To The Winner Go The Spoils

Leinster are Pro12 champions for 2013-14. In a fittingly absorbing finale, they produced one of their best performances of the season to defeat Glasgow, and eventually gloss the scoreline. It’s their seventh trophy in seven years, and continues a remarkable run of success. This year’s vintage may have paled beside Joe Schmidt’s 2011-12 worldbeaters, but they are the only province to finish with silverware. Winning is a great habit, and Leinster finished top of the league and then saw off two gallant challengers in the knockout stages. What more could you ask for?

At various points in the season, Ulster and Munster were hailed as heroes, teams whose moment had arrived; Leinster for the most part had to deal with brickbats, from their own disgruntled fans as much as anyone else. But for all that, it’s Leinster who finish the season as champions. You can guarantee that everyone associated with Munster and Ulster would trade all the press acclaim for the Pro12 trophy. Who will really remember Leinster’s struggle to put away Zebre and Edinburgh in the RDS when you can gorge your brain on the happy send-off for Leo Cullen and BOD instead?

They say in golf that there’s no room for a picture on the scorecard, and the phrase seems apt here. Leinster huffed and puffed through much of the season, and at times it looked like nothing so uncomplicated as a dropping of standards. Where was the ferocious and accurate clear-out work that provided Schmidt’s blue army with a steady supply of quick ball? It appeared to be missing in action. But look a little less emotionally at the picture and things are not so straightforward. It’s Munster fans who are often accused of being spoiled, but perhaps Leinster’s are now the ‘bold child’ that needs to keep itself in check. To demand both silverware and a certain panache speaks to a little too much self-entitlement, no?

We warned last season when Jonny Sexton went to Paris that replacing him would be no picnic and that it wouldn’t be as simple as throwing Maddog in and expecting everything to take up where it left off. Throw in a new coach, an ageing centre partnership, limited access to Luke Fitzgerald and an injured Sean O’Brien and it’s a lot of issues to absorb in a season. Amid the hallooing, there have been many positives, not least the development of Marty Moore, Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy, while Sean Cronin turned in his best ever season.  Plus, they’ve won the league.  It gives Matt O’Connor room to breathe, and a solid platform off which to improve performances and mount a more serious challenge in Europe next season.

As for the game itself, well, once again the Pro12 final turned in a terrific match. The league gets its share of stick, but every single final going back to the Leinster-Ospreys game in 2010 has been hugely memorable. For Leinster it was a case of licking Glasgow’s plate clean before starting their own meal. Glasgow threw the kitchen sink at them but the defining moment was the sensational turnover-and-run-it-from-inside-your-own-tryline break which turned the game irrevocably. That was thrillingly old-school Leinster; not Schmidt’s Leinster, but the Leinster of Felipe Contepomi, Denis Hickie and, erm, Cameron Jowitt.

Glasgow and Gregor Townsend may live to rue the decision not to start their gamebreaking Fijians.  Away wins in the RDS, especially in big games, are hen’s-teeth rare, and Glasgow needed to bet the house on their unpredictable, put lethally explosive Fijian 8-9 axis. To do otherwise appeared to err on the side of conservative. Instead we were watching Chris Cusiter try to play the hits from his 2003 back catalogue. There seems to be a thesis that certain players are best unleashed off the bench where they can bring the most ‘impact’. It’s not entirely without logic, but surely the best players should be given the most minutes on the pitch in which to influence the game?

But what really killed Glasgow were Leinster’s first half tries – under Joe Schmidt they specialised in ruthlessly scoring tries when the opponent was on top, and we saw glimpses of that. Zane Kirchner has been peripheral all year, but with decent service and ruthless accuracy back in-scope, he looked lethal. Leinster went in at half-time 14-12 up despite being dominated – difference was they sniped tries with no field position yet Glasgow had loads of visits to Leinster’s 22, but it all went a bit Ulster and they couldn’t score. The catalyst for all this ruthlessness was, whisper it, BOD’s injury and the introduction of Ian Madigan at centre. He’s too small to have a career there, but his sumptuous passing and vision was to the fore on Saturday. The irony of it all, after the season that Leinster and Madigan have had.

