PLAYING IN THE centre can be a frustrating or thrilling experience depending on the game.
While centres are often heavily involved due to the very nature of their positioning and roles in the middle of the field, there are other occasions on which games can seem to pass them by. Leinster’s 29-22 win against Castres was certainly not an example of the latter, with all four starting centres playing integral roles.
Rémi Lamerat and Seremaia Baï bossed the game for the first 45 minutes or so and appeared to be on the way to helping Castres to one of their best European wins. However, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy showed all their quality and experience in shifting that midfield momentum in their favour to guide Leinster to yet another superb Heineken Cup victory.
The battle between the two sets of centres was a joy to watch, particularly given that a turnaround looked extremely unlikely at one stage in the game. Lamerat was especially excellent for Castres and was unfortunate to be on the losing team.
Leinster’s poor first half
Castres were clearly the better side in the opening half on Sunday, with the gap in performance between the two sides nowhere more clearly exemplified than in the centre. Leinster’s very first attack in midfield ended with a frustrating knock-on, as you can see in the GIF below.
D’Arcy gets in a typically strong fend on Baï, but then goes for a needless offload out the back of the hand and O’Driscoll knocks-on as he attempts to gather low to the ground. It’s a nice little flick between the legs to Kearney thereafter, but the damage was done and Leinster’s centres had set something of a tone for themselves.
Baï immediately began carrying strongly for Castres, and continued to do so for the entire 65 minutes he was on the pitch. With 12 carries for 49 metres of gains, as well as 10 passes and three offloads, this was the Fijian at his very best but Baï actually benefited from Leinster’s defence in a strange manner.
Matt O’Connor has asked his side to be far more aggressive with their line speed this season, certainly more so than Joe Schmidt did with the eastern province. Leinster were not slow off the line under the Ireland coach, but O’Connor has taken it to a new level.
The pics below show Leinster ‘before’ and ‘after’ in phase play as they defend, highlighting how they looked to rush up in midfield.
In the second photo, after the rush, the red line on the top left marks where Leinster’s defensive line started and you can see that Baï has the ball almost 15 metres behind that point. The rush defence is led by O’Driscoll in the outside centre channel, with the aim of closing off the option for Baï to pass the ball wide.
However, Leinster’s midfield line speed proved counter-intuitive as the rush was so often not followed by a hit. O’Driscoll breaking up ahead of the line shepherded Baï back infield, but the 35-year-old simply wasn’t tackled effectively. D’Arcy had one or two chances to do so, but let the Castres centre slip inside him to make yards.
There was a similar problem for Castres’ second try, as you can see in the video below.
Again, Leinster’s centres get off the defensive line with speed, and Baï simply steps inside them to power over the gainline. On the very next phase, O’Driscoll shoots up again to close off Lamerat’s options, but he fails to follow it up with a hit.
Uncharacteristically, the Ireland legend goes in high with his arms and makes it easy for Lamerat to swat him aside. Dave Kearney compounds the problem by doing exactly the same as O’Driscoll, and the French centre releases Rémy Grosso to set up the try. Leinster’s rush just wasn’t working.
Lamerat on fire
On top of Leinster’s defensive problems, Lamerat was having a sensational game. The former Toulouse man is enjoying his first injury-free season and at 24, has started to fulfill the rich promise he demonstrated as a youngster.
As we mentioned before, centres can endure games where play seems to pass them by, but on Sunday everything Lamerat touched turned to gold, for 50 minutes at least. The Castres man started superbly and his confidence just soared. All his flicked offloads went to hand and his fend proved difficult to counter.
The searing break for the first Castres try typified Lamerat’s performance, beating defenders with his strength and footwork. The hole was opened up for him by flanker Ibrahim Diarra’s offload, and as you can see in the GIF above, D’Arcy was powerless and sluggish in preventing that line break assist.
Lamerat did the damage with his run, before Baï provided the scoring pass to Richie Gray, cleverly floating the ball over the last defender. The Castres centres’ involvements summed up their first half dominance over D’Arcy and O’Driscoll.
Lamerat’s magic continued shortly after the interval, when he took a simple switch pass from replacement out-half Daniel Kirkpatrick, flummoxing Heaslip and O’Driscoll and bursting down field [below]. The little back-of-the-hand offload highlighted Castres’ confidence at that point, and they looked like the probable winners.
That was to completely underestimate this Leinster team though, and the turning point [if there is such a thing in rugby] came in the 52nd minute. Another bust of Leinster’s defensive line from Baï allowed the centre to offload to Kirkpatrick and it appeared the New Zealander was destined to score Castres’ third try, before O’Driscoll made his most vital contribution of the afternoon.
