Get MADGE on!

Leinster fans are somewhat conflicted after their side’s ho-hum victory over Castres at the RDS on saturday.  The good news is that they are two from two after a tricky pair of opening games.  If they come out the right side of the head-to-head with Northampton they should be in the box seat as far as qualification is concerned.

Churlish though it may appear to be whingeing after back-to-back wins, there is some cause for concern, not least that Leinster have so far played a somewhat reductive brand of rugby.  Without wanting to come over too Leinsterlion – sorry Leinsterlion – Leinster fans have grown used to seeing their team play with a certain panache.  Even when they were a bunch of second raters in Munster’s shadow they could still turn on the style with reasonable regularity.  It’s not a csae of wanting to see style-for-style’s-sake, but rather that it is the approach that best suits the team.

In the aftermath of the Ospreys match nobody noticed much, and those who noticed didn’t mind.  Away games in Europe, even against less than brilliant teams, are hard, and any sort of a win counts as a good day at the office.  Besides, even Joe Schmidt’s heralded purveyors of the all-court-game generally saved the glam for the RDS and were happy to tough it out on the road.  There wasn’t much flair in evidence when Leinster won by seven points in Glasgow, or when they were held tryless but kicked their way to a hard-fought win in Bath.

But in the return home matches they were rampant, setting a tempo their opponents couldn’t handle and racking up multiple tries in the process.  And therein lies the rub.  Having got the show on the road by beating Ospreys, most expected Leinster to dial up the pace a couple of notches and try to run the legs off a Castres side that, although champions of France and worthy of respect because of that, have never shown the greatest inclination to bring their A-game to away Heineken Cup matches.

Instead Leinster played conservatively, kicking much ball away, and rarely looked to put much width on the ball.  There’s nothing wrong with winning ugly per se, but is grinding it out really their best suit?  Midway through the second half it was looking like Leinster’s approach was landing them in a spot of bother.  Had Remi Tales not butchered a crossfield grubber when there were players queuing up to score a try, Castres would have moved in front on the scoreboard and put Leinster in a deeply uncomfortable spot.  French sides can lose interest in away matches for sure, but they can also become interested if they sense a famous result is in the offing, and had Castres taken a lead at that point, their determination levels would have gone up a notch.

Much of the consternation inevitably revolves around the selection at fly-half, where Matt O’Connor has made it clear his preference is for the more controlling 10, Jimmy Gopperth.  Again, the home-away conundrum is at play.  Many fans assumed that while Gopperth was the man for the Ospreys game, Ian Madigan would be the appropriate selection to take on Castres.  But those fans have been living on a diet of Joe Schmidt selections for three seasons.  Schmidt habitually picked a different team for home games to away matches, usually emphasising tempo at home (Reddan, Jennings) and beefing up the set piece for away matches (McLaughlin, van der Merwe), but there are no guarantees O’Connor will see things the same way.  It looks for the moment that Gopperth is first choice.  He’s a fine player, no question, but his strengths are his kicking game and his ability to run with the ball on occasion.  He’s not really a distributor who will bring the best out the backline around him.  Most concerning of all was that when the game was crying out for Madigan, he was almost the last reserve to be let on to the pitch; and when he did come on it was at 12, not 10.

No doubt there’s an element of bias in favour of Madigan on the terraces.  Fans naturally favour their home-grown players over foreign signings, it’s only human.  But there is a growing feeling that Matt O’Connor doesn’t really rate, or trust, Madigan.  Why only let him on so late in the game?  Perhaps the expensive yellow card against Munster has got up his coach’s nose and he has to serve a spell in pergutory.

Leinster’s next two games in the Heineken Cup will be far harder than their first two.  Northampton are still short of being a great team, but they can raise their game to a high level, and the Courtney Lawes Hype Machine is starting to crank up again after three years in mothballs.  If Leinster stick to their tactic of kicking too much ball away, and kicking it too long and not chasing hard enough, they will be made to look foolish against a team with Ben Foden and George North in the back three.

