Last Saturday saw the clash of two very different club models. The first was the highly expensive ‘galacticos’ model of Montpellier who have a very strong South African feel to them. Leinster, the home team have seen that they can’t afford the type of model that the French and English clubs have adopted and have instead relied on their Academy players.
Before the game, my main worry was the fact that Johnathan Sexton picked up an injury against Munster the week before. Johnny is one of the best outhalves in the world and it’s always a relief when his name is on the teamsheet. On top of this, O’Loughlin’s injury in the same game, meant that our backline looked rather callow.
The game started fast and had the crowd worried as Leinster were under intense pressure for the opening quarter. To make matters worse, it seemed to be a gameplan on the day for our exit-strategy kicks to remain in-field and usually kicked long to the most dangerous man on the field, Nodolo! However when we held on to the ball and got in to the ‘red-zone’, we took our chances with tries both times. The first was a beautifully worked try with Carbery accelerating into a gap and having the speed to beat Mogg to the corner. With Leinster being two tries up leading into half-time, things were looking comfortable. However just at the death, Montpellier had a 5 metre scrum, where Nodolo ran over with ease. This kept Montpellier in touch runningn down the tunnel for half-time.
The second half starting terrific pace again, this time with Leinster doing all the attacking. They got a fortunate try when Byrne’s crossfield kick was bounced off a few Montpellier defenders before Henshaw gathered and fell over the line. Soon afterwards Barry Daly scored a brilliant try when he raced down the touchline and showed great strength to ride two tackles and finish in the corner.
Leinster at this point should have closed the game off with a penalty or two to put them out of reach, however Montpellier with their star-studded side kept plugging away and got another try by Nodolo and penalty to get back within 7 points, with enough time on the board to have a stab at winning the game. When Adam Byrne got sent off for a deliberate knock-on, Montpellier should have scored a try. In fact they had a two on one overlap which they failed to convert in to a try. This eventually cost them, as they went on to lose the match but they do come away with a losing bonus point which may prove to be crucial as we near the end of the pool stages.
After months of not venturing out to the RDS to watch Leinster play, I couldn’t wait in the days leading up to the match to finally watch some live rugby again.
However despite my excitement and the general feeling of excitement of the crowd, the first half of the match quickly dampened this excitement. There were countless small errors on both sides, with the ball being spilt frequently. This was partly due to the wet grass, but also I suspect because of the players trying to get back in to the swing of things. The knock-ons from both sides lead to a very stop-start half where both sides struggled to build any sort of momentum. On top of this Nacewa was very fortunate to avoid a red card for a high-tackle which could have easily seen him going off for an early shower. Tracy managed to squeeze over from a maul for the only try of the first half.
The second half started where the second half left off, with errors still occurring from both sides. The Cardiff team defended doggedly and were proving very difficult to break down. However after 60mins, Leinster managed to find another gear. Croinin picked up a loose ball and raced past everyone (as only he can) to jot down. After this, Daly juggled magnificently from a cross-field kick to score in the corner and leave Leinster one try short of the bonus point. This duly arrived when a beautiful piece of play was finished by McCarthy. The try featured brilliant handling from forwards and backs and showcased some of the skills some of these Leinster players possess.
The bonus point and quick flurry at the end papered over a lot of the cracks in this performance. As to be expected, a lot of the players were very rusty after a summer break and this culminated in the first 60 minutes featuring numerous stoppages. However it was nice to deny Cardiff any tries and also to get the maximum return in terms of points. This means that Leinster have started the season with the maximum number of points in their opening two matches.
Next up will be very interesting as Leinster travel to South Africa to take on the two new teams in the Pro14. Leinster, it’s nice to have you back!
I traveled over to see the Leinster and Clermont semi-final over the weekend in Lyon. Although I’m still devastated by the result, we were treated to a brilliant spectacle of positive and exciting rugby. Unlike the other semi-final the day before, where Munster and Saracens played a largely boring pick and go style of play, this game had a really edge of your seat style rugby, with both teams attacking from anywhere on the field.
In front of an overwhelming number of their hugely passionate fans, Clermont came out and started with a blistering pace that Leinster quite simply couldn’t deal with. Leinster did themselves no favours by losing three early lineouts and failing to handle the breakdown, which led to Nacewa being sin-binned. This coupled with Clermont’s width, pace and accuracy meant that within the opening 20 minutes Leinster were 15-0 down. In this opening quarter Strettle made one try and scored the other himself, with Fritz Lee and Parra also having huge parts to play. This opening spell by Clermont ultimately led to Leinster having too much of a mountain to climb.
