Gerry Thornley: Sloppy Leinster pay price for off-colour start

Handling errors prove province didn’t even bring a B game to semi-final defeat

A dejected  Johnny Sexton after the defeat to Scarlets.  Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

A dejected Johnny Sexton after the defeat to Scarlets. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

How is that a season which saw so much improvement and scaled so many heights ended with such a low? Such is the nature of a rugby season. For all bar the champions there will be regrets. But as they assembled in their UCD base yesterday, Leinster will probably have more regrets than any of their rivals.

In so many ways the province made vast improvements on last season. They scored a record number of tries, 91, and points, 674, in a Pro12 campaign, to earn another home semi-final.

Added to this was the manner in which they atoned for last season’s European campaign by topping their group as the competition’s leading try scorers, thereby earning a home quarter-final. There they dissected Wasps and even when the Premiership finalists came back into the game, Leinster went and won it again.

So far, so good. 

Against Clermont in Lyon, Leinster didn’t match the French side’s intensity in the opening quarter and made mistakes, with an overthrown lineout and a couple of coughed-up balls giving Clermont a steady stream of starter plays.

When it comes to semi-finals, previous achievements count for nought

That said, the way they came back into the match was commendable and, while there were regrets, there was no shame in that defeat; all the more so if they learned from it. When it comes to semi-finals, previous achievements count for nought. You have to bring your A game.

Therein lies the surprise. Leinster didn’t even bring a B game to last Friday night’s semi-final at home to the Scarlets.

Curiously, Leinster looked a little fatigued; possibly more over-cooked than under-done.

When they conducted their painful review on Monday, they’ll assuredly have begun to question their preparation for the game as yet again they didn’t so much start poorly as downright sloppily.  Playing his first Pro12 game since January and first game of any hue since the Clermont match, Johnny Sexton looked ring-rusty and, affected by a clash with Gareth Davies in the 18th minute, strangely off colour.

Handling errors

Even by that moment, he had been as culpable as anyone for the early handling errors which prevented Leinster applying pressure on the Scarlets in the first quarter and so making home advantage tell. His forward pass to Isa Nacewa ruled out a try after what had been a bright start, before he fired the ball at James Tracy and then knocked on a pass from Luke McGrath.

This was followed by Josh van der Flier knocking on an offload by Joey Carbery, before Robbie Henshaw did likewise with a pass off a lineout from van der Flier. When they got this move right in the 23rd minute it led to the wonderfully concocted try by the excellent Garry Ringrose in the high point of Leinster’s night. But before that, Hayden Triggs failed to hold on to a high pass from Luke McGrath; a sixth handling error by which point only 14 minutes had elapsed.  

What really undermined them were the handling errors

For the most part, there appeared to be a surprising lack of urgency and intensity in Leinster’s carries, and even when 11 points adrift against 14 men in the second half.

In a tactically muddled performance, only once did Sexton go to the skies toward Byrne on the right wing, despite him being opposed by a small and out of position flanker for more than half the game. Too often they went wide without earning the right to do so, where Jonathan Davies and his team-mates shot up to close off the outside channels. It was a surprise Leinster didn’t wear the Scarlets down with more close-in carries.

However, what really undermined them were the handling errors. Ultimately, there were 13 in all, five of them by the first receiver. Their resourcing and accuracy at ruck time resulted in half a dozen more turnovers, as the Scarlets took a leaf out of Clermont’s manual. The bottom line was that Leinster simply didn’t protect the ball enough.

A Leinster season which promised so much ended in such sudden anti-climax

Compounding their looseness in attack, for all the Scarlets’ superb lines of running, it was also a porous defensive effort. Leinster should not be conceding three tries from just four Scarlets’ visits to their 22.

Mentally off-colour

Already missing the experience of Sean Cronin, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney, Leinster preferred Ross Molony and Adam Byrne to Devin Toner and Fergus McFadden. Molony had an industrious game, and Byrne carried well, but was culpable for the Scarlets’ first try when shooting up and missing his tackle on Jonathan Davies. Pushing up on the outside, Leinster were then twice beaten on their inside shoulders when not filling gaps close to the base.

Ultimately, you can’t help but feel that Leinster paid for a mentally off-colour and sloppy start to the game.

Whereas a Leinster season which promised so much ended in such sudden anti-climax, Connacht’s finale to a more drawn out anti-climax in Northampton summed up much of their season.

They just didn’t have enough momentum or confidence going into such a season-defining game

Northampton were very limited, but try though Tiernan O’Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun did, without the suspended Bundee Aki, Connacht lacked the X factor to penetrate the home defence. For far too much of the game they were shovelling the ball along the line laterally without going anywhere.

The double whammy of Pat Lam’s departure at the end of the season, and that of hugely influential skills coach Dave Ellis midway through it, has assuredly contributed to the way basic skills have let them down.

Come Saturday, they just didn’t have enough momentum or confidence going into such a season-defining game. Kieran Keane and a rejigged coaching ticket will still inherit a strong squad and vastly improved culture and organisation, not to mention fan base, compared to previous incumbents.   

Even so, Leinster’s sense of regret will be more acute. While a Welsh revival in the Pro12 is welcome, and the Scarlets fully deserve their place in the final, an Aviva decider without Leinster takes much of the pizzazz from the occasion.

gthornley@irishtimes.com 

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