Leinster get the benefit of the doubt to emerge with hard-fought victory
Slew of contentious refereeing decisions leave Connacht empty-handed
Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip celebrates as the referee awards a late penalty try against Connacht. Photograph: Inpho
LEINSTER 16 CONNACHT 13
Allowing for the League’s inflated attendances, 15,000-plus people paid to watch proceedings, our national broadcasters beamed the match to a couple of hundred thousand more and this advert for the Rabo Pro12 and Irish rugby was dominated by one man more than all others: the referee.
The quality of Irish refereeing under Owen Doyle’s stewardship has been well above average for much of the professional era. But if David Wilkinson aspires to be among the best he is going to have to show a lot more empathy for the game than he revealed here.
He began his concerto precisely 24 seconds into the match when ridiculously penalising Seán Cronin for going off his feet, when he actually hadn’t and couldn’t be blamed for Connacht not engaging, and thereafter scarcely let up. Dan Parks opened the scoring, and after that it almost became an offence to have the ball, so strict was Wilkinson on entry through a gate that in his eyes was about a foot wide, or the merest hinting of holding on to the ball on the ground.
At the end Craig Clarke, who had assumed the Connacht captaincy from the departed Michael Swift, shook Wilkinson’s hand when he must have been tempted to shake his neck, after a penalty count of 19-8 against the visitors, including the decisive penalty try with which Wilkinson, fittingly, had the final say.
By then, Wilkinson had harshly yellow carded Ronan Loughney, for a largely immaterial offside in the middle of the pitch, and Kieron Marmion, for spoiling Isaac Boss at the base after the Leinster scrumhalf had reached down for the ball at the base of the scrum. With Connacht down to the bare bones, the inevitable penalty try came against a seven-man pack with winger Tiernan O’Halloran at blindside flanker; scrumhalf Paul O’Donohoe having been obliged to pack down at number eight at the previous put-in for the hamstrung Andrew Browne.
“Probably the most frustrating thing is a lot of calls from the sideline,” said Pat Lam. “I’ve got no problem with people who referee at this level making some calls. But to have people who don’t even ref at this level to be making some calls is a big challenge. And I think that’s something that we need to look at.”
Connacht have become a little paranoid about refereeing, and have the stats to prove it, “That’s two weeks in a row no one crossed our line, and there were some mighty calls there . . . Saracens is another game that still hurts us and to come away again like that is tough,” said Lam.
He will go through normal channels, as he did after Claudio Blessano’s performance in their round two defeat in Cardiff, when the penalty count was 18-4. “The referee that day is no longer refereeing at this level. We got a nice apology for that, but it doesn’t help us.”
For sure, Connacht’s discipline at times could have been better, although for much of the night their defensive line speed in midfield allied to their effective drift out wide, superb tackling and counter-rucking, effectively stymied Leinster. Their 21-year-old Kiwi flanker Jake Keenan put in a big shift, as did George Naoupu, Clarke, Rodney Ah You, Craig Ronaldson and Robbie Henshaw.
For his part, Matt O’Connor was equally annoyed with the refereeing, not least as six of the eight penalties they conceded were when in possession. “There were issues there,” admitted the Leinster coach. “The reality is opposition sides are going to go incredibly hard at our ball . . . Now, if the referee is inaccurate, we’re inaccurate, they don’t get sanctioned, it’s a bun fight.”
Even allowing for a greasy pill though, Leinster again didn’t help themselves with some poor passing. And they were often aligned too flat. Connacht’s early scrum supremacy, along with Ronaldson charging down Ian Madigan’s attempted kick, earned a try for Marmion before Henshaw was wildly offside at a scrum and a Sean Henry overthrow was also punished by Madigan after Connacht had repelled a 22-phase attack.
Critical third quarter
The visitors went for the jugular in a dominant third quarter when first going to the corner for their 11-man maul to be pulled down without offence. Admittedly, when Kevin McLaughlin was pinged for going off his feet, they opted for a shot at goal from which Parks hit the post, rather than go to the corner again.
They felt like turning points, all the more so when Connacht were twice harshly penalised in possession. Gavin Duffy’s uncharacteristic failure to gather an up-and-under and Healy’s ensuing fumble then led to a couple more scrum penalties as Marty Moore’s introduction turned the tide significantly.
Although Lam’s brave introduction of Loughney and JP Cooney, who impressed alongside debutant replacement hooker Dave Heffernan, stemmed the first wave of scrum pressure, the second against 13-man opponents rewarded Jamie Heaslip’s decision to go to the corner 10 minutes from time.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 2 mins: Parks pen 0-3; 7 : Parks pen 0-6; 10: Madigan pen 3-6; 13: Marmion try, Parks con 3-13; 29: Madigan pen 6-13; 40: Madigan pen 9-13; (half-time 9-13); 77: penalty try, Madigan con 16-13.
LEINSTER: R Kearney; F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, N Reid, D Kearney, I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Bent, D Toner, Q Roux, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt). Replacements: M McCarthy for Roux (45 mins), M Moore for Bent, R Ruddock for McLaughloin (both 55 mins), I Boss for Reddan, J Gopperth for Reid, Z Kirchner for R Kearney (all 71 mins), A Dundon for Cronin (77 mins).
CONNACHT: G Duffy; T O’Halloran, R Henshaw, C Ronaldson, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, S Henry, R Ah You, M Swift (captain), C Clarke, M Fifita, J Heenan, G Naoupu. Replacements: D Heffernan for Henry (half-time), A Muldowney Swift (50 mins), JP Cooney for Wilkinson, R Loughney for Ah You (both 61 mins), A Browne for Fifita (63 mins), P O’Donohoe for Browne (74 mins), F Carr for Duffy (both 78 mins). Sinbinned: Loughney (70 mins), Marmion (76 mins).
Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU).