As documented elsewhere I've had a few problems with German telecommunications - vorsprung durch technik ?- My ****!
Welcome back to the big time!
Anyone who doubted that the Heineken Cup was a step-up from the Challenge Cup that we so nearly won last season would have had their doubts well and truly quashed on Friday night. The pleasure on arriving at The Madstad at seeing so many Scarlets’ supporters in good voice was more than tempered by the news that both Riki Flutey and Kieran Roche had failed late fitness tests. Not only would we be playing 2 props carrying injuries but we would also be missing our 3 first choice locks. Everitt and Johnson were drafted into out-half and lock as the respective replacements.
After a few pints in the convivial (if extortionate) surroundings of the Hotel bar exchanging banter with the many supporters in red a largely forgettable first half kicked-off on-time. Early impressions were that the Llanelli backs were able to break the gainline with too much ease and that Irish were missing touch and spilling the ball with alarming frequency. However the opening score from the first half was a penalty kick by Barry Everitt after Llanelli had been penalised for illegally slowing the ball down at the ruck. This penalty was soon cancelled out by a successful penalty by Stephen Jones for Irish being offside at the ruck. The Scarlets failed to deal with the resulting kick off and a period of extended pressure resulted in a Mike Catt drop goal attempt that hit the post. Llanelli failed to clear their lines but were awarded a penalty from the ensuing 5 metre scrum. Soon after this Declan Danaher (making a welcome return from injury) was, unluckily in my opinion, adjudged to have deliberately knocked on (it looked like the ball was knocked on in the tackle). Simon Easterby then seemed to shove Declan in the chest and, as Bill McClaren would say there, was a little ‘argy-bargy’ between the packs. Result? Danaher to the bin for ten minutes for the knock-on and no action for the afters. Despite being down to 14 men Irish took the lead 6-3 following another penalty for slowing the ball down at the ruck. The real moment of controversy in the first-half was in the build up to the Scarlet’s opening try. Irish had the ball just inside their half and it was cleared relatively quickly from the base of a ruck. As Hodgson turned to fire the pass to Barry Everitt he found his path blocked by Stephen Jones retreating but in an offside position doing the old ‘Zinzan’ shuffle. (You know the one – the jogging backwards, arms up in the air, innocent expression and conveniently finding yourself in between the half-backs!). Hodgson held onto the ball and turned blind and chipped the ball into the Scarlet’s half. The Scarlet’s successfully counter-attacked in a move that contained a couple of ‘lateral’ passes that put Dafydd James away into the corner. Jones rubbed salt into the supporter’s wounds by converting from out wide. Half time – Irish 6 Llanelli 10.
The first twenty minutes of the second half brought delight to the Welsh visitors with many Irish supporters’ heads in their hands. Llanelli’s second try was scored in close (? Easterby as head was in hands at this point) as the forwards out-muscled their Irish opponents. The handling leading up to that try was sublime (and reminiscent of what we were doing to some teams last season) with the backs off-loading before contact setting up the try scoring position. Try duly converted, 6-17. A period of Irish pressure followed but an attacking line-out (following a penalty for another offence at the ruck) was lost although Irish charged down the attempted clearance only to see it fall back over the dead ball line. The Scarlet’s scored another try soon after as there backs showed the benefit of slick handling again that gave Mark Jones a ‘flat’ ball to take at pace that allowed him to step outside a rather flat footed Topsy Ojo and race half the length of the pitch to score a try. No doubt that Jones is very quick, but what made the try was the pass and the fact that he took the ball at pace. Once he was past Topsy there was no way that he could have been caught – excellent winger’s try. Conversion missed – 6-22. Llanelli scored another converted try (to secure the bonus point) from third phase ball after kicking to the corner and securing their line-out ball. Jones added a further penalty leaving Irish staring into the abyss at 6-32.
A raft of changes on both sides including the resting of the excellent Easterby and the introduction of Delon, Tiesi and Murphy for Irish. Another penalty for Irish (for infringing at the ruck (again)) resulted in an attacking line-out that went long to Murphy at the back of the line-out. Ball secured and a burst through weak tackling gave the Irish crowd something to cheer about. Try converted (13-32). Another penalty for Irish (for? – go on guess!! resulted in a belated yellow card) and soon after it was game on as Mapusua scored an excellent try after receiving an inside pass from Murphy under the posts as Irish counter-attacked from a wayward clearance from Jones. Conversion duly scored and the score 20-32. Could it happen? Both Irish and Llanelli supporters were now in full voice and the Madstad was ‘humming’ under the floodlights. This was what the Heineken Cup was all about! Further delight for Irish supporters as the backs again attacked from deep cutting with ease through, a now, porous Scarlet’s defence and Delon Armitage had the strength to carry his tackler across the line for a well-worked try. Conversion missed but Irish were now within a converted try of their illustrious opponents. Three nerve-wracking minutes left but Irish couldn’t find the breakthrough they needed despite some panic within the Scarlet’s ranks although some of the more experienced players did everything they could to slow the game down! Delight for the Welshmen and a case of ‘what might have been’ for the Irish. Pleasing to see the Irish team come across to the east stand and a little disappointed to see that the superb Scarlet’s supporters weren’t given the same opportunity to thank their players.
A question of Llanelli taking their foot of the pedal or Irish finally raising their game? Probably a little of both. Llanelli will be delighted with the 5 points from an away game and Irish will be ruing some sloppy play and missed opportunities. Too much lost ball in contact and inability to secure quality set piece ball are things that need to be worked on – but the coaches and players will be well aware of these things. Irish need to cut out the basic errors – a question of concentration or confidence? Are we out of the cup? Not yet. Ulster’s win against Toulouse, I believe, throws the group wide open. We need a result in Toulouse. No chance? Anyone remember an evening in Wycombe last season? We haven’t yet hit those heights of last season for a sustained period of any game but it will come. The future’s bright, the future is green (with a little red and a little white!).
My Irish man of the match was Phil Murphy, even though he was only on the pitch for a quarter of the game, who’s running, handling and off-loading contributed hugely to our fight back (this is nothing to do with the fact that I owe his father a Guinness!). My overall man of the match however goes to Dwayne Peel who was simply outstanding.