smash the receiver into touch giving us an attacking throw.


For all the youth in Leinster's lineup it must have been more anxious an occasion for John McKee who was meant to be on the bench yet became a late callup to the starting lineup when Rónan Kelleher was unable to play. For the most part his darts were good to be fair, and even though this particular one got pinched, we managed to block their clearance and win the ball back anyway at their 22.


A neat little grubber from Harry Byrne looked to replicate his brother Ross' late link up with James Lowe last weekend but Rory O'Loughlin couldn't quite reach the high bounce which meant the Sharks had a lineout 5m from their own line, and in a way it was fitting that this dart sailed over everyone and straight into the willing arms of McKee who go it to just short of the line.


From this pick and go situation if you weren't expecting a try from either Scott Penny or Max Deegan, you haven't been following Leinster closely in this league for the past few years, and sure enough it was the former who got it across to give us a 7-0 lead that even the most faithful blue supporter had to admit was against the run of play.


This gave us a spring in our step and although the Sharks looked dangerous from the restart a side entry penalty allowed us to clear to halfway and it looked like the lineout would set up another attacking platform but when O'Loughlin was hit as he made his pass it went to Mapimpi instead of Osborne and the winger was always going to finish the intercept; suddenly we were all square again.


20-HT


It was back to the kick tennis to start the second quarter until Werner Kok spotted a gap and got all the way into our 22 where he had support however our cover tacklers of Frawley and Tommy O'Brien did enough to force a knock on. This was one scrum where we were the ones winning a penalty, if only for the Sharks smelling blood in the water from the set piece and engaging early.


From this lineout at halfway we chose the different option of a Harry Byrne Garryowen into the Sharks half, one which Frawley seemed ready to catch until he was impeded enough to earn a penalty which he took himself and proceeded to show Bosch how it's done (and actually it was raining at this point which made things more tricky) to put us back into the lead.


Then a lineout steal by Deegan at halfway was sent quickly through the hands where O'Loughlin put in ahead into there 22 and we recovered to be on the front foot yet again, and we actually had a penalty awarded for offside which could have meant another three points only for O'Brien's challenge on Grobler was deemed high enough to reverse the penalty - I'm not so sure given his contact point though the arm did slip up.


Tommy was to very much redeem himself a bit later, again when we had a penalty advantage, this time from a lineout around halfway. Ciaran Frawley barely hesitated to spot that a crossfield kick was on and it bounced straight up into the winger's arms, though with Fassi coming to challenge he had work to do and made it look really easy as his stepped by the fullback. Next it was Kok he had to beat (yes, I know, the possible puns here are endless but I'll choose to ignore them) and he easily had the gas to bring it to the line.


Frawley added the extras to put us an amazing ten points in front and we quickly caught another break after the restart after O'Brien fumbled his catch only for the TMO spotting it went to touch off a Shark to give us the throw, so "all we had to do" was clear our lines and we could be bringing this margin into the break.


But like I said earlier, it was vital that our kicking was accurate and Jamie Osborne's eventual clearance after the lineout was too long for his chasers and thus fell right into the arms of Fassi who may have felt he had a point to prove. So he sails past Osborne and Cosgrove like they're not there and once in the backfield, a sublime offload in the tackle finds his scrum half Hendrickse who took it the rest of the way. Super try where we were rightly punished and gave the scoreboard a very different complexion.


40-60


Whatever was said at the break we certainly started the second half brightly, with 8 phases at midfield followed by a high kick from Harry which dropped just outside their 22 where O'Brien was on hand to tackle, release and jackle his way to a penalty which Frawley slotted to stretch our lead back to six.


But the home team's scrum advantage was still very much an elephant in the room and it seemed to be only a matter of time before they started to get points from it. Sure enough a penalty earned at halfway put them at our 22 and another one at the next lineout not only put them closer to our line but also got a warning from the ref.


From this set piece our defence, which had been good up to this point apart from the odd penalty, finally gave way and it was Mbonambi who got it over the line before Bosch added the extras to put the Durban franchise in front for the first time with half an hour to go.


This lead wasn't to last long however as the Sharks' exit kick wasn't great which meant their chasers were easily caught offside which allowed Frawley to put us back in front, but the moment things got more difficult for us was when Josh Murphy was pinged for a lineout challenge, and once more it was Grobler on the receiving end.


Only thing I'll say about this is that I have seen warnings given in the 22 before only for another penalty shipped further up field to avoid tempting a card from the pocket, but this ref wasn't of any mind but to send Murphy to the naughty step and I suppose that's fair enough as I'd probably expect it the other way.


Now we were up against it, although the Sharks were taking a while to capitalise and failed to score for the rest of the quarter so the last thing we wanted to do was lose another man to the bin...


60-FT


...we actually dodged a bullet since the first card as a later lineout no no that WAS in the 22 got let away with another warning but the ref was understanably at the end of his tether so when Lee Barron, one of three making their senior debuts, got pinged at the next maul, he had to go, although at least by this stage Murphy was very close to returning.