The only saving grace from the first half was that Leinster managed somehow to not concede any further scores for the rest of the half after that blitz in the first fifteen minutes. Leinster even salvaged a penalty to at least send us in to the tunnel with something on the board. Although it must be said that we were fortunate that Parra missed a conversion and an easy penalty (by his high standards). At halftime I was concerned that Leinster would be making the trip back to Dublin having not shown a decent account of themselves.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Right from the kickoff Leinster kept the ball in hand and began to build momentum and pressure. The whole team looked galvanized and began to find holes in what appeared to be a impenetrable defence in the first half. We managed to get three penalties back to back and got the scoreline back to 15-12. After this I really thought we’d done it when Dan Leavy went over. This would have been the first time Leinster would have taken the lead, but the TMO deemed that Leavy had held Rougerie in the buid-up to the move and the try was disallowed and Parra slotted the resulting penalty. This seemed to take the winds out of Leinster’s sails and then Lopez slotted a really nice drop goal to extend their lead.
Despite this, Leinster fought back and scored one of the best individual tries of the season through Garry Ringrose. He stepped two defenders before selling Spedding a dummy and racing to the line. It was a brilliant try and once again after the conversion gave Leinster a glimmer of hope. Another Lopez drop-goal extended the lead to 27-19 and moved it to a two-score game approaching the end. Despite this, Leinster fought back and Sexton slotted a sideline penalty to bring it within one score with only a few minutes remaining on the clock. No one at this stage doubted that Leinster might be able to pull off a miracle comeback! But from the resulting kick-off, Leinster didn’t organise themselves and Clermont won it in the air and from there played out the last two minutes to clinch a win in a breathtaking match.
I couldn’t help but feel devastated by the result and the manner of the loss as they came so close to winning the match. However I was also incredibly proud at how the players all showed such ambition and resolve to fight their way back in to the match. I also feel that this team looks like a team that can win a Heineken Cup again in a season or two, which I didn’t believe at the beginning of the season. I wish Clermont the best of luck in the final. They play some beautiful rugby and have exceptionally passionate but kind fans. It would also be a wonderful send off for one of the game’s greats and a Clermont god – Rougerie!
It was great to be back in the knockout stages of the Champions Cup once again. After only winning one group game last year and thus failing to progress, this year marked a return to the quarter-finals. I must admit I was extremely nervous in the build up to the game. This was due to the combination of Wasps leading the Aviva Premiership and their back to back wins over us in the group stages of the same competition last year!
From the kickoff it was apparent that both teams had come to play high risk and positive rugby. Both Leinster and Wasps regularly kept the ball in hand, even within their own 22s and tried to play the ball out. Leinster dominated much of the opening quarter, but had precious little to show for this dominance, and Wasps should have brought the game to a one point margin of 8-7 if Le Roux hadn’t knocked the ball on attempting a dive over the try line. With the last play of the half, Leinster managed to disrupt the Wasp’s lineout and through quick thinking by Leavy and then brilliant passing by O’Brien and Sexton, Henshaw raced under the posts to send Leinster in at half time with a lead that reflected the superiority shown in the first half.
But credit must be given to Wasps who fought back in to the game through a stunning individual try by Wade, where he threaded through a delicate grubber and outpaced the defence to touch down. And then they brought the game to back within 8 points when ex-Leinster player Gopperth showed great acceleration and strength to score a lovely individual try of his own. This brought the game back from a dead-rubber to a tight two score game with another 20 plus minutes remaining.
Leinster however put the game to bed when McFadden scored a pick and go try after a brilliant break from Ringrose and a strong carry from Toner. From there the game was out of Wasp’s grasp and Leinster managed to play out the rest of the clock without conceding any further scores.
This was the strongest Leinster showing I’ve seen all season and really demonstrated Leinser’s instinct in attack and the strength and dynamism of their forwards. My one criticism was that early in the second half we had a few opportunities to score a try and put the game to bed, but we spilled the ball or gave away a cheap penalty, which nearly cost us when they got back to within two scores. Against Clermont in two weeks time, we will have to be much more clinical and take every opportunity if we have any hope of winning.
A special mention must be given to Leinster’s young players. I thought Ringrose had an excellent game and made some excellent breaks and tackles in defence. I also thought Henshaw was at his usual high standards and provided shuddering tackles and carries. Man of the match Carbery showed some brilliant touches in attack and set up 2 tries, despite being at fault for one of their tries. And finally I thought Leavy was excellent, tackling every that moved with ferocity but also showing subtle and sublime handling to link the forwards to the backs. With so many young players performing at such a high ability, it looks like Leinster’s future could be very bright!
Last Friday we played Edinburgh in a Pro 12 game. The Leinster team was depleted due to players being away on Ireland duty but they still managed to put out a strong team. We welcomed back some players from the Ireland camp like Van Der Flier and Luke McGrath who needed some game-time. And there were players starting after long injury lay-offs such as Dave Kearney and Joey Carbery.
