23 September 2013

Starting & Stalling

It has been a weekend of mixed fortunes for the Irish provinces. Munster’s extended stay in Italy ended in disappointment with a ten point loss to Benneton Treviso. Having taken a bonus point victory away from Zebre and spent the remainder of the week in Italy building up to the Treviso game, the “Italian Job” was definitely on track.

But unlike their clinical second half display against Zebre, this week when they had their foot on Treviso’s throat, they failed to finish them off. With Stephen Archer’s try and Ian Keatley’s conversion in the 46th minute, Munster enjoyed a 19-9 lead. Traditionally with a Munster team in that position, it is never a case of if they will win, but only by how much they will win.

Unfortunately, Treviso were allowed to strike back almost immediately with a try from Nitoglia, Berquist hit the conversion and tagged on a penalty in the 59th minute to level the scores at 19-19. Even then you would expect Munster to respond but Treviso were only half way through their purple patch.

It was an encore from Nitoglia and Berquist of the exact same magnitude and suddenly Munster were trailing by 29-19 and reeling from twenty unanswered Treviso points in sixteen minutes. There were still fifteen minutes remaining in the game and not an unassailable deficit. But Munster couldn’t turn the tide even with fresh legs off the bench.

Results like Treviso can happen, especially away from home. But the problem with losing a game from a winning position, and let’s be honest Munster were in a winning position, it sows a seed of doubt the next time round. For the rest of the season, when holding a lead and the opposition score, it will bring the memories of Treviso flooding back. It is something the team will have to address to avoid a reoccurrence in the future.

On the bigger picture, Munster’s failure to complete the “Italian Job” will be a big disappointment for the players and staff. In quieter moments during last week’s build up they may have even allowed themselves the luxury of thinking about a possible bonus point victory over Treviso. The players would have known that two away bonus point wins were within their ability on the trip to Italy. It would have been a bumper start to the Pro 12 and with the Dragons due in Cork next weekend, they could be heading into their first Leinster derby of the season in Thomond Park on October 5th in great fettle. The result in Treviso stalls things for the moment.

The other team that hit the brakes in earnest on Friday were Leinster. The brakes had somewhat already been applied at the RDS last week in the drawn game with the Ospreys.

Last Friday night in Glasgow was a far cry from the slicing and dicing of Llanelli in the final quarter at Parc y Scarlets, in the opening game of the season. In week two Leinster continued in that irrepressible mode against the Ospreys in the first thirty minutes at the RDS. But the Ospreys reeled them in with a Jekyll and Hyde performance, eventually snatching a draw at the death.

But this week Leinster were stuck in neutral for long periods at Scotstoun. To be fair Glasgow have been the most improved team in the Pro 12, taking their form from last season and hitting the ground running so far this year. But the disappointing aspect of Leinster’s performance is they failed to cross the whitewash during the eighty minutes, with Jimmy Gopperth’s brace of penalties being the only points they registered.

For a team that often seems to score tries for fun, that is the most gnawing aspect of the night. When trailing 7-6 with twenty minutes remaining you expected Leinster to cut the traces and burst into life. It never materialised and Glasgow’s 75th minute try killed off the game.

The other “bummer” for Leinster was losing Loti Tuqiri after only thirty minutes with a hamstring injury. That spells nothing but frustration for everybody involved. But in terms of disruption it was negligible, when you have a world class replacement coming off the bench in Rob Kearney, there should be no issues.

Leinster host Cardiff next weekend at the RDS. They will first and foremost focus on winning the game and getting the wagon rolling again. But secondly they will want to do so by scoring tries. The team that scored sixty-six tries in last years tournament will want to begin replicating that form sooner rather than later. A loss at home this weekend to Cardiff would certainly leave the Leinster bus idling.

The most anticipated game of the weekend for Irish rugby fans was the first local derby of the season between Connacht and Ulster at the Sportsground. Ulster rolled into Galway desperately in need of a win. Which sounds a bit dramatic just three games into the season. But a loss on Saturday would have meant a 0-3 start to the league, which would have plummeted Ulster into crisis mode.

So that’s just what you need to get your season back on track, a local derby away from home. No doubt Ulster would have approached this game with a focus akin to a Heineken Cup weekend.

Connacht on the other hand had their own pressures to deal with. Having dispatched Zebre two weeks ago, efficiently if not spectacularly in the first game of the season, they fell in Cardiff last week. Winning a local derby early in the season would have certainly righted the ship and sent a message across the league. But it wasn’t to be.

The game, particularly in the early stages, was played at a frantic pace. The intensity of both teams was traded off against accuracy, which led to a lot of errors. After ten minutes when Dan Parks sliced through the Ulster cover to score and then convert his own try, the locals sensed blood in the water.

But Ulster responded within three minutes by taking Connacht through phase after phase until they ran out of defenders and Mike Allen walked in untouched for a try in the corner. The ease at which Ulster extracted revenge looked ominous for Connacht but the game continued at it’s frenetic and error strewn pace for the remainder of the half with Connacht still leading 7-5 at the break.

The quality of the game and the score remained the same until the 55th minute when Paddy Jackson nudged Ulster ahead with a penalty. But just two minutes later Ulster threw the knock-out punch.

From a line-out, a sublime pass from scrum-half Paul Marshall (a half-time substitution), put Paddy Jackson on the gain-line. Jackson’s flat pass to Luke Marshall carved open the Connacht defence and Jackson eventually finished the move by dotting down for a try. Jackson’s 64th minute penalty was the final score of an 18-8 victory for Ulster.

The win looked more comfortable than it was, but for Ulster that won’t matter a jot. They needed to win at all costs to start their season. It buys them a bit of breathing space. That is until Treviso roll into Ravenhill next Friday night.

Connacht on the other hand gave a glimpse that Pat Lam is true to his word. Connacht ran the ball at every opportunity from start to finish. But it does pose some points for discussion.

Connacht struggled at the breakdown, not getting numbers to rucks and lacking accuracy when they did. It led to costly turnovers at crucial times when they had Ulster under the cosh. It is a very fixable problem and no doubt will be addressed if they are to continue with their ‘run & gun’ philosophy.

Also, some of Connacht’s best phases of play came when they were very direct with Ulster. Some of the ‘Route 1’ rugby they played was very productive. At times they struggled when they moved the ball wide, especially without first going “Route 1’. Sometimes you have to play some “North/South” rugby before you can play “East/West” rugby.

Connacht will look to restart the motor next week in Galway against the Ospreys. It will be a big challenge as the Ospreys are in rude health at the moment.

At this point in the early season Munster, Connacht and Leinster’s motors have stalled and Ulster’s has just started up. The key to a good league campaign is to keep the motor purring along every week at a steady pace. All four provinces will want to establish that purring sound pretty soon.