From here, you'd expect a team of the Sharks quality to press home the advantage and although it still took them a few more minutes off the clock, eventually number 8 Buthelezi took it from the base of a scrum all the way to the line to not only restore the lead but also pinch a critical try bonus point for their playoff chances.


How this scoreline lasted remained the same from this 67th minute all the way to the final whistle is something the Sharks really need to be asking themselves. It would have made for quite the statement for them to deny us the losing bonus point and as it turned out, Leinster very nearly stole the win right at the death.


But first we had to see out that second yellow card and here is where the scrums in the TikTok video came into play. And just before the first one, we had that incident where Bosch looked to have scored after having broken through a gap and sent it to Fassi who gave it back to him. Thing is there was a lot for TMO Marius Jonker to look at.


His starting point was that he did not believe that Fassi's foot was in touch before the offload. Thing is, it very much was and I can't understand why he didn't see it. The reality was that it was an incredible try-saving tackle from Chris Cosgrove that should have resulted in a Leinster lineout - instead the forward pass was given which had us under pressure with the scrum, thankfully we had a strategy for escaping.


Yet the TMO's involvement in this late drama wasn't done. Or should I say lack of involvement. Almost poetically it was a Leinster penalty at a scrum at halfway as the clock read 75:35 that was to put us in Sharks territory for the rest of the match. And penalties from the next two series of phases in their 22 meant that now it was the home side getting a warning, only now the time was 78:22.


A tap n go led to a Leinster knock on which had the Sharks and their fans celebrating like the match had been won, and in fairness it should have been at that stage, but the ref wasn't ready to call time just yet and actually awarded us a penalty on their put in to give us one last shot.


Why this penalty didn't bring out the card is a bit of a mystery, but an offside call shortly after the tap and go did give us at least one shot with an extra man as their reserve hooker van Vuuren's day was done. Now it really was last chance saloon for us as it was officially the 82 minute.


I have to be honest, I saw nothing dodgy as I watched it live. I was caught up inn the drama and preparing myself for an almighty shout if we got over the line, and even when the TMO was showing replay after replay of Ala'alatoa's charge towards the line, all I was looking for was whether or not he got it to the line and with so many arses in the way, that was never going to be given.


However the wider Leinster fan community online is of course a lot more alert and tweets started to appear of the Leinster prop getting smashed in the head after a lunge from Sikhumbuzo Notshe and I suppose if I didn't spot it on the replays, why should the TMO, right? Wrong - he's paid to do it and if he missed an obvious foot in touch earlier, then you definitely have to wonder about this one.


Would we have scored the tying/winning points had the clash been spotted? Maybe it wasn't guaranteed, but being against 13 men would have made things a lot easier. However, I feel I have said my piece on this because I really don't want to stray too close to conspiracy territory, especially when we could have had a card or two more ourselves, but the incident cannot be ignored and it will be interesting to see if there is a citing.



HARPIN' POINTS


I don't really want to be reminded of the 2019 Champions Cup final, but if you'll recall we then also had a 10 point lead only to make a critical error before the break and for all that is said about yellow cards and late drama, I actually believe we have to look at our own lack of accuracy on an important exit if we are to take anything from this game.


And speaking of taking things from the game, let's not forget that bonus point which, by my calculations, virtually assures us the inaugural URC Irish Shield, and also makes our task of finishing 1st on the "log" a whole lot easier in our remaining two matches.


On the team we selected for this one, I reckon these tweets pretty much sum up where I stand overall. Plus the word from the injury update seems all good - Kelleher's withdrawal was just a precaution and with James Ryan back training, Ryan Baird now also seems close which means we could well be at virtually full strength for that all important trip to Welford Road.


When it comes to who impressed me on the day, well if we'd pulled off the victory I'd have probably gone for Ciaran Frawley as PotM. Tommy O'Brien was close with his try and other stand out moments but Frawley's poise was really impressive, so much so that I'm wondering if he's not better suited to a 10 role. I know that doesn't speak well for Harry, who was good on occasion here, but with his 12 taking the placekicks I reckon it's a fair observation.


In the pack, Jack Dunne impressed at lock and like I said our lineout was mostly good. The hope is that we can bring the experience forward to next week and put in a similar 80 minutes of punching above the weight of the collective experience levels.


Finally for this section a nod to the rise and rise of the South African sides in the URC - it was great to talk to AP Cronje about in on the pod last week and they really do seem to have come good since the start of the year and look set to feature heavily in the final playoff picture.


WHAT'S NEXT


What's next for Leinster is a massive 1st v 2nd clash in Cape Town against the Stormers, who stand to provide an even bigger challenge for us than the Sharks. Like I say with the Leicester Tigers on the horizon, some big selection decisions will need to be made, but there's also the levels of preparation and on-field decision making we saw in Durban to look out for and it promises to be a fascinating battle.


During the week I plan to assemble another Leinster Fan Panel on the podcast to discuss the tour and other topical issues, be sure to look out for it as well as all our usual coverage before and after the match on Saturday. JLP


Click here for a selection of online comments after the full time whistle


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