The optimistic scenario is that Leinster are still operating with a patched-up backline and once O’Driscoll and Fitzgerald – who looked very threatening when he came on – are fully restored to the team that there will be more emphasis on attack and putting the ball through the hands.  In the meantime, O’Connor has tightened up a defence that was more than a little creaky last season, and that focus will begin to shift to attacking and Leinster’s fabled gainline-passing.  One hopes Ian Madigan will be trusted to do some of the playmaking – after all, he’s awfully good at it when given the chance.

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  1. zbol

     /  October 22, 2013

    I was at the game on Saturday and I have to say that I agree completely. Our kick-chase was absolutely terrible! And I couldn’t believe JimmyG got MOTM. I thought he wasn’t great in open play, a few breaks and his goal-kicking aside. The game was crying out for Maddog to come on and break it up a bit, particularly around the 50 minute mark. We need a bit more spark in the backline and Maddog is the man to do it.

    How funny, though, your headline! I hope it doesn’t become the headline of the season…

    And what about Macken? I’m really not convinced yet about him. On at least a couple of occasions in this match and last week too, he took the ball needlessly into contact when there were great runners outside him. He seems to like contact too much, which is fine for Munster players (!) but not how Leinster like / need to do it…

    Great to see Luke back in good form, though.

    • Yeo, Gopperth getting MOTM was something of a joke. Sean O’Brien was by a distance the game’s most influential performer, with Reddan probably second even though he was only a reserve.

      Agree totally about Macken. I don’t want to be overly hard on him because he has come into the team and done a solid job in his first two games at this level, but I really, really would like to see him pass the ball just once in a while.

      • ArtVandelay

         /  October 22, 2013

        Although the good that O’Brien does outweighs any bad, he really needs to tighten up his decision making/handling. Again this week he made great yards and then threw it away by trying to make a prayer of a pass out of contact. Same as last week when he knocked the ball on after trying a similar pass after handing off Biggar. Granted, these moments rare but they’re his only weaknesses.

      • Bushmills

         /  October 22, 2013

        Who was the Irish summarizer in the commentary box? Watching in the US, we don’t get the Sky studio stuff. Re MOTM, the producer obviously forgot to remind him with 5 mins to go to make his pick, and it was all a bit flustered at the final whistle. He obviously looked at the score sheet and saw Gopperth’s name all over it and plumped for him!

        Gopperths kicks are too long and rarely did his back 3 challenge the impressive Dulin. Boss’s kicks weren’t much better. If you are going to play kick chase and have a quality back three like Leinster, the kicking needs to improve dramatically.

        PS O’Brien is a freak. My missus was asking me why I was making such strange noises. Clearly she doesn’t appreciate SOB going into contact.

    • Amiga500

       /  October 22, 2013

      So… you freely admit to doubts surrounding the outside centre, but want to put on a outside-half that will send significantly more ball through him?

      I think Leinster fans need to wind their collective necks in a bit. The game was crying out to be won. They did that. They top their group. Don’t grumble too much.

      If O’Connor had thrown Madigan on, the kicking game could easily have got worse and feeding more to their misfiring centres could have resulted in a loss. How smart would all the “Monday-morning quarterbacks” look then?

      • curates_egg

         /  October 22, 2013

        There does genuinely seem to be a real fear about spreading the ball through the 13 channel (also evident in the Rabo games). When it was done on Saturday, it worked quite well though (notably when Darcy released McFadden). I would still contend that playing Tuqiri at 13 in the Munster game was a monumental error in judgement by MOC, and scuppered our chances of preparing the backline for the 2 following weeks. Kicking the ball aimlessly away (as was done on a number of occasions on Saturday again), is hardly a credible solution for that though.

        • Amiga500

           /  October 22, 2013

          A pretty critical HEC game is not the place to go and embark on a potentially high risk adventure.

          • curates_egg

             /  October 22, 2013

            Exactly, which makes it all the more frustrating that the opportunity against Munster was totally wasted. Tuqiri is not a 13 and was blatantly not fit. We should have tried a real option then. McFadden clearly seems the best fit, so why has he not been played there?

