"Leinster till I die".
That's what we say when the season is over for our team, and as I sit to write this, I realise I hadn't said it yet on social media, possibly out of a sense of denial.
And I know many take that denial to be born out of hubris, as if Leinster fans think we have some kind of divine right to win these big matches. Well, if that's how they see us, it's only because they want to because anyone who follows these pages will know that's far from the case.
Our favourites tag for both this match and the HCC final were totally justified, though if anything I had to quibble with the expected margin of victory from the bookies. The thing is, no matter what has gone before, you still have to go out and get the job done and besides, the more success you've had throughout the season, the more likely opponents are going to find a specific way to beat you.
Naturally there has been a host of "expert" opinion online since the final whistle, most of it absolute BS, and come to think of it this probably also helped me forget my "LTID" proclamation. We all know that feeling right after a gut-wrenching loss, and it won't take much to get you triggered, especially when you follow a team over 90% of other fans want to lose.
Yet reasons must still be found, and I'm glad I had a day or two to mull it over before I sat down to do this. And after all my soul searching I can't really start in any other place than the team selection.
Obviously I don't think I'm the first to say this - many have gone down the "Johnny should have started" route, but I actually think it's more than that. With all due respect to those in our matchday 23 for this match, I have to say I was disappointed that we didn't pick as close to our Marseille side as we possibly could, because that is effectively our "elite" side.
Particularly after what happened against La Rochelle, I kind of took it for granted that we would be able to hand that exact same selection an opportunity to make up for it - maybe it wasn't required against Glasgow last week, but certainly for the URC final four and beyond.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that perhaps there has been too much "New Zealand Tour" in our lineups for the past couple of weeks, although I wouldn't mean that as a dig at the province nor even the IRFU if that were true, it's more about the crazy stop start nature of the European calendar on which I have been harping for years.
Because this is far from the first time we have been in many ways victims of our own success. None of the other three URC semifinalists had any European involvement beyond the last 16. I know this is far from a valid excuse for Leinster because we've been in similar situations before, like the 2011 and 2012 league finals, and actually in 2018 it didn't phase us at all, so we should be able to handle it. But I still believe someone needs to point that out and it might as well be me!
All that said, the 23 we put out at the RDS still should have been able to do better than they did. We would have known a Jake White side was going to come to our backyard determined to overcome all the perceived disadvantages and put it up to us, and we should have been able to respond well enough to find the extra couple of points required to get the job done, yet we didn't.
So I guess I've stalled for long enough, time to go through the 80 minutes and harp on what happened...
The Dublin weather all day and throughout the match was absolutely insane. One minute you looked like a fool if you had an umbrella, the next you looked like a fool without one. I'm not sure if that affected the crowd numbers or not, yet although the stands at either end were far from full, there certainly was plenty of enthusiasm from the blue flag-waving faithful from start to finish.
Our guests showed early intent by putting a high ball exit after the kickoff with Tambwe the intended receiver and he came very close to getting it only to knockon and then the Bulls were pinged for offside which meant we had some early ball deep in their 22.
The lineout was good and the maul brought us close to their line but after a double digit series of phases we couldn't breach the Bulls line and eventually it was "yoinked" from Henshaw in the tackle under the posts by Zak Burger and cleared.
Play went back and forth for the next few minutes and although Bulls fullback Moodie made up for a botched territory kick that skidded along the ground by smashing his opposite number Jimmy O'Brien at the other end of it, the Leinster man recovered and this time Ross Byrne bypassed the blitzing blue bulle with a grubber through that seemed destined for Rory O'Loughlin.
It took a bounce away from him at the last second but still fell kindly enough for Dan Sheehan to show some silky soccer skills by nudging it enough for him to gather and drag it over for the game's opening score.
Definitely a good way for us to settle into the contest but the Bulls soon got their own chance when a penalty for not rolling away allowed Chris Smith to put three points on their side of the scoreboard, and when Johan Grobelaar jackled a penalty at midfield, the visitors had their first big attacking position in the 17th minute.
It was this attacking set where I first started to worry. After the lineout the Bulls went carry after carry into our 22 in which they easily won the collision, something Leinster fans certainly haven't been used to seeing. It then looked like Moodie had dotted down until the TMO showed "clear separation" so it was called back, although there was an advantage for offside.
And from the penalty the gargantuan Elrigh Louw looked like he was going to carry the tap n go from 5m out but it was cleverly switched inside to Grobelaar who went the other way and over, giving them a 10-7 lead to end the first quarter.
Things started to go from bad to worse right from the kickoff as this time their high exit kick was knocked on by Jimmy O'Brien and although Chris Smith was under no pressure kicking the ball ahead, the ref judged that he still had advantage so they went back for the scrum. From the set piece they got into our half where ROL got pinged for not rolling away which meant they were back deep in our 22 again after a superb wind-defying kick from Smith.
