October 25, 2014
The old cliché in European rugby is that, despite form, injuries or opposition, you must win your home games. Leinster started their European season at home to Wasps on a run of inconsistent form and with plenty of injuries. Wasps had been performing well in the Aviva Premiership, having beaten Northampton and Bath in recent weeks. They may not be Saracens or Toulon, but they are a good side at the moment. So the win was a good one overall, but just how good?
Leinster came into this fixture with a huge injury list and during the week Matt O'Connor had vocalised his frustrations with being unable to train with match day combinations as a result. Yet again Mike Ross and Rob Kearney were left out despite there being hope that they would return, and you could nearly make a full XV of injured players. This significantly weakened the Leinster squad that took the field. Wasps themselves lost captain and talisman James Haskell due to illness prior to kick-off though which was a big boost to the home side.
Leinster started the game well and showed the kind of intensity that had been missing from performances like the Munster game. They kept things tight and were actually quite narrow on attack. Players looked to come back inside on the angle and they were making real inroads in doing so. Leinster pushed on to the Wasps line and the visitors ended up conceding a penalty for off-side. Leinster took their 3 and got on the scoreboard, but had laid down an early marker. They had made ground at will and were knocking on the door. It was a very encouraging start to the game.
But the errors started to creep in again. After a very good kick from Goode to the corner (a tactic which Leinster haven't utilised much this season, but could do well to every so often) Leinster lost their put in to the line-out 5m from their own line. This is pretty unforgivable stuff and in the end Leinster were lucky to just concede the 3 points. A few minutes later poor ruck protection allowed Wasps to clear their lines after Leinster had battled their way into the Wasps 22. A crooked throw from the resulting line-out gave Wasps possession on the half way line. Wasps were going nowhere off the back of the scrum but a silly penalty from Toner for going in the side then gave Wasps a platform inside Leinsters 22. They went to the line-out maul, but this time Toner came through the middle of the maul legally and disrupted incredibly well. Eventually the ball became unplayable and Leinster won the turnover.
Leinster were able to clear their lines and shortly after orchestrate a line break from Ruddock. The blindside showed great pace and strength to make the ground he did down the right touchline and not get brought out of play. However again the ensuing ruck was simply not resourced adequately and Wasps turned over ball again. Another penalty for not rolling away gave Wasps the lead when Goode slotted the penalty. But it was incredibly frustrating to see this continual issue of under-resourced rucks becoming such an issue in yet another game.
After Wasps were pinged for a high tackle on Madigan and Reddan took the quick tap Leinster looked to put width on the ball rather than sticking with what had been working (narrow line with runners coming back against the grain). Leinster had been looking to use the inside ball again a few times, which had backfired badly against Munster. There were variations on it early on where Leinster had 2 runners (Darce and Mads) available to take that inside ball, but it was still far too predictable and easy to defend against. And players were playing far too flat to the gain line at times as well which made things easier on the Wasps defensive line, but also harder on the Leinster attack. Cronins knock on early in the first half was as a result of Gopperth expecting him to be deeper than he was. Both of these combined to hand Wasps a 7 pointer. An obvious inside ball and Fanning being slightly too flat allowed Alapati Leiua pick the pass from Reid off and he wasn't going to be caught from there. Two intercepts in three games is just not good enough for a top side and Leinster will need to review their use of the inside ball if they are to prevent this from happening again.
By this point in the game Leinster had effectively handed momentum to Wasps, who were performing competently but not creating a huge amount. Shortly after the Leiua try Leinster were yet again turned over from a ruck that wasn't adequately protected. The home side desperately needed something to get themselves back into the game. Cue Jamie Heaslip. A big carry from the captain that got through a couple of tacklers put Leinster on the front foot. Gopperth took the ball on and the call came in from Fanning for the kick leading to a try in the corner. Leinster weren't able to convert but Leinster were back to within 5.
