Wednesday 7 December 2016

20 steps to Euro glory

David Kelly looks at the key moments in the season which saw Leinster join the greats of the Heineken Cup

Published 23/05/2011 | 05:00

Leinster's Fergus McFadden jumps for joy into the arms of team-mate
Shane Jennings at the final whistle.
Leinster's Fergus McFadden jumps for joy into the arms of team-mate Shane Jennings at the final whistle.

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At half-time on Saturday, it had seemed as if O'Driscoll's dream of winning a second Heineken Cup on one leg were to be cruelly dashed. Cometh the hour, cometh the legend. It was his brace of searing breaks that ultimately led to Leinster's opening two tries. In a mere matter of moments, O'Driscoll had delivered magnificently, inspiring all around him.

Meet Joe Schmidt

He admitted once again the other day that he feared the sack after a horrendous opening month. Once he began to understand the unique tenor of Irish rugby, he was unstoppable in providing direction and inspiration to his willing cohort of intelligent players. His calm assuredness at half-time in what was hitherto a disastrous final was key.

Drico inks it

Last February, O'Driscoll's decision to extend his IRFU contract was one of the crucial junctures in stabilising the Leinster unit, ensuring that both Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton would echo their talisman's significant endorsement of the new coaching regime. Ending the issue after the completion of the pool stages ensured that idle speculation would not detract from the side's unswerving focus.

Thank you Munster

After the initial frailties in Schmidt's initiation, Leinster were in danger of falling 16 points behind Munster in the Magners League ahead of their opening clash in the Aviva last October. Few expected them to survive a difficult Heineken Cup pool given their form, but the sight of a Munster jersey, and the protection of a four-match unbeaten record, kick-started their campaign in style.

The bounce of the ball

Throwing in an opening seven-pointer against Toulouse in the semi-final within minutes was not in the script, David Skrela's penalty attempt rebounding off the posts with a stunning leg break not seen since Shane Warne's infamous opening delivery in Ashes cricket to Mike Gatting all those years ago.

That Leinster recovered from this blow with stoic poise demonstrated the composure of champions.

The breakdown

Forwards coach Jono Gibbes' decision to stay with Leinster afforded the squad some stability in the post-Cheika era. His role in overseeing Leinster's breakdown efforts has been consistently stellar.

This was most vividly illustrated towards the end of the pool game against Saracens at Wembley, when their discipline at some 30 rucks ensured that the English side could not snatch the winning penalty which may have forced Leinster on a road trip in the quarter-final.

Heaslip hits form

Heaslip's early-season form was not that of a world-class No 8 and a future Irish captain; Sean O'Brien had managed a man of the match award from the base of the scrum and he was consistently outplaying his more lauded team-mate.

To his credit, Heaslip has compiled a serious three months of top-class performances and it was the first-half try against Toulouse, started, continued and finished by Heaslip, that engendered renewed spirit in his side.

Van's the man

In that same semi-final, Leinster are again trailing but not reeling. Cian Healy makes a barnstorming run but cuts his head. The blood injury forces softly-spoken Springbok Heinke van der Merwe to come on to the field.

He immediately demonstrates the force of his ambition by forcing the previously indomitable Census Johnston to pop up in the front-row; Sexton's penalty makes it 22-20 and Leinster don't look back.

Isa great dancer...

The Fijian flyer's ability to strike from anywhere essentially secured Leinster their quarter-final win against Leicester.

There seemed little on in the 48th minute as he gingerly crossed half-way and passed marginally forward to Shane Horgan. But when the ball returned, he turned conjuror, running with ball in both hands, scything through a gap, dummying sensationally before barrelling over. He had captivated six flailing Leicester men in his dizzying spell.

...And a great catch

As the broiling semi-final encounter entered the final quarter, Nacewa demonstrated his proficiency at essaying the most prosaic of full-back tasks, when he soared several feet in the air to clutch a Toulouse Garryowen, continuing his expertise in the air all season.

As an addendum, his 73rd-minute tackle on Gregory Lamboley was so technically superb, it prevented not only a run-in try, but the off-load that could have created a score.