And finally, what can be said about Leo Cullen and His BODness that hasn’t already been said? It was an anti-climactic, if weirdly fitting – it was always likely to end with him trudging from the field with an injury, given how he has played all his career – send off for The Great One, and in truth his limbs will probably thank him for not having to go through another 72 minutes of pounding. His body has been creaking badly more or less since the 2011 World Cup, but his genius and commitment never wavered. At the risk of getting all Robo-BOD, future generations will indeed ask if we actually saw BOD play in the flesh. Yes indeed, we’ll say. And Paul O’Connell too? Yes, absolutely. Sometimes even both at the same time. Wow! How come Ireland only won one grand slam in all those years? Err, time for bed now son.

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  1. montigol

     /  June 3, 2014

    Nice Jowitt shout-out and a fair summation of the game. On the walk to the game I was hoping that Leinster fans would not take for granted how hard it is to win this tournament and continue to damn O’Connor with feint praise. I disagree about his use of Madigan, but you can’t deny the development of the forward players has been hugely encouraging, and it would be churlish to deny him credit for the good things while laying the blame for the disappointments at his door.

    • Hear! Hear! I’m a big Madigan fan, but I must say, Jimmy Gopperth made three telling offloads in the last three matches – to Dave Kearney and Ian Madigan, who both scored, and to Zane Kirchner in the final, who then was able to give Jenno a run in under the posts. Four tries against a team, who’d only had 20 or thereabouts scored against them all season, is not to be sniffed at. I think Kane Douglas could turn out to be a clever signing. Mike McCarthy’s “dive” in the Rabo final has left me doubting his bottle and ability to achieve the heights that were hoped of him. I thought the team’s ability to win so comprehensively after BOD’s leaving the pitch was a fitting compliment to both and augurs well for the future. Combined with the success of the As in the B&I, I think the future looks bright, and wonder therefore why MO’C repeatedly goes on about the need to bring in foreign exports. If we get the best out of the talent we have, we should be able to beat anybody, even the likes of Toulon – home or away. Nuff said now on the Blues front, COYBIG against the Argies!!!!!!

      • Jimbob

         /  June 3, 2014

        The foreign players comment was odd (and his eagerness to keep on Tuqiri). I think he has an issue with the majority of his squad being taken from him during international windows and the player management scheme. He’ll need to be a bit more careful or diplomatic when it comes to things like that as it could be construed that he doesn’t rate the players at his current disposal.

        • It could be construed that way, but I expect it’s more likely that he’s doing his bidding with the IRFU in public to some extent; the provincial coaches face a continual battle to get what’s best for their own patch and it’s only natural for him to want to bring in the best players he can get to supplement what’s already there.

          • I’m not sure its that much to ask that he needs 4-6 new players. BOD and Cullen have retired, D’Arcy will not be far behind them nor Mike Ross unless he has a second renaissance of sorts. Quinn Roux has underperformed as has Bent, I like Ben Marshall but he hasn’t impressed coaches it seems, Tom Denton will hardly be a 100 capper? Then there are two scrum halves who are aging and Luke Fitz is barely eking out 10 games a season.
            Even allowing for new additions from the Leinster academy just to meet natural retirements I think there’s a strong case that you need up to 6 signings sooner rather than later.

  2. RoboBOD. Thanks for reminding me of that aberration! Some things – Dumb and Dumberer, Piers Morgan, Meredith Brooks – shouldn’t be brought up in polite conversation.

  3. Some of the criticism of MOC this year has been warranted, some of it has been way, way OTT.

    For me, I look forward to next season with hope and I would certainly count this year as a success over all.

    Hopefully we’ll see less shackles on the team next year and a mix of the excellent defence of MOC with the fluidity we saw in the sun on Sat.

