While some before the game spoke about feeling manipulated by the marketing of a derby game that was contested with two weakened sides, 14 tries and 96 points later, few could deny the feast of rugby that followed in Leinster’s 54-42 win over Ulster on Friday. This analysis will look at the score that was arguably the pick of the bunch and the variety of ways that Leinster shaped Ulster’s defence in the build-up to Robbie Henshaw’s try.
21-7 up as the clock rolls into the 28th minute of the game, the build-up to Leinster’s bonus-point try begins with a lineout 5 metres from halfway.
Leinster choose to go with a 6+1 lineout formation with number 7 Scott Penny at scrum-half as it allows them to set a maul quickly.
Conscious of the physical mismatch between Leinster centre Robbie Henshaw and Ulster out-half Bill Johnston, Ulster have their own openside flanker beside the 10 in Nick Timoney.
As the set-piece is set in motion, Leinster are perhaps a little lucky not to concede a free-kick with a number of players leaving the lineout early. Despite this, Leinster make the most of the referees leniency and promptly form a maul.
With Leinster’s maul peeling to the right, the most important man in deciding Leinster’s next move from here is Jamison Gibson-Park circled in yellow above.
While the pack’s main job is to make the maul go forward, Gibson-Park’s role as scrum-half is to scan the defenders on either side and pick the opportune moment to strike. Try to spot the scrum-half’s ‘trigger’ as the play progresses in the GIF below.
As hopefully many will have noticed, Gibson-Park waits until Ulster number 2 Tadhg McBurney joins the maul.
McBurney committing effectively traps the northern province’s pack on one side of the pitch for the next ruck and gives Leinster an opportunity to create a mismatch a couple of phases later.
With 7 Ulster forwards now tied up defensively and the first manipulation of the defence complete, Leinster’s backline is then brought into play.
Before seeing what Leinster do next, it’s worth looking above at how Ulster defend initially once Gibson-Park passes.
Giving up at least 5 kilos on the opposition, Ulster’s Bill Johnston-circled-is the key man to watch here as he gets off the line quickly in the hope of stopping Leinster’s ball-carriers before they build momentum.
Although this is generally a good approach for a smaller tackler, Johnston’s aggressive move has crucially not been followed by the defenders either side of him, leaving space to be attacked on either side.
With Leinster’s pack having ‘shaped’ Ulster’s defence at the maul, Henshaw then does so too on an individual level.
Henshaw first fades left while stuttering his steps. This slows Johnston’s approach while forcing him to turn his hips. When Johnston is no longer square, Henshaw then steps in the opposite direction-obliging Johnston to make a passive tackle and concede ground.
As the picture below shows, an added bonus of Henshaw making Johnston tackle is that the out-half now must defend the blindside with Ulster’s slower tight-five forwards; leaving the rest of the backline on the other side of the ruck.
Facing this backline, Leinster’s Harry Byrne pulls apart Ulster’s defence again.
Seeing Craig Gilroy coming out of the blocks early, Byrne uses a dummy pass to make the winger jump the gun before throwing the ball out wide to teammate Cian Kelleher in space.
With Leinster already having used the maul, stutter step and dummy pass to commit Ulster defenders, Kelleher uses a hop step to stand up his opposite man and beat two more would-be tackles.
Josh Murphy then contrasts this approach to evading tackles by swerving off his right foot in the next carry after getting the ball from Gibson-Park.
The benefit of Murphy keeping his feet closer to the ground, compared to Kelleher’s hop step, is that it allows him to stay strong through contact and still find a soft shoulder.
Scott Penny adopts the Henshaw approach in the next carry, staying squat while stuttering his steps to commit left wing Angus Kernohan into making a passive tackle.
Surveying the field as Penny carries into contact, Leinster’s ruck position in the centre of the pitch has now forced Ulster’s covering wing defenders to come up on either side.
After 5 phases, Leinster’s manipulation of the Ulster defence is ready to be taken advantage of as only three Ulster forwards and Johnston are defending the right side of the pitch.
Although they have a 5 vs. 4 overlap, Johnston focusing on the ruck allows Henshaw to drift out of sight to the wing and receive a perfectly-weighted kick from Byrne for Leinster’s bonus-point try.
In a contest with 8 tries for Leinster and 14 in total, Friday’s first Winterpro was not short on stand out attacking moments. What stands out most about Leinster’s fourth try however, and arguably makes them the current stand out team in Europe, is Leinster’s flexibility in being able to control both themselves and the opposition in-game as the play evolves.
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