Again they brought the big carries and although Joe McCarthy pulled off a decent counter ruck he came out on one side of the ruck while the ball came out on the other and with the Leinster D stacked on that side, Marcell Coetzee found a gap under the posts to dive over. Just like that we were ten points down.
We did well to force a knock on from the restart and then win a penalty but after getting a warning from an earlier scrappy lineout we were lucky to recover, this one was the first of many which we were to lose so badly you'd swear the opposition had our our lineout calls as reading material on the flight north.
Then there was an incident involving referee Andrea Pirardi that's worth noting - first he was poorly positioned and got in the way of a JGP pass, then he let the Bulls play on for a few seconds, and finally after stopping play he first indicated a scrum for them. I don't relate this to mock him, more to show that pressure gets to all of us on big occasions.
From the scrum followed some kick tennis before Ruan Notje was pinged for blocking as his teammate Tambwe was looking for a gap and we had another chance at their 22.
Here our skipper took the lineout cleanly and in between two penalty advantages on the subsequent phases, a lovely reverse offload from Henshaw created some space for us to get it within 5m of their line until the centre followed it up with the final carry to get the ball over. Ross Byrne nailed the extras and it was a three point game again.
For me a pivotal moment in the contest came at the end of the first half, right as the heavens opened over the RDS for the only time while the match was actually in progress. We had a scrum inside our own half and a massive shove won us a penalty which we dispatched to touch at their 22.
Sheehan's dart was caught by Caelan Doris just after the clock went red and we rolled through some phases around the 22 until it was pilfered in the tackle by that man Grobelaar again allowing them to clear. Even three points at that stage would have been a real boost going into the "sheds" but again our tendency to favour quick ball over better breakdown protection led to a turnover that (eventually) saw the end of the half.
What a first half. Good start from Leinster but Bulls look menacing with the ball and made the most out of visits to 22. We came back well but we'll have to take our chances. Literally anything can happen from here, both on the pitch and from heavens above! #LEIvBUL— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) June 10, 2022
As the teams came out for the second half, so did the sun, but it was the worst possible start when our hero from that second Leinster try Robbie Henshaw inexplicably knocked on after the restart giving the Bulls a scrum 10m from our line.
However what followed was an heroic defensive stand from what was still the Leinster starting XV, having clearly made some halftime adjustments after all the first half gainline concessions, keeping out the rampaging Bulls for 18 phases until Joe McCarthy was judged to have jackled a penalty (maybe with a bit of help from Doris on the deck tbf) but the net result was a massive morale booster that almost felt like points on the board the way things had gone.
But defensive stands weren't enough, we were still behind on the scoreboard so we needed to find points down the other end and during a period of play when we have buried many an opponent in this league before, we had no answer for the Bulls' own set up without the ball, with sloppy lineouts, knock ons and scrum penalties halting our progress over and over.
It was one of those scrum penalties, on their own 22, which began their march towards restoring daylight between us. With our own lineout struggling, theirs produced a strong maul into our 22 and after a high tackle penalty put them even closer, they of course went for another maul which was hurtling towards our try line.
The ref had already awarded a penalty advantage as it was in full flight but when it came crashing down just before the line, he must have seen it as a second offence because now he was going under the posts for a penalty try, with James Ryan judged to be the culprit which meant he also went to the naughty step.
So ten points and a man down, our skipper at kickoff time no less, on came our club captain Johnny Sexton. However while his class and experience, with all due respect to Ross of course, clearly would have benefitted us earlier as I have already said, there are some areas where he can't contribute.
Before I get to our worst phase for lineouts, we had one very lucky incident where Jimmy O'Brien took way too long clearing his lines which allowed their centre Vorster to come in to block, and the ball seemed to roll perfectly into his path only for the earlier rain to have made the surface just greasy enough to bring him down allowing JOB to tidy up.
Yet there's no avoiding it any longer - from the awarding of the yellow card to the end of the match, the lineout set piece on which we rely so heavily for our success, having done poorly enough in the first half although there were some clean takes, now capitulated altogether, whether Ryan was involved or not.
I say that about Ryan because we lost a couple while he was off the pitch then clicked one just after he returned, but having another massive opportunity from 5m out, it didn't matter where we were throwing it, there was someone like Swanepeol or Nortje ready to bat it back to their grateful scrum half.
Often I have said we need to be smarter when the chips are down against us in a certain area, and in fact, against South African sides this season we HAVE been, against the Sharks in Durban when we were being mulched in the scrums yet held on to a losing BP on the strength of brave calls on our own put in.
Surely we had some kind of play to defy those towering South African jumpers, like a high arc over the top or a toss to the front then back to the hooker? Adapting is key in matches like this and we were absolutely found wanting when it mattered. And as if to show us just how much that lineout accuracy was missed, one that clicked gave us a glimmer of hope.