  2. While I agree with most of what you say – however, to say Madigan is not a “controlling” outhalf isn’t really fair, he is a commanding presence on the pitch, just because a player is more expressive or plays with more flair does not imply he is flakier or directionless – I’d say there are other things to consider, chief among those the simple fact that Leinster are less good than they have been in the past few years, certainly than they were in the Schmidt era.

    Part of the problem is a reduction in quality in the player pool. This won’t go any any time soon, they had an over-full and exceptional roster, and it’s probably important to also point out that JS got just about the maximum out of that group. The current side will find it almost impossible to replicate the quality and consistency of the Schmidt side.

    Comparing O’Connor’s team with what came before is entirely understandable, I suppose it’s even fair, but is it sensible? Leinster just beat the French champions, denying them a bonus point. Under normal criteria, this is a good result. Compared with the Schmidt side, it’s underachievement. I think the former method of measurement is ultimately better.

    While I don’t think Leinster will become a side of average aesthetic qualities, and I expect to see Madigan and Gopperth both rip up teams as the season progresses, hoping for a repeat of 10/11 and 11/12 is deeply wishful. Don’t get me wrong, this side are very much in contention for both trophies again this year, and O’Brien, Heaslip plus whoever is the best back row in the HEC (and Pro12…), in my opinion.

    However, they are no longer palpably better than all the other teams in Europe. No-one should expect their results to reflect a fact that is no longer the case.

    PS. Ulster did all right, eh…

    • Leinsterlion

       /  October 22, 2013

      Before the start of the season RE: player pool, I would be in agreement with you, our scrum on paper looked shot, backs callow, second row meh, new coach, Zane Kirchner our main signing. However the teams we have fielded have been up to the task, our forwards have provided a platform(as you say our backrow is awesome). We have an adequate team that upcoaching will push over the edge to make up for a lack of intagibles, MOC hasnt done that, defense aside we are way way down in terms of skill and vision. We have enough to get the job done whilst playing well.
      IMO our only weakness is scrum if we come up against Toulon esque pack and Sean Cronin not being able to throw. We are solid all over the park with bedded in combinations(9/10 aside due to Maddogs inexplicable dropping) , we should be performing better, not matching our peak obviously but at least playing towards that peak.
      Castres had no interest in that game or pretty much any away game, they were the French champions LAST year look at their performances THIS year, we are a better team

  3. Len

     /  October 22, 2013

    I have to admit that I was one of the Leinster fans some what mystified by the reluctance to introduce Madge. I still can’t understand the Motm award for Jimmy? He kicked well at goal but looked to be struggling with adapting the same game plan from last week to cover the different conditions. I didn’t think he had a particularly brilliant day at the office. We also seemed overly reliant on the Garryowen, reluctant to kick for field position to force them into defending inside their 22 and with ball in hand our running appeared to be predominantly lateral. I thought Fitzgerald to his credit tried and succeeded to a degree in straightening the line when he came on and I think we look a lot better with him on the pitch and McF in the centre. I thought that Madge did make an impact when he came on (one lovely kick for position which drifted away from the Castres defender and into touch just inside the 22). In the end a win is a win and to be one of only 3 teams? on 8 points after two rounds is great. Can’t help but wonder if Madge has done something stupid in the back ground which has him relegated to bench warmer a la Dominic Ryan with Schmidt?

    • curates_egg

       /  October 22, 2013

      Looked a lot more balanced when Fitz came on and McFadden switched to 13 alright. Why on earth did we not start this way? With all respect to Macken (who I think is a good prospect), he is not quite ready yet. One thing I have taken from the last 3 games is the fact that we are totally ignoring our 13, which makes us predictable and easier to defend against. There are convincing arguments for and against Gopperth starting on Saturday but my concern is that MOC is starting him to avoid ‘exposing’ our backs…that would not be good in the long run.

    • Contraflow

       /  October 23, 2013

      What did Dom Ryan do? I thought his form was just bad coming back form injury particularly when compared to Jordi Murphy.

