February 18, 2015
As the game wasn't televised only those of us who attended got to see this one. And even at that while there was a feed for the big screens it didn't have any replays or a TMO, which for this level is pretty much unacceptable. And that certainly made for a number of calls that could have gone a different way had the ref the option of going upstairs. Not all of which would have been in Leinsters favour though, with a forward pass in the build up to Dave Kearney's try missed at the time. But the fact that such a fundamental part of the game was missing is a real black mark against a league that wants to be up there with the likes of the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14. Then there were the officials where there were more issues. They were pretty clearly out of their depth and at times some of the decisions were just downright baffling. Add to that the fact that Leinster lost 3 players to concussion in the opening 20-25 minutes (Strauss, Denton and Reid) and there were more than a few mitigating circumstances to the defeat. But do they excuse the result?
HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
We did an article on Leinsters game plan a couple of months ago (here) and all the elements were present on Sunday. The one that stood out the most in the opening 20-30 minutes though was the kicking game. As usual Leinster were kicking for territory, i.e. long, and coming up together as a defensive line rather than having hard running chasers. The problem Leinster were having was that they were so deep when they were kicking, generally inside their own 22, that the Dragons back three were able to field the ball comfortably and run it back to between Leinsters 10 and 22 metre lines. Leinster spent large amounts of the opening quarter or so inside their own half and this meant they had difficulty getting into scoring positions. Even with a man advantage for 10 minutes (after the Dragons number 8 saw yellow for an off the ball incident) Leinster were simply unable to find a score. It should also have meant that whenever they did get into scoring positions they should have looked to come away with points first and foremost, especially after the territory they conceded allowed the Dragons to get the opening score, a try from Pat Leach.
However when Dragons got their second yellow card and Leinster had the chance to go for the posts with a very kickable penalty to bring the game to 6-7 the call came in from the coaches to go for the corner. At this point there was only 24 minutes gone in the game. Leinster could have slotted that penalty and still had 9 minutes or so of the sin bin period to go looking for another score to take the lead. Instead they went for the try and a few phases later they conceded a breakdown penalty to allow Dragons to clear their lines. Leinster then found themselves just inside the Dragons half defending a line-out, no score on the board and precious minutes of the sin bin gone. Serious questions need to be asked about that decision from the sidelines because it was quite simply the wrong one. Gopperth slotted a penalty on 30 minutes but this was 6 minutes later than it should have come and not getting anything immediately after the sin binning only served to let the Dragons know that they were in with a shout of winning the game.
Dragons dominated the first half and were well deserving of their lead at the break having the only try on the board and been held up over the line just after the half hour mark. By comparison I can't recall a single real try scoring opportunity from Leinster in that 40 minutes at all and unforced errors littered their display. The rain came down just as the second half was kicking off but Leinster took the bull by the horns in the opening minutes with their first real try scoring opportunity. Unfortunately McGrath was deemed to be held up when a pass out to McFadden would almost certainly have resulted in a try. Ben Te'o and Dave Kearney were starting to make their presence felt up the middle with a couple of great individual breaks but knock ons in slippery conditions let the side down repeatedly. Luke Fitzgerald spilling the ball on the try line after a Te'o break being the closest Leinster got to a try in that period. Gopperth and Prydie exchanged penalties in third quarter before another break from Te'o, who passed to scrum-half replacement John Cooney who himself put a nicely weighted kick down the line, led to a Dave Kearney try in the corner on 67 minutes. Gopperth missed the touchline conversion but Leinster held the lead for the first time in the game, 14-13.
From the restart McFadden collected the ball in touch, but the touch judge believed that Ferg had caught the ball before going into touch. Much to the consternation of those on the terrace who were right beside McFadden at the time. Instead of a Leinster scrum on half-way it was a Dragons line-out just outside the Leinster 22. Dragons went through a few phases and a dubious penalty under the sticks for not releasing was called against back row replacement van der Flier. Prydie easily slotted the 3 points and Leinster were again behind having only held the lead for 4 minutes. With 9 minutes to go however there was still time for Leinster to nick it, yet it was a Dragons attack in the closing minutes that looked most threatening. Again they nearly crossed the Leinster line but knocked on at a crucial time. Leinster cleared the ball and even managed to regain possession, but again only doing so in their own half. After making it into the Dragons half McCarthy lost the ball in contact which then went forward off Conans hand to end the game. It was always going to be a massive ask for Leinster to win it at that stage though and in truth they never really looked likely anyway.
Not only did Leinster put massive pressure on themselves with a lacklustre kicking game, but when going through the hands they were again one dimensional and predictable. The Dragons may have been offside a lot, but Leinster simply had little in the way of ideas in the back line. Even against 14 men they struggled to create space. In the 20 minutes when Leinster had the extra man they scored just the one penalty. That has to be a massive worry.
And when you look at the stats Leinster kicked slightly less, ran the ball more, made more passes, made more metres, made more clean breaks, beat more defenders, conceded less penalties, had a higher tackle completion rate and dominated the set piece. With those stats you'd assume Leinster had won the game. Leinster even had pretty much the same success rate at ruck time. Yet they managed to turn the ball over to the Dragons a whopping 17 times, mainly through unforced errors like knock ons. Other than that turnover stat Leinsters numbers were better than Dragons in every place except where it mattered.
It really is hard to fathom just how those stats tally with the result, but sadly they do. Leinster ceded the territory battle to the Dragons for the most part meaning the Dragons had to do less work for the points they scored than the home side did. And for my money that was primarily down to how Leinster kicked. For example Leinster had 20 line-outs in the game to Dragons 9, meaning Dragons kicked to touch more readily than Leinster did. Instead, as mentioned earlier, Leinster kicked long and allowed Dragons to run the ball back at them. This has been a tactic all season for Leinster and must be reviewed at this stage. Ireland have shown just how good a quality aggressive kick-chase can be for a side. And more creativity/variation must come into the back line play. Simply going wide fast or crashing it up the middle isn't working and has been nullified too often this season. In December O'Connor was able to fall back on the fact that Leinster were the highest try scorers in the league in defence of his approach, but since the end of November Leinster have struggled to cross the whitewash meaning they no longer hold that honour. And they have now fallen to fifth in the table with away trips to Ospreys and Scarlets to come before the end of the 6 Nations.
But lest it be all doom and gloom it should be noted that there were some good individual performances. Ben Te'o (numerous knock-ons in the wet aside) seems to be coming to terms with the code shift nicely. Dave Kearney was also very impressive from full-back and Luke Fitz looked lively again. I also thought Douglas put himself about very well over the 80 in a pretty physical display. The issue here doesn't seem to be individual talent or ability, but their preparedness for match conditions. The game plan and the execution were disappointing, but guys at times also showed what they could do as well.
Next up there is the small matter of Zebre in the RDS. At this stage a win of any kind will do. Thoughts of a TBP must be banished until the result is secured. Leinster have only won 1 of the 3 games they have played against the bottom 3 at this stage so they desperately need to sort that out. Everything else is secondary now. And with any luck a few internationals will be released back into the squad for game time which will hopefully improve the fortunes of the province this week. Still it is a nervy time for Leinster and their fans.....