  4. Marius

     /  June 3, 2014

    On a side note (to how amazing the game was), about 20ish minutes into the first half, after Kirchner’s try, Reddan made a great run up field and had Cronin sprinting like a cheetah on his shoulder. A try was almost in sight but Reddan chose to throw a torpedo-esque spin pass to Cronin who couldn’t manage to hold on. Like a lot of players, Reddan in this example, seems to have forgotten how perfect a simple pop pass can be in certain situations. In my mind it is suicide to throw a fast spin pass over a short range ESPECIALLY when you ave a runner going as fast as Sean Cronin, but you rarely see anything else…

    • Yep, absolutely right Marius. The slo-mo replay showed just how much torque Reddan put on the ball. I said aloud ‘That was not a very sympathetic pass’.

  5. I don’t even care about the league now that Stephen Ferris has announced he’s retiring. I didn’t want to believe, I think I’ll just have a little cry in the corner now.

    • Colly Noonan

       /  June 3, 2014

      Say it ain’t so Phil. Huge blow for him, Ulster and Ireland.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  June 3, 2014

      We can only hope SOB is wrapped in cotton wool for the forseeable future or we are shot at six.

      • Stevo

         /  June 4, 2014

        Using a post about Stephen Ferris to mention Sean O’Brien in order to have a pop at Peter O’Mahony! That’s dedication for you.

        • Leinsterlion

           /  June 4, 2014

          I try.

          • scrumdog

             /  June 4, 2014

            Why does O’Mahony invite ‘pops’? Sometimes the truth hurts and that is that that many in the rugby fraternity are aware that POM is not an international test level backrow, after only two decent test matches out of how many..20? Schmidt designated him ‘second man in’ to win the ball to put the player to work in the contact area …this worked only for the Scotland and Wales games where he was effective at winning a couple of turnovers and penalties and was ‘the hero’ but did anyone notice his tackle count remained low? He’s had his opportunity to grow on the field for Ireland since Kidney’s 2012 NZ Tour, and clearly he hasn’t, he has to get a lot better to win the 6 jersey back… it is up for grabs at the moment.

          • I’ve questioned his tackle count repeatedly, but if he does keep getting over the ball like he did in the 6N then it becomes less of an issue, if not moot entirely. I suppose in simple terms, the important thing is he contributes when we have the ball (him and his go-go gadget limbs certainly do when carrying the ball) and when they have it.

            Steffon Armitage is played at eight by Toulon perhaps because they don’t want him to tackle and instead concentrate on getting over the ball in his cubic manner. It’s hard to do everything as a back-rower* – Heaslip has become unpopular since he started to carry less and (mostly) with less ambition, but I think he’s a tremendous player whose huge workrate and willingness to shape his own performance around the strengths and weaknesses are in absolute contrast to the impression some may get from his haircuts.

            Can’t say I’m happy Ferris is gone, especially as I’m an Ulster lad, but with POM, SOB, JH and Chris Henry we’re not exactly looking at slim pickings.

            *unless you’re Sean O’Brien when apparently it’s just what happens.

          • Kelly Peters

             /  June 6, 2014

            @scrumdog Who exactly is this rugby fraternity you talk about? I can’t say I’ve heard many say he’s not a test level international player. I’ve heard them say he’s not World Class, which is correct, but very very few who’ve said he’s not up to test level rugby. I must move in different circles. Granted I’m a Munster fan but went to school in Leinster, play rugby in Leinster and the vast majority of my friends would Leinster rugby fans and they all admit he’s a good test player.

            The problem with sports nerd taking to rugby is this new obsession with stats. And unless a player puts up juicy stats then he’s not up to snuff. Rugby is so much more than black and white. For me the back row is a unit which fills a number of roles – tackling, ball carrying, ball carrier support and rucking (offensive and defensive). I don’t give a flying f*ck how said roles are filled as long as they are. The number of the shirt means nothing. O’Mahoney’s strengths are in the air and on the deck and hence while wearing a six he doesn’t play the role his shirt would seem to “dictate”. His role is clearly to be the first guy in after a tackle to slow opposition ball. The direct result of this is he’s not going to be making tackles unless the game breaks in a way in which he has to. He’s been among our best performers the last two seasons yet people still love to knock him as he doesn’t fit the mold of what they expect in a traditional 6.