We had just seen a pair of amazing high ball chases, one from Sexton to Ringrose, the other from sub scrum half Papier to Tambwe, but after the later one the winger ran into his own man to get pinged for crossing giving us a lineout 10m in their half.
This one worked a treat, with Molony supplying one off the top to McGrath who had replaced JGP. The passes through the backline were crisp enough to ensure when Henshaw sent one back inside to Larmour in full flight, he found a gap that put him towards the 22 and with Ringrose in support, it went on to JOB and finally ROL for the Try of the Match (not much consolation I know but it really was!)
Unfortunately Sexton couldn't tame the breeze from the touchline for the extra points but there was plenty of optimism around the RDS that we could close the gap even further in the last ten minutes.
Also unfortunately, much like the closing stages against La Rochelle, we couldn't manage to buy our way our of our own half during a spell when it mattered the most, and before long we found ourselves under immense pressure in our own 22 until an heroic steal from James Ryan got it back and when Sexton sent a little dink out of the 22 perfectly into the path of JOB, something really special definitely looked on. But much like the Dublin weather that day, things changed completely the other way in an instant.
Before I say what happened next, I have to talk about just how amazing Ross Molony has been all season. The very definition of an unsung hero and every Leinster fan knows this. His workrate, his intelligence, his strength, his attitude, have been through the roof since the season kicked off and anyone who worried about us losing out in those areas after Scott Fardy left, needn't have.
I say all of that here because it was his knock on and subsequent grab of the ball on the deck shortly after JOB's catch which allowed Morné "Mr Clutch" Steyn kick the three points which put them two scores ahead once more. I have to relay those facts because this is a writeup, but I hate doing it because I don't believe it takes anything away from Ross' overall contribution to our season.
When we restarted there was 76m on the clock and although Henshaw bullied his way to regathering the restart and we fought right to the bitter end with a Cian Healy try after the clock went red, it was still sadly a very bitter end to our 2021/22 campaign.
That the Player of the Match award went to someone wearing a red scrum cap would have been no surprise to those who didn't watch, but it may have raised an eyebrow that it wasn't JVDF. Certainly nobody who watched the 80 minutes could complain about it going to Grobelaar, he was immense although it was the overall approach of the Pretoria based side that did for us.
I actually think our last three results actually sum up perfectly what our task is for the future when it comes to winning trophies. We lost two major knockout games, by a combined total of four points. In between, we won a match by over sixty.
With these South African sides now in the European mix as well, if there's some way of sacrificing a few of those tries against Glasgow so that we can get them when required elsewhere, we need to do it. I know that's a lot easier said than done, but while a few eejits were pointing fingers at our coaching staff afterwards, I still firmly believe we have the tactical capacity to work it out.
But that is for discussions down the line. The more general narrative that needs addressing is just how much the league has benefitted from the addition of these clubs and I can't wait to watch the final. It certainly may not have looked that way back at the start of the campaign when we comfortably dispatched these very same Bulls, but it's clear to see they've proved their worth and then some at the business end.
Nothing until next season sadly, though it will be interesting to see how we set about replacing Dr Phil, I'm hearing some interesting rumours about it that I hope come true.
But after expressing so much disappointment over two results throughout this writeup, I can't go any further without also showing overall gratitude for a season which may not have silverware, but was still one that the vast majority of clubs around Europe would envy.
Leinster. Till. I. Die.
I can imagine some saying on seeing the above heading : "I thought Leinster WAS Ireland" ha ha ha...but seriously, we have set ourselves quite the task in going down to New Zealand for three tests on the tail end of a long season. If we can recapture our general form from November and the Six Nations, we should give a decent account of ourselves. But some might say that's a pretty big "if", we'll have to see.
Also there are a couple of "midweek" matches against the Maori ABs to check out how the players are doing, and that's still not all of it...the Grand Slam winning "Wolfpuppies" have a few more stern tests ahead of them as well so plenty to look forward to over the next month or so.
...for Harpin' On Rugby?
Well, my choice of "Business End" as a title was for different reasons. We are of course at the business end of the season, the loss means the end of Leinster's business, but there's a third one - this is possibly my last Leinster writeup under this format, one I have followed for well over a decade now.
Hopefully that doesn't sound TOO dramatic - I'm certainly not winding up the online shenanigans altogether, just planning on some changes for next season's coverage. I'll take a week or so off for the time being but I'll be back to do Ireland writeups and all the usual coverage for the three tests against New Zealand and I will tell you more about my overall plans by the time the preseason has begun.
It goes without saying but I'll say it anyway...doing these writeups has been an honour, and mostly because of the feedback I've been getting from you the readers; even when it hasn't been good feedback it has always been constructive, so many thanks to all of those who have followed my scribblings over the years and indeed to the province itself for all its support throughout another amazing season. Bring on the next one. JLP