  4. Leinsterlion

     /  October 22, 2013

    I dont think anyone is expecting us to tear teams to shreds with no BOD,Jenno, JS, weaker squad overall, but there is a vast difference between hammering teams and playing a Munsteresque, bogball, dirge of a playing style, kicking away seemingly at random.
    I’d sacrifice a few wins to see some progression in our playing style. Cheks brought in the win at all costs mentality and we won the HC, we are a better team and have progressed beyond that, the monkey is off our backs, we dont, and shouldnt have to revert to such reductive rugby merely to fill up the W column.
    We have linebreakers in the pack and backline and a lightening quick playmaker at 10(well the bench), we are not like other faltering European giants like Toulouse(not this season,of seasons past with Skrela and Juazions ghost et all) or Munster with nothing left in the tank. We can and should be beating teams in a manner befitting the players we have and the style we know they are able to play in. Is anyone honestly suggesting ten man rugby is needed to beat a Galactico-less Ospreys team playing with 14+ an embalmed Ryan Jones or an utterly disinterested Castres?
    You do not have to sacrifice aesthetics to win games, you simply play what is on front of you, if nothing is on, give it to SOB on the inside, run it yourself or if the opp are out of position, put it into space and chase. Leinster have the players to play front foot rugby, but for whatever reason we arent, we are playing a limited gameplan, kicking away possession and while it has succeeded against two poor sides, we will get hammered in the latter stages playing like that.
    Its great to be on 8 points but I dont think any Leinster fans (who arent johnny come lately success whores) will be shouting from the rooftops, its an utterly unconvincing 8 points won at the expense of developing any sort of attacking cohesion in favour of outdefending two crap teams and letting their mistakes win games for us.

    • Amiga500

       /  October 22, 2013

      “but there is a vast difference between hammering teams and playing a Munsteresque, bogball, dirge of a playing style, kicking away seemingly at random.”

      hehehe, I’ll go grab my popcorn.

    • Len

       /  October 22, 2013

      Very true but for bad decision making on the part of Castres the tables could have been turned. Was it just me or did anyone else think we started great and then went totally off the boil after about ten minutes on Saturday?

  5. Don Alfonso

     /  October 22, 2013

    As much as I enjoyed your wry comment about the Courtney Lawes Hype Machine, be aware that for some of us who aren’t Leinster fans, it is a distant second to the Ian Madigan Hype Machine.

    I suspect MOC will be the fall guy as Leinster stutter a bit this season, but I think losing Sexton and Nacewa, and O’Driscoll’s age, will be the recurring issues. I think LarryM is closer to the truth than Leinsterlion.

  6. Doughballs.

     /  October 22, 2013

    My impression is that they’ve been working on their new defensive structure, which is paying dividends. When they’re all a bit more used to it they’ll begin to fine tune the attack. Leicester scored the most tries in the premiership last year with Matt O Connor at the helm (behind Cockerill). The attack’ll come.

  7. Its an interesting point about Madigan in purgatory, I think most of us Leinster fans or no knew a win in Thomond was a big ask but it was MOC’s first derby and I’m sure he would have wanted a win. Maybe he is punishing Madigan a little.

    I think also we have to remember that everyone has their eye on Gopperth as the new signing, as they had on Tiquiri in Thomond, as they will have on Kirchner when he gets his first start(s).
    That inevitable when a new player comes in but its also covering a lot of old (and newer) stalwarts blushes and ignoring the litany of mistakes coming from players who are more established and perhaps should know better. Hence we cry why didn’t SOB get MOTM when Gopps was if not the most spectacular then at least was the least erroneous performer on the day (in Shaggies eyes at least).

    I think that Gopperth is being judged because the only player ahead of Madigan was Sexton and we all accepted that, but most, seemingly no matter what, can’t accept that Gopperth might possibly be better than Madigan.

    • Contraflow

       /  October 23, 2013

      It is quite easy to not accept Gopperth as better than Madigan. Last year Madigan was player’s player of the season, golden boot winner and scored 9 tries which is more than most wingers in the league.