            For years Jamie Heaslip was the player people loved to bash because he was sacrificing his stats for the good of the team. Now it seems like he’s passed that baton to O’Mahony. Anthony Foley who’s played in some mighty back rows rates him hugely. We all rave about Joe Schmidt here and he clearly rates him enough to make him a key part of Ireland’s game plan.

  6. R

     /  June 3, 2014

    The disappointment is because of the Heineken Cup, for the most part, and a general feeling that the standard of play isn’t as good. It’s not about a lack of panache, though Leinster lack panache, it’s just a season which has had some of the poorer performances from Leinster sides that we’ve seen in recent years.

    The fact that’s good enough to win the Pro12 is an indictment of the Pro12, if anything.

    • Undoubtedly it has, and winning the Pro12 shouldn’t gloss over everything, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Plenty of teams would love to have won the Pro12 and it’s a pot worth winning, so credit is due.

      • The Pro12 is also a knock-out competition in its later stages, so it’s a bit pointless to say that the team that won it lacked “panache” in some of their earlier games, and it’s certainly hyperbole to say that that’s an indictment of the league. No-one wins league titles while playing excellent rugby without exception, and Leinster peaked when it mattered, which is what champion teams do. The notion that Leinster should be able to swagger their way to a Pro12 title while oozing class throughout is one of extraordinary entitlement, and it’s one that didn’t even apply during the Schmidt era, when Leinster had arguably the best attacking coach in Europe at the helm and a more incisive set of backs, so it makes zero sense that it would apply now.

        • R

           /  June 4, 2014

          It’s not really that they’re entitled to win the Pro12, just that it’s not the barometer for success and it shouldn’t be. The fact they’ve sometimes finished top and lost a one-off knockout game that’s the antithesis of what a league actually is doesn’t make it “difficult” to win in a way that suggests only great sides get the job done. It becomes a cup for the top four teams, so effectively your performances all season are made irrelevant by the playoff.

          The Heineken has to be the standard for Irish teams, sure Leinster/Ulster/Munster are waltzing into the Pro12 playoffs each year.

          I’m pleased with the win and I agree it’s great to win something, and he finished top, can only beat what’s in front of you etc, but the fact is that Leinster look considerably worse under Matt O’Connor.

          Whether that’s due to the player pool as well as him is a point to discuss, but either way, buck stops with the manager in the end.

          I just find it hard to be excited about another season of Matt. They’re not doing anything with him in charge.

  7. @eoinredahan

     /  June 3, 2014

    Nice work, lads – always an enjoyable read. I know Madigan is small by international centre standards, but he is a pound heavier than D’Arcy and only four pounds lighter than O’Driscoll. Wesley Fofana and Conrad Smith aren’t massive specimens, but they are prime examples of how intelligence and speed of thought can be used to offset a smaller stature. Anyway, he is still only 25 and could easily add another half stone in the next couple of years without compromising too much mobility. I’m not saying he is a perfect solution at 12, but he looks to have a decent understanding with Gopperth and is less prone to his moments of madness when at inside centre.

    • Jojo

       /  June 3, 2014

      Great performance. McCarthy had a good game apart from his habana moment. Kirchener and Ruddock also really stood out. Moc has no faith on this group of players. Really Leinster only need a couple more wc players to be the best in eirope. Madigan might have found his best position

  8. Nakarwara is a lot of things, but he’s not a seven. Glasgow were always going to struggle once Fusaro went off. I think Matawalu is fantastic but sometimes its hard to know what form he’s going to turn up with, maybe that’s why he’s been consigned to the bench so often?

    Also I realize its not exciting but I don’t think MOC has gotten enough credit for bringing in a new defensive system which is a marked improvement on an already good gameplan. Sometimes we’re too quick to note the failure of one team to unlock a defense rather than the excellence of another team in keeping them out.

