The first marker of the Irish rugby season took place last weekend. The first round of the historical inter-provincial games took place in the Sportsground and in Thomond Park. Leinster packed the bus and headed to the Connacht cauldron and Ulster hopped the train to Limerick to try and keep their momentum of early season going.
Starting with the reigning and defending champions and their trip to a dangerous Connacht. A Connacht team who are very very close to being contenders. They have a great coach in situ who understands the culture, what the supporters want to see and has gotten the entire squad on board. They are playing with freedom, the shackles of last year have been shaken off and everyone is on board. It really is great to see. Sometimes they are on the wrong side of a 1 score game, in the season they won the league (and hammered Leinster in the final) they had the run of games going for them. Once that happens again they will find themselves at the top table.
So did that help when Leinster arrived?
In short the answer is, kind of. I really enjoyed this game, both teams worked very hard, showed grit, determination, skill and a hunger for the fight. Which is something that is needed in rugby, a team based combat sport. Let’s have a quick look at the stats, and see if they tell the tale of the game.
Starting with the final score, 3-20 to the visitors and Leinster had 44% possession for 48% territory so Connacht did get their hands on the ball. Leinster had to make more tackles (nearly 40 more at 178) and completed 160 of them for a 90% completion rate. Again shows that the home side where beyond busy. Connacht gave away 15 penalties to Leinsters 10. This is part of the story (red card aside). Both teams where on the line in terms of infringements. The referee played well too, I don’t remember too many stoppages, the game ran smoothly. Set piece on both sides was solid, only 1 scrum lost by the visitors, and they managed to steal 1 Connacht lineout. James Lowe had 13 runs for 102 metres, again an immense shift for him. Larmour, Ringrose and Conan also clocked in a few miles under foot which shows that the freedom Leinster have to run is spread throughout the team. Again their possession to points ratio was good which will frighten teams. JVDF made 23 tackles and only missed 1 and got a stamp on the head for his troubles. Coming back from a serious knee injury, some would expect him to take his time getting back in, but he has hit the ground running and looks quicker than before. The returning Sean O’Brien had 15 tackles with 9 runs for 20 metres not a bad return for someone coming back from serious injury. The word is everyone is fit and ready for next weekend.
Connacht played well, the runs and metres also spread around the pitch. There is a gulf in experience which will cost them against a Leinster team with silverware everywhere. If Connacht can keep their heads up and concentrate a bit more while getting that penalty count down, they will do damage against the other provinces. They play Ulster next. Both teams with a lot to play for.
Munster welcomed Ulster to Thomond Park. Again starting with the final score it was 64-7. Yes, you read that right. Ulster brought some youngsters down to play and get game time. A good idea most of the time, but it just didn’t go well for them at all. Losing Henderson and Cooney to HIA during the game really burned their house down. But let’s look at the stats and see if the score line reflects the game.
Ulster had 56% possession for 54% territory so they had time on the ball. They only had to make 147 tackles making 122 of them. Munster made 168 of 189. Munster had to do some work, even though the score line doesn’t suggest that. The penalty count was nice and low with Munster at 6 and Ulster at 7. So a professional and well-played game was had. Munster broke the tackles in the right areas, beating 25 defenders and mostly in the red zone. Ulster beat 20, not all in the shop window where they could complete the purchase. They conceded 18 turnovers which is just madness. That is nearly 10 more than the other interpro match. The set piece was very good from both sides too, Ulster losing 1 scrum and 1 lineout. Deysal and Lowry missed 5 and 4 tackles together while making 10 and 2. It may take the former some time to settle back in but with 44 metres off 14 runs it isn’t all doom and gloom. For Munster Wooton had 111 metres on 10 runs which must be some sort of record. Earls had 76 metres off 16 runs so there was massive amounts of space around the pitch.
In short, or in medium, this isn’t complete doom and gloom for the visitors and it is not a ‘everything is rosy in the garden’ for Munster. The stats for Ulster show they were competitive around the field, but they just didn’t have the experience on it to guide them through a bad day at the office. For Munster it was a professional outing, they did what they should have done against a weak team. The usual fervour coming out of a win is loud in Munster right now. They make the trip to the Aviva Stadium this weekend, which on form, will lead to a silencing of our red neighbours.
Until next week.