One of those matches which would might both disappoint and bore the pants off the "casual" Leinster fan, yet for those of us who follow them week in week out (ah who am I kidding, it's more like minute in, minute out) this was probably our most enjoyable and impressive performance in defeat since, well, last week.
I had to check the old Harpin archives to see the last time Leinster dropped two in a row in this competition...I make it April 27, 2019 when we lost 14-13 in Belfast having already secured top seed - we had fallen to Glasgow the previous round (with a draw against Benetton and defeat in Edinburgh before that, for those keeping score).
But leave it to us to be the ones to actually clinch first place in the URC with these results, and to be fair, they most certainly did not feel like defeats in the strictest sense of the word!
For just like the previous week, the matchday squads on paper, the form book, the pundits, even the preview by this blue-goggled blogger, all pointed to a relatively comfortable home win, and the losing margin in Durban would definitely be surpassed by a lot more than two points.
There is no doubt at all Leinster could have won both games. Last week, it was mostly down to some costly errors on our part, particularly in discipline. This week, while we did have similar issues on that front, I'd argue that what actually kept us from having a shot at winning was a failure to punish both sides evenly.
I'll let our latest TikTok video make my case....
Now to the 80 minutes...after a graphics fail by the broadcasters getting his photo wrong, Ciaran Frawley wearing 10 on his back got things going at the DHL Stadium...
...and with just 34 seconds on the clock, Stormers centre Ruhan Nel was diving over the line for the game's opening try.
The kickoff had gone to their winnger Leolin Zas who, in line with his franchise's famed attacking nature, offloaded as he was tackled to his other centre Damien Willemse and he proceeded to tear up the touchline into space. Once stopped, it was quickly shipped across the pitch where full back Warrick Gelant surged through a gap before putting Nel through.
Yeah, about that gap...we moaned a lot about TMOs last week and originally the same guy Marius Jonker was meant to be in the booth for this one, only for a change to be made for some reason and instead Ben Crouse got the gig. Between himself and referee Craig Evans, a block by Deon Fourie on Rory O'Loughlin was spotted and the try was chalked off.
Not long after that we had our own first attacking opportunity and looked lively ourselves with Frawley the one offloading out of the tackle but the real takeaway from the opening 15 minutes was that tries were hard to come by with full teams on the park, so it was mostly a battle for territory. We also had a couple of scrums in this time, an understandable pre-match concern for Leinster, which seemed to go really well.
Unfortunately one of those successful Leinster scrums, right at our own 22, was followed by a penalty at the next breakdown which was right under the posts allowing Libbok to put the home side into a 3-0 lead.
Yet as often is the case, Leinster found a way to strike back immediately and shortly after the kickoff it was the home side's turn to go off their feet at the breakdown and Frawley had the chance to equalize. Straight from next restart following that score, he was to get another chance after skipper Rhys Ruddock charged out of the 22 into the Stormers half before his tackle failed to release him in time.
Just like that we had a 6-3 lead.
The scoreboard remained unchanged for the remainder of the half but that doesn't mean this portion was uneventful. Not only did the Stormers receive their warning on the half hour for too many penalties that was never brought further, but it is also a passage of time I'd like to call "The Alex Soroka Quarter".
Despite finishing on the losing side he was deservedly named Player of the Match and he was definitely heavily involved for the entire 80 minutes (even after the final whistle as I'll show later) but during this particular spell he had a few critical involvements.
First of all we were put under pressure straight from the exit after going up 6-3 when Cormac Foley's clearance was blocked before thankfully bouncing into touch. Still, it was a real pressure situation having already had an overthrown lineout and Soroka was the one chosen to catch the dart which he did and the systems worked well enough for us to clear.
However an offside penalty quickly has us back in our own 22 again and this time it was a Stormers throw - and with their powerful backline a clean take really could have spelled danger for us, only for Soroka to be the one leaping into the air and swatting back the ball for his side. Foley did well also tidying up and a high tackle penalty meant we had a chance to clear our lines.
We weren't doing great with our own opportunities, like when both wires and lifters were crossed at our own attacking lineout in their 22, but the principal feature of this passage of play is the the famed Leinster defensive structure with its line speed and double tacklers snuffing out the attackers every time.
And the Stormers did all they could to make the most of their home advantage, now spurning kicking opportunities for further lineouts and mauls and such, but again it was Soroka leaping and disrupting allowing Leinster to clear more danger - then on the next similar situation it was the turn of Josh Murphy to play spoiler as he swam through a maul to slow them down.
The pair of scrum penalties on Clarkson's side in this portion of the match were definitely a concern, but even after Jamie Osborne's massive left boot put a bit too much on a kick giving the Stormers one final opportunity, we gave them nowhere to go until a pass went straight to Frawley and we quickly ended the half.
