Ross the key for Leinster
Published 21/05/2011 | 05:00
There is the same sense of unease about today's Heineken Cup final in Cardiff between Leinster and Northampton as there was when Munster met the same opponents in the decider of the competition on May 27, 2000.
Munster then, like Leinster now, were clear favourites to lift the trophy, particularly following their astonishing victory over Toulouse in the semi-final in France. However, they were undone in an error-strewn game by the Achilles heel that was to dog them throughout their decade of greatness.
The Northampton scrum achieved superiority that translated eventually in to forward dominance. Although every one of the 40,000 Munster fans there on the day will remember Ronan O'Gara's missed kick in the final minutes, in truth English power up front was the deciding factor.
Today, the same forces will be at play as the English team will attempt to strangle Irish creativity at the set-piece. There are many candidates for Leinster's player of the year, but today's scrum confrontation could hand the crown to Mike Ross. The tight-head has survived every challenge so far this season at provincial and international level.
If he attains parity against Soane Tonga'uiha his team will probably win and he should be hailed as the find of this or any other season. The pressure will be intense. No less a prop forward than Nicolas Mas of Perpignan suffered an uncomfortable afternoon in the semi-final against the Saints.
The pressure across the front-row will be greater than anything faced by Leinster this year. Man of the match in that semi-final could have been a collective award for the Northampton front-row of Brian Mujati, Dylan Hartley and Tonga'uiha, who dominated the set-piece while making powerful runs and thundering tackles. Leinster ooze talent in every back position, but Northampton can defend. Centres Jon Clarke and James Downey may be a classic Premiership midfield -- short on imagination but big and strong in the tackle -- but they will not yield an inch to Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy.
It is a testament to Clarke's ordinariness that Martin Johnson selected Matt Banahan against Ireland.
Joe Schmidt's season with Leinster has been interesting. His early stutters were turned around by the fortunate discovery -- because of the injury to Rob Kearney -- that Isa Nacewa was a counter-attacker of rare quality. The back-line was revitalised as a result and Leinster profited. The last few weeks have been less exciting and one suspects for a different reason. This team is hurting and feeling the strains of a long and arduous season.
The coach faces into the most important game of his career with three of his most influential players injured to varying degrees. The shoulder injury to Ross appears to have mended, which is good news, but if Richardt Strauss were not to play it would be a disaster.
The hooker is irreplaceable and the result could well be determined by his ability to last 80 minutes. It is hard to imagine Leinster taking home the trophy if two-thirds of the front-row fail to complete a meaningful proportion of the contest. It is a testament to the likely nature of the challenge that two prop-forwards are more important to the cause than O'Driscoll, Ireland's greatest ever rugby player.
The coach has options in midfield if his star fails to make the starting line, but none at forward. O'Driscoll will of course play whatever his condition and his courage and commitment to his team at all levels has never been equalled.
However, many are concerned at the long-term damage he risks by putting his body on the line with such regularity. One wonders why he had to play last week against Ulster in a match that could easily have been won without him. It is not as if he needed the game time.
He is now in his declining years, relying on his brain more than his body, and week in, week out, he invariably delivers a master class in being in the right place at the right time.
His tries are increasingly coming from close range but are a testament to his instinctive radar of knowing where the ball will be next.
Winning the Heineken Cup is always important, but the result may have repercussions far greater than the one 11 years ago at Twickenham. The economic climate is different and a less-than-full house is clear evidence of a decline in disposable income in Ireland and in England. Just a week ago, the unthinkable happened at Thomond Park as the iconic stadium was less than half full for a semi-final involving the men in red.
Irish success has been built on home-grown talent, of course, but the key has been that the chief executives at provincial level, Connacht apart, have had more money to spend than their opponents in the competition.
We should hope for an Irish victory today, not just for loyalty reasons, but because the health of the Irish game depends on it. My money is on Ross and Strauss to see us home.