He's one hell of an SOB

Undoubted player of the tournament, Sean O'Brien somehow managed to chase back into the corner in the quarter-final to plunder the formidable frame of Alesana Tuilagi, who had seemed certain to score and potentially turn the game on its axis.

His season of four tries and three man of the match awards -- all three in different back-row positions -- have mostly advertised his storming running game, but that defensive gambit was a priceless moment.

Beauty...

Away to Racing Metro, Leinster were simply sublime. Now we knew they had the flair to go all the way.

The opening try arrived off multiple phases, with backs interlinking seamlessly with forwards, with Leinster constantly changing the point of pack, whether through forward drives or O'Driscoll's soft hands.

Nacewa's finish was simplicity bred by invention. The third try was just as good!

...And the beast

Leinster's forward pack has improved in tandem with their backline invention. Leinster's transformation in the second half on Saturday was predicated upon ferocious rucking, and their 56th-minute obliteration of Northampton's scrum confirmed the turning of the tide.

Understated heroes such as their inspirational captain Leo Cullen, his second-row partner better known as the subtly gifted Nathan Hines, and Shane Jennings' combination of intelligence and strength represented core components of the Leinster revival.

Don't forget about me

It could be easy to forget about Rob Kearney but he played in the opening two matches of the Heineken Cup and it was his only try of the campaign that pushed Leinster into a position whereby they could dominate their opening tie.

Paradoxically, it was to be his unfortunate injury during the November Internationals that would allow rival Nacewa to cut loose as an attacking threat from full-back.

The future is flying

Morgan Parra's late penalty miss in Clermont last December ensured that Leinster snatched the bonus point required to maintain their supremacy in what was then still an intractable qualification process.

Beyond that fact, there was enough evidence in the performances of Eoin O'Malley, standing in at centre for O'Driscoll, and the flying Fergus McFadden on the wing, to suggest that Leinster will be keen to build on Saturday's success.

Sexton on fire

He scored 25 points against Saracens at home but Saturday's 28-point effort, including becoming only the third player to score two tries in a Heineken Cup final, trumped that.

He was just two short of the individual scoring record in finals held by Diego Dominguez. His half-time rabble rousing, with a nod to Liverpool's Istanbul resurrection, will be recalled as one of the greatest half-time talks in Irish sport.

Shaggy Dog stories

Shane Horgan's career had been energised in Leinster's previous Heineken Cup win, after slipping off the Ireland radar. This season, Joe Schmidt has arguably pushed him to achieve even more.

He was the best player in the first-half shambles last Saturday and his key restarts ensured Leinster earned some relief in opposition territory during this difficult period.

His try in Clermont presaged a remarkable game and a valuable bonus point in defeat.

Dick O'Strauss

Richardt Strauss, the soon to be Irishman imported from Bloemfontein, propagated the cause of astute assimilation with a quite thunderous display of carrying and a tackle count nearing the high teens, if not more, in the quarter-final against Leicester.

While not always on the money in the dart-throwing department, he has shown he can recover swiftly from occasional blips.

But his ball-carrying, breakdown work and tackling have been a constant.

Medicine Men

When O'Brien and Heaslip were forced off against Clermont last December, O'Driscoll and Kearney were already sidelined and Leinster's ambitions appeared to look worryingly frail.

Kearney's long-term injury aside, the medical staff led by the inestimable Dr Arthur Tanner, have ensured that Leinster's campaign, unlike last year's when they were weakened in Toulouse, was not debilitated by injury.

From weakness to feekness

Leinster's scrum was obliterated in the first half at the Millennium Stadium, with the Northampton front-row doing exactly what had been expected of them thanks to tight-head Soane Tonga'uiha getting under Mike Ross and hooker Dylan Hartley upsetting Strauss.

Panic spread like wildfire as Leinster coughed up nine missed tackles, eight turnovers and three tries.

Scrum guru Greg Feek calmly amended matters at half-time via video analysis -- no tea cup throwing here -- subtly altering the mechanics of the drive, restoring Leinster's brittle confidence and destroying the opposition's.

Irish Independent

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