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FEATURE How Leinster should learn from Dan Carter after toughest Champions Cup 'lesson' of all

How Leinster should learn from Dan Carter after toughest Champions Cup 'lesson' of all
3 weeks ago

Headphones in, sitting in the lobby of a Parisian hotel, Dan Carter smiles as his match-winning drop goal against Ireland, in 2012, is brought up. He remembers that one fondly, as he should. “Yeah,” he agreed, “you are constantly needing to evolve. How you play or need to perform, today, needs to constantly evolve and improve.”

For the first four years of his stellar Test career, the All Blacks out-half had only struck one drop goal. In New Zealand, it was barely remarked upon as their Test record with Carter playing was scandalously high – 40 wins, with just three losses. At the 2007 World Cup, though, the ABs came up against a revved up French side and lost 20-18. Given the narrow margins of defeat in that knock-out game, many in New Zealand castigated Carter and his teammates for not even considering a drop at goal.

For Carter, it was lesson learned. He went away to work on that element of his game, and added it to his attacking arsenal. Nine months after that World Cup heartache, he famously landed a drop goal in the 2008 Super Rugby final win over Waratahs. Over the rest of his career, he would kick 13 more, including that game-clincher against Ireland and in his final two Test matches – the 2015 World Cup semi-final and final.

“You need that really strong growth mind-set, and you need to be that better player than you were yesterday. The drop goal one was interesting because it wasn’t one I was too focused on, but after the learnings we got in 2007, I thought at some stage in the future, a drop goal is going to come at a pivotal moment. I needed to break it down and give some time to that skill, and it became a regular part of my weekly training plan. Fast forward another eight years, to 2015, and I was able to nail a couple of drop goals in the semis and final. It didn’t happen by chance. It was because I’d worked extremely hard for eight years on executing that skill-set. It was an important lesson.”

Ciaran Frawley
Ciaran Frawley has a chance to seal the Champions Cup win but saw his attempt narrowly missing target (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

79:20 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and up in the commentary gantry, Bernard Jackman has spotted it first. Leinster are 10 phases into what may prove the final attack of a pulsating Champions Cup Final. Toulouse are absorbing and parrying, steely in defence but wary of giving referee Matthew Carley a reason to wet his whistle. Alexandre Roumat sits to the left, on the Leinster side of the ruck. Replacement prop Rodrigue Neti is not rolling away but has his arms raised, indicating to Carley that he is pinned. The ref is not required to make a call as Leinster play on – Jamison Gibson-Park finding Ciarán Frawley, just behind the Toulouse 10-metre line. “Drop goal!” Jackman exclaims.

No player in red is within five metres of Frawley as he connects. Toulouse are not the only ones in the ground, or watching at home, that expected Leinster to get closer, or wait longer, before they considered such an option. For much of the ball’s journey toward the uprights, though, it looks as if Leinster have made the right call. Across the ground, Leinster fans spring from their seats. Frawley is not convinced. His hand waves wildly, urging the ball inside the post but it is not to be. The 80 minutes end in a draw, but we are not finished yet.

Leo Cullen was asked, after the narrow 2023 Champions Cup Final loss to La Rochelle, why a drop goal was not considered in the final stages. The previous weekend had seen Munster’s Jack Crowley stun his side with a clutch drop in the URC semi-finals. Cullen responded by backing his players for on-field calls.

Late in the extra time, with Toulouse now leading 31-22, Frawley tries another drop in the vain hope that landing it gives them a chance to reclaim the restart and complete a great escape. Antoine Dupont rushes that one and does enough to put the Skerries man off, another effort drifting wide. Frawley will wear those misses a while, yet, but he was put in that situation by a team, and their coaches, that boxed themselves in with poor in-game decisions, and strategies.

Before we get to the multiple calls not to kick at goal, we must look at Leinster stubbornly refusing to see drop goals as useful to their cause. Frawley has played 92 times for Leinster and has no drops to his name. Neither does Harry Byrne (in 70 games). Ross Byrne has one from his 167 Leinster outings – a match-winner against Ospreys, seven years ago. The retirements of Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney, in recent seasons, have removed the drop goal option from Leinster’s game, and no-one at the province thought it might be worth addressing.

