European Cup Semi-Final Leinster 20 Northampton 17 F/T

Match Preview, with Match Live Blog updates.

Once again, Leinster are putting all their eggs in one basket, putting home advantage in the URC knock-out stages at risk for the sake of giving their front-liners a good rest and a good preparation time for their European Cup semi-final against English Premiership leaders Northampton. The squad they sent to South Africa for matches against the Lions and Stormers was made up of squad back-up and academy players and they struggled against good opposition.  Of the XXIII man squad selected against Northampton, only Prop Michael Ala’alatoa and lock Jason Jenkins made that trip.

Northampton Saints, by way of contrast, had full on Premiership league matches against Leicester, which they won 40-17 and England’s other European Cup finalists, Harlequins, which they lost 41-32 in a brilliant match in front of 59,000 spectators in Twickenham. So, will those efforts cost them in the latter stages of the match against Leinster in front of 82,000 spectators in Croke Park, or will Leinster be a bit undercooked and not quite match hardened? Only time will tell. The attitude in England seems to be that both Northampton and Harlequins have nothing to lose in their away Semi-finals against Leinster and Toulouse, and so might as well give it their best shot.

Leinster have been there before and have not always been at their best in such a high stakes match. They want that fifth star so badly that they can become inhibited, playing safe, while their opponents feel free to cut loose. But despite having three relative newcomers, this Leinster squad has experience running deep. Osborne, Frawley, and McCarthy may be relatively new kids on the block, but they have shown a maturity and speed of development beyond their years. So much so, that Ryan, Ringrose, and Keenan have hardly been missed. The one weakness in the squad for Northampton to exploit is possibly Ala’alatoa on the bench, but he generally does ok against all but the strongest scrums.

The wide-open spaces of the bigger pitch and in goal area at Croke Park will put the Leinster/Nienaber rush defence to a severe test and put a premium on kicks into space. In players like Fin Smith, Northampton have the skill to exploit that space and the pace of Ramm, Freeman, and Hendy on the kick chase. I expect a more battle-hardened Northampton to start well, and my only question mark is whether they can last the pace when Leinster really start to turn it on. There are some intriguing matchups – Ryan Baird against Courtney Lawes, Jamieson Gibson Park against Alex Mitchell, Ross Byrne against Fin Smith, and Jamie Osborne and Robbie Henshaw against Fraser Dingwall and Tommy Freeman, to name just a few. It should be a great match, on a great occasion in an iconic stadium.

LEINSTER: Ciarán Frawley; Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Jamie Osborne, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, Joe McCarthy, Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris (Capt).

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Michael Ala’alatoa, Jason Jenkins, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Harry Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien.

NORTHAMPTON: George Furbank; James Ramm, Tommy Freeman, Fraser Dingwall, George Hendy; Fin Smith, Alex Mitchell; Alex Waller, Curtis Langdon, Trevor Davison; Alex Moon, Alex Coles; Courtney Lawes (capt), Sam Graham, Juarno Augustus.

Replacements: Sam Matavesi, Emmanuel Iyogun, Elliot Millar Mills, Temo Mayanavanua, Angus Scott-Young, Tom James, Tom Litchfield, Tom Seabrook.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).



Live Blog: Leinster 20 Northampton 17 f/t.

A ten minute delay to kick-off only increased the sense of anticipation ahead of this match. (Cue jokes about southsiders having difficulty finding their way to the stadium, but the stadium looks pretty full to me!)

A magical touchfinder by Lowe is marred by his poor pass to Frawley. First scrum penalty goes to Northampton. A couple of mistakes by both sides indicates a nervous start. Gibson Park mixes it up by a dink over the top which causes confusion in the Saints backline. A Quick tap penalty by Gibson Park from in front of the posts and a pass to Lowe on the touchline leads to the first try.

Ross Byrne nails the conversion and then intercepts to set up another attack and Caelan Doris gets the ball away out of the tackle to Lowe who scores his second. Byrne hits the post with his second touchline conversion. 12-0. Saints are in deep trouble. Little mistakes are undermining their game. You get the feeling this is their first experience of senior hurling…

Van Der Flier wins a penalty at the breakdown and then Leinster win a scrum penalty in front of the posts. Leinster can take their time – 15-0. Saint’s haven’t fired a shot and are penalised for offside at the kick-off and then for wheeling the scrum. Lawes wins a penalty at the breakdown to stem the tide. Lowe has been breaking tackles for fun and then covers a Fin Smith grubber.

Saints win a scrum penalty against Porter and get their first attacking chance of the half, 35 minutes in! Slightly poor passing ruins a Saints scoring chance on the outside. Smith lands the penalty in the last minute. Leinster start a multiphase attack, make good ground but are finally foiled by a Van Der Flier knock on. 15-3 at half time is a result for Northampton in the circumstances. Leinster were behind by 16 in their famous come-back win against Northampton in 2011.  This match is not over yet!

Lowe gets his hat trick after Doris runs through half the Northampton team and sets up a relentless attack. Ross misses the touchline conversion. 20-3. Northampton have achieved equality in scrum and line-out but are being dominated everywhere else. A couple of Northampton attacks come to naught. Frawley saves a touchline penalty and then Leinster counter ruck effectively.  Jenkins, Kelleher and Conan come on – it’s not going to get any easier for Northampton…

A rare Lowe error leads to a Northampton attack and five metre scrum. Raynal rules in Leinster’s favour and the Leinster line survives again. Buts Saint’s attack again and Leinster fail to deal with the dink ahead and Hendy scores. 20-10.  Amazingly, Northampton are still in this game. Ross Byrne misses  a long range penalty from in front of the posts, and then Leinster are pinged at the breakdown.

The game slows down to a game of kick tennis. The Northampton first XV have played 15,000 minutes this season to 10,000 for Leinster – although I doubt that includes the international minutes Leinster players have played. Cian Healy comes on for his record 111 Champions Cup appearance. Gibson Park saves a try from a Freeman kick ahead. Northampton score in the corner and Fin Smith nails the touchline conversion 20-17.

Leinster mount a sustained attack but Northampton counter attack brilliantly. Doris, who has been making hard yards all game gains the crucial turnover penalty.  This has been a real rugby match, played to a test standard, and with not a yellow card in sight. Northampton survived a torrid first half to make a real match of it. Leinster retreated into their shell somewhat, reverting to a box kicking and long kicking game. Northampton were well able to cope with that.

A great game of rugby, played in front of a record 82.300 crowd. Gibson Park earns a well deserved MOTM award, but it could have gone to Doris for his exceptional running and breakdown work, or to Lowe for his hat trick. Ryan had a strong game, as had Van Der Flier. Frawley was excellent at the back and Henshaw and Osborne won their midfield duels. But fair play to Northampton, they made a real match of it.

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