      Gopperth has been as bad as he has been good. He was good against Scarlets and against Ospreys but only in the first half in the Rabo, he was bad in the second half when the Ospreys forced their way back into the game. He was good against the Ospreys in the Hcup and not so good against Castres. He also played against Glasgow in the league when we lost and the best u could say about JG that night was that he was anonymous. This Glasgow game has been airbrushed out of Leinster history, I presume most people didn’t see it because it is as if it never happened to most fans.

      Having 2 outhalves of differing styles should be an asset to us in the same way having 2 scrumhalves of differing styles [Boss/Reddan] is to our benefit. Depending on opposition and venue we can pick the appropriate OH and then use the other one to change things up after 60 mins.

      This is not happening, Mad Dog is not even being used as an impact sub. This is what is confusing most fans, when you have a great player like Madigan why leave him on the bench? MOC supposedly is attack minded and says he will now concentrate more on attack and by consequence hopefully the superior attacking OH will feature more.

  8. Declan

     /  October 22, 2013

    Am I the only one a bit concerned about our coach. Deffo not sure about the Leicester back line being an advertisement for someone to get leinster job? Is it all not crash ball and pick up the pieces? Get in a huge 13 (Zane!) and just bang away? No passing or invention? Manu seems short of skill and yet is god for the tigers.
    Plus Matt O’Connor seems perfect for munster and the munster ‘way’ of playing? Will the IRFU swap penny for him? that’s genius!!!!!

  9. abitofshoepie

     /  October 22, 2013

    New coaches have a tendency to be risk averse, try to get the basics right and build from there. O’Connor seems to be trying to alter Leinsters defensive game and as a new coach will quite rightly want to get some results under his belt in the early days. Hopefully once he is comfortable with all that jazz, and the likes of BOD and Fitzgerald get back into fitness and form, their game will become a bit more expansive.

    As LarryM hinted, Ulster were not too shabby at the weekend, the highlight of which for me was a massive tackle from PJ right under Ulsters posts 5 yards out…from an Irish point of view maybe there doesn’t need to be such a panic that Madge isn’t getting game time, but I can understand Leinster fans and neutrals wanting a bit more flair at the RDS.

    • ArtVandelay

       /  October 22, 2013

      I agree. I think MOC’s got the team playing with the handbrake on, to a certain extent, while he gets used to the team.

      BUT, Madigan HAS to force his way into the team. Gopperth has played better than him, plain and simple. If he’s the coming force that we all hope/think, forcing his way into the side will only help him. Jonny had to do it, so will Ian.

  10. zdm

     /  October 22, 2013

    It’s fair to say that this isn’t 2011 vintage rugby from Leinster but the over-riding fact is that Matt O’Connor is winning matches with Joe Schmidt’s team.

    It’s not that long ago that we were bemoaning the fact that Rob Penney was trying to enforce a style of play at the expense of winning matches and now we are criticising O’Connor for playing low percentage rugby until he can put his stamp on the side?

    What price would the average Man Utd fan give to see David Moyes win ugly at the minute in soccerball?

  11. Yossarian

     /  October 22, 2013

    There is more than a 10 debate behind the poor performance at the weekend, and that’s what it was, a poor performance. We can dress it up that it was a H-Cup win over the French champions but that doesn’t tell the full story. We had a malfunctioning lineout, and poor scrum and were awful at restarts. All fundamentals of the game. Allied to that there was massive individual error counts from players who are capable of playing better. Off-loads to nobody, dropped catches, and the kick chase was dreadful.
    Gopperth should be rightly criticised for his poor outing but he was not alone. MOM award was a knee jerk reaction awarded by Horgan who seemed like a man who forgot he would have to pick someone out at the end of the game. fluffed restart, intercept pass, general poor kicking out of hand that went aimlessly down the pitch to invite their back 3 into a game they had lost interest in.shocking call.
    Most frustrating games to watch in a long time. Thankfully Leinster can get better, quality players coming back from injury and individuals all capable of playing better than that,

  12. Don Alfonso

     /  October 22, 2013

    I’d say Schmidt and Anscombe have made the smoothest transitions as new provincial coaches in the last few years. Penney, Lam and O’Connor seem to have needed a bit more time to find their feet. Having said that – it’s very early days for the latter two. Still plenty of time to finish the season as romping rugby colossi.