WHAT A FIRST HALF!!!!!— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) April 30, 2022
Not many would say that about a 6-3 score but this defensive nerd certainly will. Leinster's XV laser focused on snuffing out the Stormers' threats. Need to hold out another 40 plus make more of our own chances but v happy so far.#STOvLEI #URC
You can see in the TikTok video what happened right after the break with the warning and the John McKee yellow, and from that penalty the Stormers wisely opted to go for scrums to force us into a front row substitution yet while this deal lead to a try, our 14 men didn't exactly make it easy for them and when Gelant went over it was right in the corner, making Libbok's conversion difficult enough for him to push it wide.
A loose pass then allowed Libbok to gather and gave the Stormers the open field broken play they had been craving since the first minute but while their winger Senatla did get the ball down, again right in the corner, we were once again thankful for the TMO recognizing the amazing efforts of Rob Russell to stop him.
Then Senatla did manage to get their second try thanks to the extra man, though it was once more right in the corner which led to a missed conversion, and it was also right at the end of the sin binning which, all things considered, meant 10 points shipped in this spell was decent enough damage limitation.
Could this inexperienced Leinster XV find a way back? Funny I should ask...
A strip tackle by Rory O'Loughlin at midfield led to the scrum from which Cormac Foley put us on the front foot as you can see in the video...the penalties we were winning were all kickable yet we still showed no hesitation in going for the corner, which we eventually backed up with Ed Byrne, aided by Soroka, getting the ball down.
The try came just before the 60m mark so I'll harp on the conversion in this section because it was nailed by Harry Byrne, now on the park for Adam Byrne with Frawley moving to 12, and I gave him a bit of stick last week so he rightly deserves some kudos for these two points which went a long way to earning us that precious match point.
And Harry was of course also involved in the incident with Evan Roos shortly after this...I promise this is the last time I'll refer to the video but it's worth mentioning that if this match was enough for us to get two yellows, then the home side should have had at least one. Still, putting that protest aside, it can still be spun as a positive in that it was clear our dogged defending had gotten under their skin.
We managed to clear our lines from that Roos penalty, only to make that really frustrating mistake at the lineout yet again when our lifters got caught offside in front of the catcher, which put us right back on the defensive again, and this time our maul D was no match for the home side who powered their way to what turned out to be the match winning try, with no conversion necessary of course.
But let's remind ourselves of the match situation at this stage. We've just gone 7 points down, plus a man down for ten minutes, far, far from home, with a squad short on caps against arguably the best South African URC side a full strength.
That we saw out the not only the 10-minute spell a man short but also the rest of the match without conceding, not out of luck but with composure and dare I say even comfort, stands as testimony to the quality of talent and coaching we have at the province right now. This matchday squad was fully prepared for what was coming at them, and what's more they had the ability to execute that preparation.
Sure, we fell short in the end, and sure, there were frustrating moments like those blocking penalties at lineouts, but overall it was a second consecutive 80-minute display that can only be met with immense pride from all fans.
And we really did have to go right to the very end, with a Stormers scrum on the halfway line with the clock gone red, and I dare anyone to say we did not fully deserve the nod from the referee in being awarded the penalty at that point.
On the decision to kick the ball dead, I absolutely 100% agree it was the right call. Not only were we protecting our own bonus point, we were denying the club right behind us one too which would lock down 1st place on the "log" for us. But there was to be one final image of note to capture - Alex Soroka asking why we chose to take the points. You don't get to play sport at this level if you don't have an intolerance for losing so while the decision was right in the grand scheme of things, you have to love to see the desire to have another go. Player of the Match indeed.
Not a whole lot more to go over here, covered pretty much everything above and in the video, though as well as Soroka it's important to note there were fine displays from several "fringe" players from the squad like Foley, Osborne, McKee, Dunne and from other more established names like Penny and O'Loughlin. Though in terms of making it to our European squad this season I reckon it's only Ruddock & Frawley in strong contention.
However, one point I will make is that even though we did not bring our "elite" squad, the way this match transpired set up the possibility of this developing into an organic rivalry this competition badly needs similar to that we had with the Ospreys back in the early "onesies". Having us meet in the playoffs certainly wouldn't hurt that development.
So, first place secured, we now get to turn our attention from chasing Sharks and Stormers to chasing that fifth star. Really looking forward to next Saturday although I wish I was travelling. Anyway, you can at least be sure we will be giving the top of Premiership v top of URC battle the full Harpin treatment, including interviews with a Leicester Tigers fan on the podcast so stay tuned for all of that. JLP