This should have settled Leinster down in the same way that the opening 3 points should have. Instead Wasps still had momentum and Leinster, when they had the ball, were going wide and getting sloppy. Quite why Leinster didn't continue with what had been working well in the opening 10-15 minutes I don't know. Just after the half hour Wasps went wide off a maul and Leinster got sucked into midfield. This gave speedster Christian Wade the time and space he needed and boy did he make full use of it. Goode converted the try and Leinster found the Fanning try wiped out and more.
After the restart Dominic Ryan managed to win a vital turnover and Leinster went back to the tight, against the grain game again. And again they started making yards at will. Cronin was held up over the line and Leinster won a penalty from the resulting scrum. Last season Heaslip would have gone for the line and backed the set piece. However on this occasion he made the call to go for the posts and Leinster went in at half time 11-20 down. This was absolutely the right call.
Leinster opened the second half the way they played in the middle quarter of the first. Looking to go wide, being sloppy and under-resourcing their rucks. Defensively they did well for the first few phases of Wasps ball, but the more phases the opposition put together the more fractured the Leinster defensive line got. For the first 10 minutes of the second period Leinster were still well off the pace of the game. However a Toner charge down of a Simpson box-kick followed by breaks from Cronin and Toner gave Leinster position in the red zone. Another strong Heaslip carry supported by D'Arcy and Toner in a massive clear-out allowed Fanning in for his second. Heaslip may have been central in both Leinster's tries to that point, but this one was all about Toner.
It was now just a one score game and when Goode missed touch from a penalty Cronin again made his presence felt in the loose with another break down the middle. A couple of phases later Ryan powered through the Wasps defense and stretched for the line. After what seemed like an extraordinary long time the try was awarded and Leinster went ahead for the first time 50 minutes.
However after this Leinster started to give up some soft penalties and Wasps started to dominate the scrum. Leinster struggled to impose themselves on a game where they were looking for the try bonus point score. Some of Leinster's decision making in this period was very poor. After D'Arcy made a good break up the middle of the park Boss went left where Kirchner was on his own and got bundled into touch. The Leinster scrum-half would have been better keeping it tight and building a few phases. A couple of minutes later Boss went down the blindside without support and was turned over. A few minutes after that there was an overlap on the left had the ball gone through the hands. This time it was Reid making the wrong decision by taking the contact. And then in the final minute of the game Leinster had a penalty. Going for the posts would have denied Wasps a losing bonus point, but instead Leinster went for the quick tap looking for the TBP. This resulted in a knock-on and the game was over.
So Leinster got the all important home win, but failed to get the TBP and also failed to send Wasps away with nothing. It was very much a stop-start performance from Leinster and they struggled to control the game over the course of the full 80. But with so many players missing due to injury Leinster were always going to struggle to impose themselves. The intensity levels were much improved and players like Jack McGrath, Toner, Ryan, Reddan, Gopperth and Madigan had very good games. Most importantly Heaslip and D'Arcy set the standard as the senior players in the side. Heaslip particularly was at the centre of everything that Leinster did. Sean Cronin, despite a poor day at the line-out, was excellent in the loose in the second half and Fanning continued his upward curve in a blue jersey. The only real cause for concern was Boss when he came on, who was slow and made a number of poor decisions when Leinster were chasing the bonus point.
However Leinster will need much more than that when they play Castres tomorrow. Luke Fitzgeralds return seems a bit premature and I'm not sure how wise it is to bring him back straight into the starting line-up into an away game in France. It's hardly going to be the easiest of environments. And selecting Boss to start despite his current form is also questionable. However Castres have had a torrid time of it lately. They lie third from bottom in the Top14 and club captain Remes Tales recently announced that he would be leaving for Racing at the end of the season leading to the captaincy being stripped from him. Tomorrow they will be missing Diarra and Kockett, two huge players for them. Diarra is on the bench but Kockett is injured so is missing entirely. They are talking a big talk at the moment and will certainly not lie down, but Leinster really should be targeting a win here. Hopefully they can build on the performance in the RDS and make it two from two.