Tuesday 21 May 2019

Champions Cup analysis: 'Live by the sword, die by the sword – sometimes it's best to kick the ball dead'

11 May 2019; James Ryan of Leinster following the Heineken Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and Saracens at St James' Park in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
11 May 2019; James Ryan of Leinster following the Heineken Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and Saracens at St James' Park in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

At a time when cool heads were needed, Leinster lost theirs in a moment of madness they will regret for years.

Hindsight is great but even at the time, Luke McGrath's decision not to kick the ball dead for half-time was baffling. It proved very costly indeed.

Owen Farrell had just put Saracens on the scoreboard after weathering the Leinster storm with a man in the sin-bin.

Maro Itoje returned to the fray with less then a minute left on the clock, and for Leinster, leading 10-3, it was a matter of seeing it out until the break.

Looking back at the incident, both Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour were on the back foot in terms of their kick-chase, which suggests that neither player was really expecting McGrath to keep the ball alive.

We are not privy to what was being said on the pitch at the time but one imagines that there would have been plenty of chat from Johnny Sexton to his half-back partner.

Saracens were buoyant. They had just scored three points and were returned to their full complement. The last thing they wanted was the half-time whistle – and Leinster played right into their hands.

Kearney chased down Billy Vunipola, who caught McGrath's box-kick well outside his own 22. The Leinster full-back made the tackle and was then harshly pinged for not rolling away.

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It was classic Saracens stuff as Vunipola pinned Kearney to the ground and made it very difficult to roll away.

It's all about painting pictures for referees, particularly one as erratic as Jerome Garces. On this occasion, it could be argued that Kearney didn't leave the French official with much choice, but it was definitely on the harsh side.

“Our thinking at the time was to kick the ball on Billy Vunipola, who was standing on the 22, and try to win the ball over his head and try to get a two-score lead before half-time,” captain Sexton said, explaining why his side didn't kick the ball out for a 10-3 lead into the break.

“Your decisions are as good as they are in hindsight.

“We made a ballsy decision when we were 3-0 up to go for a scrum and not take three points. It's a great decision because we scored. It's not a good decision to box-kick it when you cough up a 10-3 lead.

4 Just after the hour mark, Leinster again had the Saracens defence stretched (note their urgency in calling for backup out wide) but they are unable to make it count, and the move ends with Sexton forcing a pass, which Billy Vunipola intercepts
4 Just after the hour mark, Leinster again had the Saracens defence stretched (note their urgency in calling for backup out wide) but they are unable to make it count, and the move ends with Sexton forcing a pass, which Billy Vunipola intercepts

“That period just before half-time and that period just after half-time where we had maybe two or three chances to score… that's how it felt when we were in their 22 pounding away at their line, when we got so close to their line a couple of times and didn't take advantage of the overlap or we coughed up a couple of offloads or a turnover on the deck.

“That 20-minute period before and after half-time was crucial in the end.”

Even when Saracens won the penalty, they still had an awful lot of work to do to score from all of 60 metres.

When you have an out-half with a boot like Owen Farrell however, anything is possible and Leinster were naive enough to offer Sarries a chance to fire a shot.

They are called ‘championship minutes' for a reason and that period before and after half-time was when Leinster's drive for five crashed and burned.

With the clock in the red, Saracens sensed blood and they were utterly ruthless in the manner in which they went after that crucial score.

Even from this position, Leinster would have backed their defence but as soon as they started to lose the collisions, it was ominous.

There was nothing flash about what followed as Sarries, in trademark fashion, launched their big men at the blue wall before it eventually crumbled.

McGrath almost atoned for his error with a stunning try-saving tackle on Jamie George.

It mattered little, however, and as the ball was moved wide for Sean Maitland, Robbie Henshaw and Larmour will wonder if they could have done more to stop the Scotland winger scoring.

Larmour shot off the line and bit in on Farrell when Henshaw seemed to have him covered.

It was a breakdown in communication that all stemmed from McGrath not booting the ball out when those around him should have been screaming at him to do so.

Such fine margins because had Leinster managed to win the ball back from the box-kick, we would be praising them for their bravery.

The ‘live by the sword, die by the sword' mantra failed them on this occasion however, and if McGrath finds himself in the same position again, he surely won't think twice about finding the safety of touch.

Humble McCall somehow continues to fly under the radar

Three Champions Cups later and it seems that on these shores, at least, Mark McCall still doesn't get the credit he deserves for moulding one of the best club teams of this era.

McCall's time in charge of his home province Ulster ended unceremoniously, but since then he has established himself as one of the best coaches in the game.

If, as expected, Eddie Jones departs England after the World Cup, McCall is likely, or rather he should be, one of the leading candidates to replace the Australian.

Saracens may not be to everyone's fancy, but no one can deny that they are an incredible team who are remarkably well-drilled by McCall.

With Ireland's coaching team set to undergo its own shake-up later this year, one wonders if the IRFU ever considered McCall. As it stands however, Irish rugby's loss has been England and Saracens' gain.

 

 

Tactics talk: Leinster pay the price for their uncharacteristic, sloppy inaccuracies

1 Leinster flew out of the traps for the second half and will regret not taking at least one of the gilt-edged chances that they created. James Lowe comes in off his left wing to run a trademark loop play off Johnny Sexton. Saracens defence is stretched and with Alex Lozowski shutting down Lowe’s options, he hesitates for a second, which is enough to create a bit of doubt in his head. Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour have created an overlap out wide, but Lowe throws a poor pass and the chance goes a-begging.

51leinster.jpg
1 Leinster flew out of the traps for the second half and will regret not taking at least one of the gilt-edged chances that they created. James Lowe comes in off his left wing to run a trademark loop play off Johnny Sexton. Saracens defence is stretched and with Alex Lozowski shutting down Lowe’s options, he hesitates for a second, which is enough to create a bit of doubt in his head. Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour have created an overlap out wide, but Lowe throws a poor pass and the chance goes a-begging.

2 The most glaring of all the wasted opportunities comes five minutes later and it’s not one that will make for comfortable viewing for Garry Ringrose in this morning's review. 

Leinster recycle the ball quickly for Ringrose, who makes an uncharacteristic poor decision. With a four-man overlap outside of him, the centre carries the ball into contact instead of putting it through the hands and scoring what would have been a certain try in the corner.

51leinster2.jpg
2 The most glaring of all the wasted opportunities comes five minutes later and it’s not one that will make for comfortable viewing for Garry Ringrose in this morning’s review. Leinster recycle the ball quickly for Ringrose, who makes an uncharacteristic poor decision. With a four-man overlap outside of him, the centre carries the ball into contact instead of putting it through the hands and scoring what would have been a certain try in the corner.

3 Eight phases later, Leinster are still hammering at the door when Tadhg Furlong has the chance to play a tip-on pass to Ringrose, but like Lowe earlier, the skilful prop hesitates enough for Liam Williams to make the hit on Ringrose and force the turnover penalty.

51leinster3.jpg
3 Eight phases later, Leinster are still hammering at the door when Tadhg Furlong has the chance to play a tip-on pass to Ringrose, but like Lowe earlier, the skilful prop hesitates enough for Liam Williams to make the hit on Ringrose and force the turnover penalty.

4 Just after the hour mark, Leinster again had the Saracens defence stretched (note their urgency in calling for backup out wide) but they are unable to make it count, and the move ends with Sexton forcing a pass, which Billy Vunipola intercepts.

51leinster4.jpg
4 Just after the hour mark, Leinster again had the Saracens defence stretched (note their urgency in calling for backup out wide) but they are unable to make it count, and the move ends with Sexton forcing a pass, which Billy Vunipola intercepts

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