Leinster's defensive trust reaps rewards
Schmidt’s assessment of Saracens’ tactics puts Venter rant in its place
PERHAPS the arrival of a camel bearing a Chilean flag towards the centre of the Wembley pitch should have been a hint that this daymight not be so predictable after all.
Certainly not for Saracens and their excitable coach, Brendan Venter, whose extraordinary 14?- minute post-match tirade overshadowed a stunning coup for the 2009 champions Leinster on the English side's supposed second home.
Jonny Sexton's virtuoso display of place-kicking, allied to the snaffling of the crucial, game-breaking 52nd-minute try -- "it was nice to get an inside line for once!" -- ensured that Leinster placed themselves firmly in the vanguard for qualification from what seemed like a fiendishly difficult pool a fortnight ago.
That was the real story until the celebrations were kidnapped by Venter, his arguments at times threatening to pinpoint an area of attack, but more often petering out into vacuous banality.
A bit like his team really.
Approaching the game as if South Africa-lite, Saracens were all biff and bosh for most of the afternoon, spending much of the day drifting laterally from one touchline to the other with no evident purpose.
Given their desperate need for a win, theirs was a bafflingly conservative approach and Leinster imperceptibly sought to capitalise on the tantalising prospect that four points could be up for grabs.
Despite eight second-half penalties and a binning, Leinster deserved the opportunity to grab firm possession of the Pool 2 leadership as they prepare for the defining second third of this qualification, the double header against Clermont in December.
To this viewer, French referee Christophe Berdos officiated in his usual manner, which predominantly requires him to toss a coin at every breakdown to determine each decision.
His focus usually alights on the tackler and even then, he admitted afterwards, that perhaps he was too tolerant of players sealing off, ie deliberately obstructing the safe passage of the ball to the team in possession.
Leinster's remarkable defence of 30 phases at the end of the match reminded one of Munster's famous defiance towards the finish of their second Heineken Cup final success.
Has the game really changed since then, despite all the meddlesome tinkering? Since the 2007 World Cup kicking fest, it is supposed to have been transformed, but Venter certainly doesn't think so.
"The game will die," he declared with characteristic understatement. "Leinster should have had three yellow cards and 50 more penalties," the qualified medical doctor continued to blast, probably earning himself an appearance before the ERC beaks for disrepute charges.
"We were definitely the better team by far, but we didn't get any rewards. I'll show you 25 situations out there where the ball wasn't quick enough. In England we know exactly what to expect. In Europe maybe we should just go back to kicking everything.
"Rugby is going to die, 100pc, and I'll tell you why. The players are so strong and fast and fit. If the International Board don't come up with a way to take the illegalities out of the game, it will not survive. I could have guaranteed you this would happen."
Having predicted that it would happen, his team's mind-numbing approach to the game certainly handicapped his team far more than any yellow-shirted whistler could ever do.
Here, one feels, is a certain case of "Physician, heal thyself."
Leinster coach Joe Schmidt, who coped admirably well with a French referee a fortnight ago, certainly reckoned so, offering a deliciously withering assessment of Venter's polemic.
"I congratulate Saracens in playing with a lot of width and energy," the Kiwi told us. "But they did play very laterally against us and, while they keep the ball for long periods, they don't make that many line breaks.
"If you add up the minutes in possession and the line breaks made, there's a very significant message that Brendan could take as opposed to his 'state of the nation' speeches.
"I think it's difficult with the new interpretations. It was made even tougher because we felt we just couldn't get access to the ball. For one team to have the ball for 30 phases suggests there is no contest."
Which is exactly what happened in those final minutes; Saracens thoughtlessly huffed and puffed, Leinster tackled their hearts out and ignored the ball. We could still be watching it this morning had the myopic hosts the stomach for it.
Their only try came from a good overlap after decent punches on the solitary occasion they really threatened the red zone; otherwise, it was a kicking duel which Sexton won hands down, particularly after the enforced departure of his opposite number Derek Hougaard.
"I thought the ref did pretty well," mused Sexton, retaining the composure he had shown throughout the day as so many others lost theirs.
"He reffed the defensive side, which is what you are meant to do, a few of the penalties we conceded were when we had the ball and we got isolated. That's something that hasn't been said!
"It's not really about the ref, we showed that we didn't concede penalties at the end and maybe we will take a lot out of that, we don't need to concede penalties, we don't need to contest as hard on the ground as we do. Maybe we can trust the defence a bit more."
All of which portrayed real common sense. And all with Brian O'Driscoll merely carrying water, not walking on it.
"We've a lot of options there now," confirmed Sexton. "This was a big win."
Schmidt agreed, but counselled caution. "If you'd thrown it my way I wouldn't have hesitated to take this really good start," he said.
"It would have been great if Clermont didn't get a bonus point today. We're only a third of the way through the pool and the real business in the last two thirds is to come. I know Clermont pretty well, they will come hard at us. We have to really go there and take it another step up.
"I don't think Saracens are out of it, because they are such a quality outfit. They would have to go home and away to Racing and win twice, then things would come back into their own control a little bit.
"They finish (off) against ourselves and Clermont, that result makes it very tough from where they are, but the nature of this sport is such they are capable of resurrecting their position."
Given that Venter reckons the sport itself is on its last legs, you'd have to doubt it. Especially if they continue to perform sporting euthanasia on such a lavish scale. Leinster, in so many ways, had a clearly superior defence.
Saracens -- A Goode; D Strettle, A Powell (Ratuvou 59), B Barritt, C Wyles; D Hougaard (Cato 47), R Wigglesworth (N De Kock 47); D Carstens, S Brits, C Nieto, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (Smith 61), J Burger, A Saull, E Joubert (K Brown)
Leinster -- R Kearney; S Horgan, L Fitzgerald (F McFadden 47), G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 57); C Healy (H Van der Merwe 61), R Strauss, M Ross (S Shawe 76), N Hines, D Toner (L Cullen 70), S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).
Ref -- C Berdos (France).