It is not as if this gap in their attacking portfolio was not flagged in advance. Leo Cullen was asked, after the narrow 2023 Champions Cup Final loss to La Rochelle, why a drop goal was not considered in the final stages. The previous weekend had seen Munster’s Jack Crowley stun his side with a clutch drop in the URC semi-finals. Cullen, though, responded by backing his players for on-field calls.

Leinster fans
Leinster were magnificently supported by their fans who saw their province lose a fourth consecutive Final (Photo Sam Barnes/Getty Images)

A couple of months after that La Rochelle loss, I asked Ross Byrne if Leinster would be better off using matches, in 2023/24, to try some drop goals in full-tilt scenarios. “I don’t think so,” he responded. “If Leinster are beating a team by a certain score, I don’t think we are going to start letting up and trying to snap drop goals from different areas of the pitch, as opposed to putting the biggest score possible on a team.”

Adding a drop goal threat made all the sense in the world to Dan Carter and the All Blacks, but not for a side beached on four stars since seeing off Racing, back in 2018. “With Leinster,” Carter added, “you are constantly wanting to find new ways to win – that’s effectively finding new ways to grow and evolve your game. You’re not looking over your shoulder at what the opposition are doing. You’re focused on yourself, and your team, and wanting to be a better than you were yesterday.”

Each time Leinster kicked into their 22 and an attack broke down or was smashed back, the French side grew in confidence.

To be clear, missing a 79th minute drop at goal, from over 40 metres out, was not the main reason Leinster failed in another cup final. The major, internal inquest will be into why so many kickable penalties were turned down in favour of punts for attacking lineouts. On four different occasions, whether it was Caelan Doris or James Ryan making the calls (backed by Leo Cullen, up in the stands), Leinster spurned the three-point option in search of tries. It was worth a shot, in the early stages, but Toulouse were defending the maul and resulting phases, once the initial thrust was repelled, so well.

It was a heady mix of confidence and stubbornness but Toulouse lapped it up. Each time Leinster kicked into their 22 and an attack broke down or was smashed back, the French side grew in confidence. Conversely, there were not much discussions when Toulouse were awarded a penalty within range – Blair Kinghorn and Thomas Ramos stepped up with little fuss and, bar one miss, accumulated points. Pure cup rugby.

Leo Cullen
Leo Cullen has asked Leinster players to show character but decision-making over turning down points in the Final will be scrutinised (Photo Harry Murphy/Getty Images)

The counter argument from Leinster will be the 2022 Champions Cup Final, when La Rochelle were only too happy conceding penalties just to prevent Leinster running in tries, and running up a score. That final haunted Cullen and he wanted to make Toulouse pay a higher price for spoiling their attacking momentum. It was worth a shot but all involved should have recognised the tactic was not working.

It got to the point where Leinster, 15-12 behind, won a scrum penalty just outside the Toulouse 22, with just over three minutes to play. Having gone so hard at the attacking lineouts, rather than taking the points, Leinster could have lived or died by the sword. Doris, Ryan and Gibson-Park had a lively debate but Cullen had seen enough. On came the kicking tee. Frawley slotted over the levelling penalty but, ultimately, would not be the hero.

As his drop goal effort drifted just wide, two minutes later, Frawley was beside himself. On Irish TV, though, Donal Lenihan felt it was merely a reprieve for Toulouse. “I don’t know about you, Birch,” the former Ireland captain said to Jackman, “but, in extra-time, I fancy Leinster.”

Dupont, Ramos, Jack Willis and this excellent Toulouse side had other ideas.

Comments

10 Comments
M
Mark 25 days ago

There was a touch of arrogance about the way Leinster repeatedly sought the line, but the nerves were still palpable throughout the whole match with them. They never got into their groove and credit to Toulouse for being determined to win it. I'm still not sure Leinster have that self belief in those crunch battles. Maybe la Rochelle was their final considering how they very nearly blew it in the semis. The cracks were masterfully exploited by Toulouse.

M
Mzilikazi 26 days ago

Ireland have replaced Sexton, Leinster clearly have not. Big factor in that loss. Kicks at goal…..I would take the points. Agree fully the failed attempts from the lineouts just built and built Toulouse confidence. Really a lack of asute decision making from the coaching team in the stands probably, more than the captain on the field.

E
Ed the Duck 26 days ago

That is one withering assessment of Leinster’s mindset and a damning indictment on their inability to even consider the same lesson that Dan Carter picked up on. Complacent probably doesn’t quite do them justice….but it was really fun to watch!!!

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