    • curates_egg

       /  June 3, 2014

      The two Fijians provided great spark but both were guilty of making a few mistakes. Bad decisions and unforced turnovers at a crucial point in the game cost Glasgow dearly and the two boys must cop a lot of the blame.

      • Fair points… but the point holds that they should still have started. They’re a bit renegade alright, but for Glasgow to win in the RDS they needed their ‘x-factor’ (thanks Garry) on the pitch.

        • I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. Cusiter had an exceptionally poor game by contrast to his performances earlier in the season and Glasgow were very unlucky with injuries; if you take away those two factors, which were essentially outside the coach’s control, then they could have been well in it with twenty minutes to go, at which point Matawalu and Nakarawa become devastating options off the bench with their weaknesses being masked. I certainly don’t think it’s an open and shut case of “get the x-factor on the pitch”.

          • curates_egg

             /  June 4, 2014

            Hmm. They were within 2 points with 20 minutes to go i.e. they were “well in it with twenty minutes to go”. Leinster scored 20 points in the final 20 minutes.

            A brainfart by Matawalu cost them a try (on 59 minutes I think), although McFadden deserves credit for a typically selfless tackle. Another brainfart by him wasted a very good penalty when they were still within two scores. Nakarawa coughed up the ball unforced at least twice in that period too (if not three times). For all the yards and immense power of Nakarawa, I can only remember one of his breaks leading to something. Got isolated a few times.

          • In addition, to pick Nakarawa you have to drop either Strauss or Harley, who have both been excellent all season and imo are more physical players than Nakarawa (or Fusaro in fairness) which was desperately needed against a Leinster team that are capable of breaking many teams in half.

          • @curate’s, Yup, I’m aware they were within 2 points with 20 minutes to go, but 6 of their 7 substitutions had been made by the 55 minute-mark, with their two game-breakers who are normally reserved for upping the ante in the final stages of a game brought on at 25 and 44 minutes respectively. That reduces their impact in those final stages, for fitness reasons as well as the Leinster defence having additional time to adapt to Nakarawa in particular. If Glasgow had been in a position to bring on the cavalry, including but not limited to those two players, with 20 minutes to go, they would have been in with a better shot of stressing Leinster’s defence. As it was, the only available option they had to change the game from the bench was Ruairidh Jackson, at which point I think everyone knew the jig was up.

  9. Andrew

     /  June 3, 2014

    A lot of the flack of MOC was the things Leinster did well ie passing suddenly went missing. Reddans pass is a great example and in contrast if it had been like Kichner’s to Jennings Cronin would also have strolled in under the post.
    The other big gripe was aimless kicking, Leinster kept the ball in hand more in this game then in others but once again the three or four times we kicked to chase they ended up with the ball in open field and Leinster scrambling.
    It was a great result I didn’t expect daylight between the teams, hopefully this will encourage MOC to think passing and running with the odd kick and chase for next season.

  10. Shouldn’t also be forgotten that Leinster annihilated the eventual Boshiership champs too, in their own back garden, without Sean O’Brien! Seeing Toulon dismantle both Sarrries and Castres (who Leinster also beat away!) suggests Leinster aren’t as bad as may be made out by some.

    • Yes, the wins against Castres don’t look too shabby in the cold light of their being runners up in the Top 14.

      The disappointment with performance levels is understandable, and I think most of it stems from just how limp and useless the exit from the H-Cup was. If Leinster had gone out in the same way as Munster I don’t think there’d be as much anguish.

  11. curates_egg

     /  June 3, 2014

    Two major positives of the season are:
    – the new defensive system, which took a while to get working but was really solid in the second half of the season;
    – the bedding in of new talent.
    That, combined with two trophies actually, makes it a good season on balance.

    Where a lot of fans have been justifiably critical has been of the dramatic drop-off in basic skills that were our hallmark, the total absence of any attacking gameplan or ambition…and the odd treatment of last season’s player of the season.

