September 25, 2014
After making up for a really poor performance in Glasgow with a very convincing and entertaining win over the Scarlets in the RDS Leinster slipped up on the road again last week. Galway has never been an easy place for Leinster teams to go, but with so many internationals in the squad and a heavy defeat 2 years ago this was a game they were expected to win. And they seemed to go about it the right way in the first half only to be let down by their performance in the second. But was it that simple?
Leinster named 9 internationals in the starting XV with another 3 on the bench. McGrath, Cronin, Toner, Heaslip, Madigan, McFadden and Rob Kearney were the big names to take the field with Healy and D'Arcy the big names in the replacements. There was real strength there and it was almost an identical squad that beat the Scarlets 6 days before. This should have brought with it consistency and momentum. In the opening quarter Leinster were totally dominant and went out to a 9 point lead after 16 minutes. But that was to be the only scores from the boys in blue on the day. For the remaining 25 or so minutes of the first half Leinster remained the dominant side and even had a man advantage for 10 minutes. Yet they could not get on the scoreboard.
It was not for a lack of effort mind you. Twice the TMO was called into action and twice he called for a try not to be awarded. He was right on both occasions. Leinster were denied by a stern Connacht defence and inaccuracies of their own. But Leinster also created other opportunities that they couldn't convert. In the below image you can see a Leinster set play off the back of a scrum. The scrum looked to be put under big pressure from Connacht, but infact it did exactly what it needed to do. It wheeled just enough to force the Connacht backrow in-field, but not enough to be penalised. Meanwhile Heaslip picked from the base and went in-field himself. Reddan and the Connacht defence all went with him. When Heaslip released to Reddan the scrum-half threw a long ball back across the back of the scrum.
You can see here that Leinster had stacked the blindside with Gopperth and 4 outside backs. Connacht only had Henshaw and Adeolokun. This was a perfect opportunity, but Leinster needed to be accurate. Unfortunately Reddans pass wasn't and Henshaw read the move well. He came out of the line at serious pace and made an impressive hit on Gopperth. You can see how it panned out in the below GIF. Gopperth had to stop and collect the ball over his head giving him no chance against the oncoming Henshaw.
Big hits like this lift a team and supporters, and you could hear on the night the crowds reaction to the tackle. It also puts the attacking team on the back foot and can be incredibly frustrating. It wasn't the only big tackle that Connacht made on the night, with Kearney and Cronin and the end of a couple themselves. Connacht had those moment that lifted the side and their support littered throughout the game. Leinster on the other hand just failed to execute with the required precision too regularly. As a result they only led 3-9 at the break.
At half time I, as a Leinster supporter, was still reasonably happy with how the game was going. Leinster were dominant in every aspect of play and had narrowly missed out on 2 tries. Had they kept doing what they were doing then the scores were bound to come. Weren't they? In retrospect the fact that they couldn't score in that 25 minute period is what ultimately cost them the game. Connacht were still in it at half-time and their belief was growing. There's lots of talk about "small margins" in the game these days and you simply need to take your scores when they are on offer. Had they gone in at the break 3-16 then the game would have been, in all reality, won.
They didn't though, and the second half told a very different tale from the first. All the control and dominance that Leinster showed in the first 40 seemed to vanish. As the half wore on Leinster players began to panic and force things. Where-as in the first half the breakdown work was strong, in the second we simply weren't protecting our ball properly.
Murray Kinsella did yet another great piece on the Connacht defence here. You can see in the line speed section a little over halfway down a few examples of Connacht turnovers (the second and third GIFs in the section). Connacht had a man commit to the chop and another ready to get over the ball when the carrier went to deck. In both cases there were 2 things that stood out. First is that there was no possibility for an offload. Leinster were looking to take the contact. That meant that the second man didn't have to commit to the tackle to prevent an offload. The second is that in both occasions the ruck support simply wasn't good enough. Connacht were getting a forward in over the ball and Leinster had just 1 player, winger and full-back respectively, clearing out. It took a second or two for any more support to arrive and at that stage the penalty for holding on had been conceded.
Leinster just did not seem to be at the races at all in that second half. But credit to Connacht. Any other season this is a game they would have lost. They'd have found a way to give it up. The single biggest change we can see from them this season is that they are starting to win these games. They still aren't happy with their performances, but they are getting the results. With the likes of Aki and Muliaina still to come into the side this bodes well for their season. They worked incredibly hard and were well drilled defensively. They also tok the only chance that came their way, unlike Leinster who spurned multiple chances. They were the better team over the 80 and fully deserved their win.
Leinster now have a home clash against Cardiff this evening to get back on track. Cardiff have an incredibly poor record in Dublin over the years, even with their star players. There seems to be a real malaise about their approach to this fixture. In many ways it's the ideal fixture to turn things around. Leinster have made numerous changes and Cardiff have selected their strongest side so far this season, with Warburton making his season debut. Leinsters back-row is lacking a real jackler with the absence of O'Brien and Jennings. This could prove problematic against a Cardiff back-row that are going to be very strong over the ball. I'd expect a big game from Ruddock in particular, who needs to ensure that Leinster get good, clean and quick ruck ball by clearing out with extreme prejudice. Leinster are favourites to win by 18 points. Given the sides history in this fixture that seems fair, but given Leinsters injuries and current form I can see it being a much tighter affair.
Leinster need a performance and a win this evening, both required in equal measure. It's time to get this season on track and with Munster at home next week we can't afford any more slip ups this side of the Autumn Internationals.