Explosive McFadden stakes claim for Heineken final spot
Published 14/05/2011 | 05:00
Leinster entered the citadel with the scent of blood in their nostrils; Ulster, you reckoned, would be content merely to staunch the flow of the scarlet.
But Leinster supporters will wear furrowed brows in spite of securing another final; a burgeoning casualty rate will usher in several sleepless nights.
There was a hack theory that Leinster might hold back -- as risible a proposition as asking Jedward to sit still for more than three seconds.
That Leinster were utterly at their ease betrayed the immense physicality required to stifle their limited prey; at times in the second half the scene resembled MASH as medics caromed off each other to treat the wounded.
It began as early as the half-hour, with slight niggles to Isaac Boss and Mike Ross, removing them from the fray with unseemly haste, albeit Boss seemed less hindered than his front-row partner.
With Eoin Reddan sensing a starting berth next weekend, Boss clearly wanted to be allowed to challenge his body more than his coaching staff desired; the collective desire trumped the individual in this instance.
Thieved of more than a third of their regular starting cast, Ulster could only look with envy as a fully loaded Leinster tinkered just slightly with their metronomic combinations, all eyes alighting on the selections of Boss, Fergus McFadden and Shane Jennings, with half an eye on Cardiff.
With Boss and behemoth blindside Sean O'Brien eager to put more pace on the relatively studious approach deployed, say, against Toulouse, and with Jennings enforcing rucks with violent rigour, could Ulster live with the exalted tempo to maintain interest beyond the opening quarter?
Had the contest been decided on the warm-ups, Leinster would have hurdled the handicap with ease; there is a violent intensity in everything they do, yet they move with balletic grace into each feigned contact.
When the real action commenced, Jamie Heaslip dropped the first ball but his team were unmoved. Leinster were in eerily familiar command. McFadden, deserving of a place in an Irish starting XV, never mind the World Cup squad, was in explosive form, breaching pathetic defence to forge a scoring chance.
Richardt Strauss, the pudgy hooker with the side-step of a Welsh out-half of yore, could have scored but passed.
Luke Fitzgerald, whose early pass to Isa Nacewa was accompanied by free smelling salts, over-ran the same man as he had done against Toulouse. His frantic scratching for form continues. His late score will boost his confidence.
All Ulster had to offer were booming kicks from Ian Humphreys, at least on the occasions when he wasn't lying prostrate after repeated use as a speed bump by O'Brien.
Ulster's passing was too often awry on the measly occasions they were offered ball.
As the clock ticked into the second quarter, 3-0 ridiculed Leinster dominance. Their superiority was soon franked. The game's first flowing move stemmed from deft off-loading from a trio of the heavies before McFadden ultimately finished when Ulster failed to clear.
Ulster deigned to visit the Leinster 22 minutes before half-time, as if to remind patrons that this was indeed a two-handed contest.
As Brian O'Driscoll hobbled with a leg injury from a previous charge, we were further reminded that this was slowly becoming an audit of minor injuries, as much as a competitive challenge.
In trash time, Ulster tried to finish on a high note with an attacking line-out on the 22; they finished it seconds later by conceding both set-piece and insipid penalty for an 11-0 deficit.
O'Driscoll did not return for the second half. As the crowd gasped in thinly disguised disbelief, his team-mates meandered uncertainly towards the winning line.
As Cian Healy and Strauss, gingerly holding his knee, also developed limps, O'Brien cramped and Jonny Sexton retreated to mind his mildly worrisome thigh, few could have blamed us all for now casting more than one eye towards next week.
Fitzgerald's try restored the pep in the collective step. That sealed the deal.
Onwards then, so delicately, to fry bigger fish.