    Last Saturday and Franklin’s Gardens gave a glimmer of hope that all is not lost for any of these three causes. Let’s hope this year’s platform is used to build on them.

    As noted above, yesterday’s comments on NIQ signings were a bit odd and yet another black mark…all the more so as this is the guy who signed Tuqiri and then tried to keep him.

    • Seymore

       /  June 4, 2014

      I have to say I’ve been confused by Leinster’s defensive system for a while now. They won the first H-Cup by double tackling all one-up runners and increasing the line speed on slow ball. Two pillars tackled every pick and drive to stop momentum, it was a great tactic at the time (especially against English teams).

      Under Schmidt they became the best poachers in NH by a country mile, they fought NZ style at every ruck (the tackler doing just enough not to get penalised and the next defender in would pile in and back off demonstrably – really clever disruption). By the end of Schmidt’s time the line speed was so passive, they gave up mountains of space and got run over by momentum teams – crucially they completely changed tactics in their own 22 shooting out of the line from out to in and turned over an incredible amount of ball through intensity and skill, winning games with almost no possession. The extra gear left them against the physically bigger teams who played cautiously and kicked penalties. Leinster liked to prey on quick teams who made mistakes and Clermont finally found the formula.

      Under MOC, Leinster seem to be standing still and taking the tackle, not competing in anyway close the their standards at the breakdown and not showing much aggression. They still have good technique at the breakdown but not the sustained intensity that actually shocked opposition teams.

      The players are there and Douglas at lock is a great addition – I agree with the lads that given the injuries and loss of Sexton, it’s not a bad season at all (and having 2 international front row’s is a major boost). If we can regain our defensive heights, I will be very optimistic for next year.

      Has anyone got a take on our defensive system, I just can’t see the progression under MOC.

      • curates_egg

         /  June 4, 2014

        It is all about the D, as I see it. At the start of the season, it didn’t seem very coherent and there were lots of line breaks leaked in the centre (which were often thwarted by scramble defense). It is, as you note, passive, so it relies on everyone doing their job. It really seemed to come together towards the end of the season though. Although, I would agree, I would be more comfortable if we had better line speed against bigger and more threatening sides.

        We leaked far fewer tries this season, even if we were still more generous than the other top teams in the Pro12. We leaked 46 last year and only 30 this year…that is a drop of over a third (not to get all Andy McGeady on you). Credit where credit is due.

      • I’m not claiming to have identified this change on my own, but commentators such as Shaggy on second captains noted early in the season the change from an inside-out to out-in defence (I might even have the phrases backwards).

        My understanding – probably completely flawed – is that MOC defence involves spreading out from the ruck as the first instance in what can appear as a passive approach to the breakdown. However the result is when the ball is recycled the wider channels are already covered by numerous defenders and over several phases this leads to a smothering effect on the opposition.

        The ruck area is abandoned to an extent as its more difficult to make a break through there and any break through the middle is easier to control with chasing defenders isolating any runners through the middle from their following team mates and again cutting off the wider channels.

        Initially there was a bedding in period as Leinster players tended to abandon the middle too much and left too much space between them and the ruck. Pillar defenders sometimes forgot they still had a role as a pillar and focused outwards, allowing easier breaks and giving away too many metres in chasing, but this has been ironed out.

        Over phases more attacking numbers will have to be given over to the breakdown to protect the ball as the offense finds themselves under increased pressure out wide and further isolated from teammates. I imagine this is why the Leinster defense seems to almost grow in ability during multi-phase defence in their own 22 making it more difficult for the likes of Ulster to unlock them. The opposition line is the one that starts to appear more ragged rather than the defence.

        Gradually the only realistic way to continue the offensive requires a deep pass and a reset of the attack which gives up metres if the defensive line speed is good. I don’t know if it was an attempt to counter the Leinster defensive system per se, but I noticed Bowe and Trimble appeared to play extremely deep in the second half of the rabo semi when you would normally expect them to be coming off their wing and popping up in midfield.

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