Lucky Leinster struggle to find momentum

Leinster 14 Harlequins 13

Lucky Leinster struggle to find momentum

Add to that some very big calls in Leinster’s favour on Saturday evening, and you have the second part of this back-to-back in a nutshell.

Harlequins left six points behind them thanks to a pair of awful penalties from their young and inexperienced out-half Tim Swiel, a third-choice ten parachuted in from South Africa’s off-season to cover for the injured Nick Evans and Ben Botica.

They had another seven thieved from them thanks to referee Romain Poite and his TMO, who inexplicably determined Joe Marler had knocked-on shortly after half-time before Mike Brown touched down under the posts. This was despite the fact that Rob Kearney could clearly be seen to rip the ball back onto Leinster’s side when Marler hit the floor. And then there was Isaac Boss’s 31st minute try, which could have seen the home side pinged for a penalty on their own scrum.

That’s an 18-point swing right there.

Leinster, by contrast, could say that Dominic Ryan was millimetres away from touching down in the first-half and that Ian Madigan missed a gimme of a penalty kick too. All of which would still leave Quins eight points better off and with another win in the bag.

Matt O’Connor took exception to the suggestion that his side had “escaped” with the win, but they did. This was the kind of escapology that would merit a heist movie and Leinster’s coaches and players must recognise that.

There was a time when Leinster were known as the Manchester United of rugby and their history this last decade backs that up: from their fancy dans/serial underachievers days, to the years of dominance and now to their return to the pack.

Whilst on the subject of comparisons, there was much of the old Leinster in what Harlequins brought to the table: the brio, pace and accuracy of their attack, the steadfastness in defence and the heavy reliance on academy graduates to do much of it.

Yet, good and all as Quins looked this last ten days or so, they remain a better-than-average but far from top-tier side when it comes to European fare. Could you imagine them causing so many problems for Toulon or Clermont Auvergne?

Leinster’s chief concern is actually the problems they create for themselves. Yet again, we had O’Connor and captain Jamie Heaslip bigging up aspects of their game afterwards while, at the same time, talking about the room for improvement.

“Growth,” as O’Connor calls it.

Forget the cliché it brings to mind, this really was a ‘must-win’ game and yet it resulted in a strangely muted one that only came to life late on when Madigan slotted over the winning penalty and got embroiled in the brawl that landed Charlie Matthews in the bin.

Christmas with Leinster at the Aviva used to guarantee thrills and spills. On Saturday, the province claimed their second lowest score in 13 visits to the venue and it was all played out in front of the lowest attendance (38,500) yet.

The opening exchanges went a long way to explaining why Leinster are losing the floating voters. Their first six attacks ended with a dropped pass, a pass to ground, two turnovers at the ruck, another spill and a Madigan penalty that came back off the post.

They enjoyed almost 50% more possession and territory than the visitors and yet Harlequins made almost 100 metres more, carved more line breaks and beat more defenders, even if those last two stats were marginal.

The visitors also made far more tackles (130 to 104) and yet missed fewer than their hosts who also coughed up more lineouts on their own throw and suffered the loss of two scrums against the head. They were also penalised repeatedly on Harlequins’ put-ins.

That aside, Leinster’s discipline did improve and so did their turnover count, but the eyes were evidence enough on Saturday and the most damning fact was that it took them 71 minutes to inject any momentum into proceedings.

They did it thanks to replacement scrum-half Eoin Reddan, who twice darted clear and the ensuing panic resulted in the penalty which allowed Madigan kick the winning points: their first in 33 minutes and since which Quins had rattled off 13 unanswered.

O’Connor spoke earlier this month about the possibility of Ben Te’o and Cian Healy returning in time for January’s European appointments and, nights like Saturday’s are proof that, right now, Leinster need all hands possible on deck.

LEINSTER: R Kearney; Z Kirchner, L Fitzgerald, I Madigan, D Fanning; J Gopperth, I Boss; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Ross; D Toner, K Douglas; R Ruddock, D Ryan, J Heaslip.

Replacements: E Reddan for Boss (50); M McCarthy for Douglas (58); J Conan for Ruddock (64); M Bent for McGrath (77).

HARLEQUINS: M Brown; M Yarde, M Hopper; G Lowe, A Tikoirotuma; T Swiel, D Care; J Marler, D Ward, W Collier; C Matthews, G Robson; L Wallace, J Clifford, N Easter.

Replacements: J Trayfoot for Wallace (72); R Chisholm for Brown (76); S Twomey for Tikoirotuma (80).

Referee: R Poite (FFR).

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