The turnover in the video below is quite remarkable, mainly for the manner in which O’Driscoll appears to bounce off the ground after making the try-saving tackle.
With the scoreline at 17-12 in Castres’ favour at the time of this O’Driscoll turnover, seven points would likely have given the French side enough confidence to go on and seal the victory. There are so many small details that go into a team winning any particular game that it is often foolish to pinpoint one as the centre piece.
However, the 34-year-old’s steal in these circumstances was vital, and what followed was a clear momentum shift in Leinster’s favour, led by their centres. O’Driscoll seemed utterly fired up after this turnover, perhaps awake to the fact that his last Heineken Cup season was very much on the line.
Just minutes later, we saw a somewhat uncharacteristic flash of anger from the outside centre after Cédric Garcia used his boot on Mike McCarthy’s legs. O’Driscoll’s actions were symbolic of the sudden shift in attitude; Leinster were up for the fight.
It’s also worth nothing D’Arcy’s involvement in the choke tackle just before Garcia’s stamp. He helped to close down Lamerat and showed his in-contact ability by getting in underneath the ball to hold the Castres centre up. Leinster drew the score back to 17-15 by converting the subsequent penalty.
Leinster’s centres lead the charge
With O’Driscoll’s actions by now flooding his teammates with confidence, Leinster managed to gain the upper hand over Castres. It may never have become utter dominance, but O’Connor’s men were now producing the big plays and scoring all the points.
In the lead-up to Rob Kearney’s magnificent drop goal, O’Driscoll once again showed his ability at the breakdown, causing enough havoc to allow Jack McGrath to nip in and steal the ball, as shown below.
As you can see, Eoin Reddan streaked away from that turnover to get Leinster inside the Castres half. While Serge Milhas and David Darricarrère’s side did scramble back to retrieve possession, they were heavily stressed and Brice Dulin’s panicked clearance kick found its way to Kearney.
That score again stemmed from O’Driscoll’s magnificent work at the breakdown. You can see that his typically strong, low body position makes him very difficult to shift out of the ruck. Both Max Evans and Lamerat are occupied by the outside centre, leaving the space for McGrath to grab the ball.
Even with Evans and Lamerat hanging off him, you can see in the shot below that O’Driscoll shoots out a leg in a desperate effort to steal the ball. Similarly to what we highlighted with Paul O’Connell in our Munster analysis earlier in the week, the Ireland centre just never gives up.
Aggressive defence starts to pay off
Following another Jimmy Gopperth penalty, Leinster pushed themselves out to a 24-17 lead and it was Castres who were now clearly chasing the game. In the most obvious sign that the midfield battle had swung in the favour of D’Arcy and O’Driscoll, their rush defence began to get results.
The GIF below shows O’Driscoll intercepting Evans’ forced pass inside Castres’ own half with around 15 minutes left. This time his efforts in leading up Leinster’s defence from that 13 channel were clearly rewarded as he picks off the pass, knocking it down to D’Arcy. The eastern province’s centres then drive forward to make yards for their side in contact. At this stage Baï was off the pitch, and Lamerat’s influence had waned.
D’Arcy himself was busy stealing possession too, making a crucial strip on replacement Benjamin Descroches in the 73rd minute. With the score still at 24-17, Castres were attacking inside the Leinster 22 and they obviously still had everything to play for. A converted try would have given them a chance to win the game, but Leinster’s inside centre made a wonderful steal.
Whereas Baï and Lamerat had bossed the in-contact situations in the opening 45 minutes, it was D’Arcy and O’Driscoll who ended the game more decisively in that area. In the example below, D’Arcy recognises that it’s a 2-0n-1 scenario for Leinster, allows Jordi Murphy to go in low on Descroches and focuses his attention on the ball.
It’s a combination of power, technique and awareness from D’Arcy to rip the ball clear, and a hugely important action. Just over three minutes later, Murphy scores the decisive third try for Leinster.
Life in the old dogs
Any time we see D’Arcy and O’Driscoll’s influence on a game at a low ebb, as it was in the first half against Castres, it may be tempting to fall back on thoughts that they are too old to influence games any more. While there is clearly an element of truth somewhere in there, both players are still extremely important for Leinster.
Their battle with Baï and Lamerat was thrilling to watch and showed that both Ireland internationals are far from finished. Their drive, experience, skill and sheer will to bounce back and guide Leinster to this win away in France shows that the magnificent duo remain priceless.
O’Driscoll’s official stats from this game? Metres gained – 0; carries – 2; tackles completed – 3; tackles missed – 2. His real contribution? Immeasurable.
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