Healy leads blue firestorm
Young guns key as scrum dominance helps Leinster move into pole position
NOT just a powerhouse provincial performance, Leinster's destruction of French champions Clermont before an enthralled Lansdowne Road crowd of 44,873 was also a clarion call to the watching national coaches on an evening when the rugby's core values were honoured in glorious fashion.
Shortly before kick-off in Dublin on Saturday, Munster's committed performance in the Liberty Stadium was undone by their inability to lock the scrum at critical junctures. Clermont brought one of the most physical front fives in Europe to Lansdowne Road with a stated intention of going after the Leinster scrum and, when those efforts were comprehensively repulsed, the knock-on effects were pitch-wide and profound.
Cian Healy's first try after seven minutes was a direct result of the momentum provided by Leinster barrelling the Clermont scrum backwards in the left corner (a similar position to where Munster's scrum was turned inside out against the Ospreys) and it set the tone for an evening of dominance all over the park.
Despite repeated southern hemisphere attempts to dilute rugby's defining set-piece to the point where it is used merely as a rugby league-style means of restarting play, the importance of a strong scrum is continually reinforced. It cost Munster and Leinster in their Heineken Cup semi-finals in May and, last weekend, it was the difference between victory and defeat in both province's pool matches.
A good scrum is a collective effort from all eight forwards but it is the props who lay down the marker. Clermont had France's Grand Slam-winning loose-head Thomas Domingo and renowned Georgian Davit Zirakashvili and when it became apparent that Healy and Mike Ross had their measure, confidence drained away from the visitors and flowed through the Leinster ranks.
The decision not to select Ross at any stage during the November Internationals looks increasingly bizarre and there is no justification for omitting the Ballyhooly man from the Six Nations. Work rate around the park is the reason most regularly proffered but not only has Ross upped the ante in this regard, the need to have a solid scrum far outweighs the importance of counter-rucking and carries when there are plenty of others to excel in those roles.
At one stage, Eoin Reddan was penalised by Nigel Owens for a crooked feed when it was the power of Ross' hit forcing the Clermont pack backwards that created the impression of a skewed delivery.
Locking the scrum on the tight-head side also allows the back-row and scrum-half to flourish and Leinster's breakaway trio of Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Shane Jennings rampaged all over the Aviva on Saturday evening -- completely outplaying their vaunted opponents -- while Reddan was swift and assured behind them.
The fact that Heaslip was on the pitch was remarkable in itself, given that his ankle had spent much of the week impersonating a popsicle and coach Joe Schmidt revealed afterwards how the decision to start Heaslip was taken just before kick-off.
"We made the decision as he jogged off on the warm-up," said Schmidt.
"I asked him whether he could play, he said 'yeah', I said 'you've got to make at least 40 minutes' and he said 'I'll give you 80'."
Spoken like a true leader and the case for Heaslip to take over the Ireland captaincy from Brian O'Driscoll when that day eventually comes is increasingly clear-cut. If Heaslip provided inspiration in the forwards, O'Driscoll did the same in the backline.
He had not played since Ireland's win over Argentina on November 28, and the jaw injury sustained that afternoon meant a diet of soups and shakes for much of the intervening period.
Yet, when Aurelien Rougerie tried to barge his way through the Leinster midfield it was solids all the way, with O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy not giving an inch all afternoon and equally forceful when in possession.
As has been proven continually over the last 10 years, O'Driscoll's presence lifts those around him, a point ruefully noted by Clermont coach Vern Cotter as he pored over the carcass of an emasculating experience.
"You could see Leinster's intention as soon as they came out of the changing shed," said Cotter. "They were very motivated, you could see the team was up for it and Brian probably helps that, I'm sure he does."
Leinster captain Leo Cullen was straight to the point on the importance of O'Driscoll and Heaslip.
"Brian is the best in the business at what he does and just as a voice he does it naturally. Jamie the same. We have got two world-class players. It's pretty simple. You want them involved," he said.
Cullen's own involvement was typically effective and his removal with 20 minutes to go, when Leinster were 24-3 up and chasing a four-try bonus, coincided with a lessening of focus and cohesion, allowing Clermont to sneak back for a late, inconsequential, Napolioni Nalaga try.
Once again, Leinster were tactically excellent, and Schmidt's calls in terms of selection and approach were spot-on for the second weekend in a row. The home side timed their onslaughts to perfection, hitting Clermont hard early on with Healy's try and again either side of half-time, with a Jonny Sexton penalty securing a 10-3 interval lead, and then further tries from Healy and O'Brien ending the game as a contest.
Clermont were smouldering from their Dublin roasting at that stage and O'Brien's score stemmed from the panic and petulance that seeped into the visitors' game in typical French away-day fashion. A sloppy pass rolled into touch close to the Clermont line and, while Cotter's men were bickering about the past, Heaslip seized on the present and took a quick line-out to Shane Horgan with Reddan acting as liaison officer before the Tullow man crashed over.
The fact Leinster could not top off an exhilarating evening with a bonus point will have been mildly irritating but is largely irrelevant. A five-point lead at the head of Pool 2 means they have one foot in the quarter-finals.
"Somebody asked me about that with about 30 minutes to go but I don't care," said Schmidt. "Keeping them from getting a bonus point keeps us five points ahead but, looking ahead to January, we're still going to have to work very hard to get out of this pool.
"You saw what Saracens did at Racing Metro and we have to go away to Racing, which are not friendly encounters by any means.
"So, I'm not going to get carried away but I'm pretty relieved and delighted, just with the way the players came through, I felt they were very, very generous with their bodies."
In this form, Leinster are comfortably superior to Racing Metro and Saracens, and if they can replicate the skill levels and intensity of these back-to-back games in the knock-out stages, there are few teams, maybe only Toulouse, that can live them.
The implications for the national side are hugely significant. On this evidence, Leinster would get 11 of their starting side on a form Ireland 15. Both props, Cullen, the back-row, the half-backs and midfield as well as Fergus McFadden in his adopted position of left wing.
That means, aside from their foreign contingent of Richardt Strauss, Nathan Hines and Isa Nacewa, who were all excellent on Saturday, only the rejuvenated Horgan would miss out, primarily because Tommy Bowe is un-droppable on the right wing. And that's before the return of Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney from injury.
Plenty of satisfaction for Schmidt, his coaching team and the players to take into Christmas, and plenty of food for thought for Ireland coach Declan Kidney.
His immaculate perception should focus on rugby's own nativity, the birth of all complete performances ... scrum's the word.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, F McFadden; J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 58); C Healy (H van der Merwe 64), R Strauss, M Ross (C Newland 71); L Cullen (D Toner 64), N Hines; S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip.
CLERMONT -- B Baby (T Lavea 75); N Nalaga, A Rougerie (capt), G Williams, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra (K Senio 68); T Domingo (L Faure 50), T Paulo (M Ledesma 45), D Zirakashvili (C Ric 75), J Pierre, T Privat, J Bonnaire, A Lapandry (A Audebert 40), S Lauaki (E Vermelulen 50).
REF -- N Owens (Wales).