    • curates_egg

       /  October 22, 2013

      Schmidt had a smooth transition? According to the RTE team (famously), he lost the dressing room after a poor start to the season and was on his way out after 4 games…take a bow George Hook et al.

  13. Rava

     /  October 22, 2013

    You might look at the fly-halves that MOC has worked with in the recent past. None would be considered flair players and maybe he needs to get away from the Leicester style and get back to the Leinster style.
    I want to see Madigan restored to 10 asap. In the end it will be better for Ireland’s chances in November. If Joe sticks with what he knows (as is likely) then Madigan will probably be in the squad as No.2 to JS.

    • curates_egg

       /  October 22, 2013

      Even if Madigan had been given the opportunities (and continued playing as he was last year), Jackson is looking much more solid this year. You would hope that Schmidt would select the right 23 for each game based on how and who we will play.

      I would think Jackson looks like a good option to start against Samoa (regardless) and bench against the All Blacks (probably but the fact Madigan offers more cover cannot be overlooked). Madigan should be given at least 25-30 minutes against Samoa: if the game breaks up, it could be fun. Would love to see Madigan and Cooper face-off but not sure that is the best option right now. Anyway, Sexton will play at least 55 minutes against Australia.

      It looks likely that Sexton will not be able to play much more than 120 minutes in November, so there is a good opportunity there for the other two (120 minutes in fact).

  14. Let me preface what I am about to say with a simple statement: I agreed with starting Gopperth, He had a very good game in Swansea and with a midfield lacking in creativity he seemed better suited to the back line that was playing than Madigan.

    However towards the end of the first half on Saturday it was becoming apparent that Leinster were unable to control the game. Gopperths case wasn’t helped by a truly appalling restart that went all of about 4m. The game was starting to get away from us to a degree with our defense being the saving grace.

    On 42 minutes Castres butchered a try scoring opportunity (referenced above) and then on 52 minutes Kockott missed a penalty. The score was 9-7 and either of those opportunities would have put them in front had they scored.

    The real turning point in the game came on 56 minutes when, for reasons only he could tell you, Lamerat committed possibly the most needless shoulder charge I’ve seen and saw yellow as a result. Yet still Leinster couldn’t capitalise. Instead of going for the 3 to put us beyond a penalty or DG of Castres we went down the line and lost the resulting line-out. We eventually scored on 62 minutes, a whopping 44 minutes since our last score.

    There was a 30 minute period in that game where we ceded control of the contest to Castres and did little to get it back. During this 30 minute period it seemed to me, and others on the terrace, that we needed a change at the wheel. Madigan needed to come on. And just like a couple of weeks ago in Thomond Park when LT needed to come off MOC refused to make the change voluntarily. It was as though he had made his choice and that was it.

    As for the focus on defense, that is something we should be doing. But should we be doing it to the detriment of our attacking game. Because we seem to be doing just that. Surely there’s more of a middle ground? I really hate the phrase “defense wins games” because while I understand it the basic fact is that points win games, specifically scoring more of them than your opponent. Relying on defense and handing possession and territory to the opposition the way we were for much of the game on Saturday is surely tempting fate just a bit?

  15. Ben

     /  October 23, 2013

    ‘Fans naturally favour their home-grown players over foreign signings, it’s only human.’

    There’s a significant number of fans who don’t seem to follow this line. There’s many a fan would gladly see Nacewa ahead of Kearney/Kearney/McFadden/Fitzgerald or Thorn ahead of Toner or Felipe ahead of Johnny back in the day.

    Same holds true of other provinces – viz many Ulster fans would happily pick Pienaar ahead of Marshall or even Jackson.

    • Of course, but those are provincial legends, world class performers whose contributions will never be forgotten. All things being equal, a Madigan is going to be preferred by punters to someone like a Jimmy Gopperth.

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