It was really a game of two halves. The first was a torrid affair with lots of stoppages and with Leinster having to defend for most of the game. Leinster managed to get a try early in the half, but then spent the rest of the half defending their line through a combination of spirited Edinburgh attack and defence and Leinster’s poor exit strategies. On countless occasions, Leinster were turned over through aggressive counter-rucking from Edinburgh and not committing enough players to the ruck. On top of this, whenever Leinster did manage to get their hands on the ball they either box-kicked too far, inviting Edinburgh straight back at us or not finding touch. Despite this, it must be said that their defence was very impressive and they showed great character to refuse to allow Edinburgh to cross the whitewash.
The Leinster team was decimated by injuries throughout the game, which required some creative shuffling of the team to manage! The game ended with our starting outhalf at fullback, our fullback at centre, scrumhalf on the wing and hooker at blindside! We even had to finish with 14 men as Carbery went off and there were no further replacements! Despite the difficulties in the amount of injuries, the team did really well to get the bonus point in the second half, which featured some beautiful tries and offloading. Whatever was said at halftime seemed to have a very positive effect! One silver lining of the injuries was that Dan Leavy came on and played a blinder, seeming to pop up everywhere and earning the man of the match award in the process.
Overall it was crucial that Leinster got points from this game to ensure they kept the pressure on the Ospreys and Munster at the top. Also we have a very difficult end to the season with games against the Ospreys, Glasgow, Connacht and Ulster. This means that we need any points we can in this 6 nations period to ensure we are still in contention for play-off spots come the end of the season.
I travelled over for the final group game for Leinster. It was a bitterly cold night in France but the match was exciting and was on a knife edge for most of the game to keep all of us in the crowd distracted. Leinster knew going in to the match that a win would guarantee a top 2 finish.
It started brilliantly with Leinster scoring a penalty and the Henshaw getting his first try for Leinster. It was an opportunistic score and we had suddenly found ourselves 10-0, appearing like we were cruising to an easy victory, especially considering Castres seemingly had nothing to play for.
However Castres were not going to give up that easily. Castres have only lost once this season at home and the rest of the game showed exactly why. They played with real passion and intensity that at times Leinster were powerless to stop. Leinster also lost the experience of Sexton and Nacewa early in the game, which only compounded their problems.
The game was a real rollercoaster for anyone present. In truth either team could have won. Castres looked on course to win it at the end with a series of mauls against 14 men. In fact it seemed only a matter of time before they did and snatched the game. However before that last period of sustained pressure, Leinster could well have got a bonus point win, with only the cruel bounce of the ball stopping Leinster’s Rob Kearney from running under the posts unopposed.
The result of all this was Leinster managing to hold Castres lunges for the line at bay and scraping a draw. It was enough to secure a home quarter final against Wasps. However it now means we will be away to either Clermont or Toulon in the semis! Despite all this I think it was important for Leinster to have a really tough game, lately we seem to have had a string of slightly easier matches which I feared had the potential to leave us exposed later on.
Last Friday Leinster faced Montpellier in a must-win game for qualification for the quarter-finals of the European Cup. What I had expected was an arm wrestle with a close game, especially after the away game which I went to earlier in the season. Instead what materialised was an engrossing first 20 minutes followed by a very one-sided last 60 minutes.
The end result was even more surprising given how well Montpellier started. In the opening 5/10 minutes, Montpellier looked the team much more likely to score. Then Leinster came back and scored two good tries, the second followed a beautiful piece of magic from Isa Nacewa. Then at around the 20th minute mark the game’s result was all but settled. Leinster looked dangerous and were going for their third try when Steyn hit Sexton late and high with a swinging arm. The tackle would have been on the edge of a red card a few weeks ago however now with the new crack-down on this area, the red was almost guaranteed.
One of the main talking points in the game apart from the red card was Leinster’s brilliant attacking play. Even before Montpellier had completely thrown in the towel, Leinster looked like they were well on their way to a bonus point. Leinster had brilliant running lines and brilliant variations in their attack. They also mixed it up with kicks in behind, chips and skip passes. It was extremely promising to watch and made it a very entertaining evening in the RDS.
Special mentions must go to Jack Conan who grabbed a hat-trick. Considering how difficult it is to get a place in the backrow at the moment in Leinster, this display would do his chances over the next few weeks no harm. Adam Byrne also played brilliantly scoring one of the best tries of the evening. Nacewa also played brilliantly, scoring one and setting up Conan’s first try of the night. It was also great to see Sexton back on the pitch. In the last few weeks we’ve been down to what was our 4th choice outhalf at the beginning of the season. Byrne and Carbery before him have both played very well in his absence, but it’s evident to see how well Sexton manages the game when he is on the field.
If we can follow up this result with a win next week in Castres we will have a home quarter-final which will be crucial for our chances to try and progress. But even at this point, it is looking a lot better than this stage last year!