Heroic Brian O'Driscoll down but not out
Blues legend deserves one more day in the sun – but his own welfare has to be top priority
IT LOOKED like the end; the scoreboard read 9-0 to Ulster when Brian O'Driscoll lay crumpled in a heap on the floor after one big tackle too many.
Dr John Ryan raced over to attend the fallen hero who picked himself off the floor and wanted to go on, but Ian Madigan was already on the field and the curtain began to come down.
The standing ovation was laced with poignancy as the RDS said goodbye, but thanks in a large part to the younger Blackrock graduate there may be one more game to cap the long retirement on Saturday week.
Coach Matt O'Connor didn't use the dreaded 'C' word – concussion – calling the injury a combination of a bang on the neck and the head.
He'll be assessed under the concussion protocols, as will Fergus McFadden and Sean Cronin who both left the field; in the winger's case after he got unsteadily to his feet, made a tackle and played on for a minute before a break in play.
O'Driscoll himself wanted to continue and he'll want to play in one last final, to lift one last trophy. Leinster's job is to make sure he's physically up to the task. When he left the field, there was half an hour left and Ulster had their foot on the home side's throats.
It had taken almost 30 minutes for O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy – who had a very strange afternoon – to get involved in open play, with the legendary centre limited to one brilliant poach in the first half.
Things weren't happening for Leinster and it was only when Madigan took his place outside his great rival Jimmy Gopperth that the ball started to flow and the points followed as Leinster's bench brought them home.
The despair that masked the former Ireland captain's expression as he left the field was replaced by relief. After incidents like the Florian Fritz debacle in Toulouse last week, it was good to see the protocols being followed.
"They are very experienced, the medical team, they know what they are dealing with. It is about player welfare first and if they say the bloke can't continue, the bloke can't continue," Matt O'Connor said.
"You have got to adjust and if you need to put Luke McGrath on the wing, we know next time that he will do a job for you out there."
Leinster's victory meant the retirement pendulum shifted in Johann Muller's direction and, in contrast to O'Driscoll, the Springbok left the field so confident that he'd be playing in a final he downed a protein shake to begin his pre-final recovery. Instead, he returns to Mossel Bay after four years of steady improvement at Ulster that end without a trophy.
They have been victims of bad luck, on Saturday they were their own worst enemies, but ultimately they have also endured poor timing to have peaked at the same time as this Leinster team who have had their number on the big days.
Saturday was almost a repeat of last year's final in that Ulster had a real chance to knock Leinster off their perch. The champions teetered, but the men in white missed their cue.
It would have meant Leinster ending a season without a final for the first time since 2008, but in the end their bench got them over the line.
Missed touches from penalties killed the visitors, whose inability to make their first-half dominance count on the scoreboard was fatal.
They could have been off to Celtic Park to face Glasgow Warriors but instead the Scots will come to Dublin for the fifth final in five years at the RDS as Leinster look to win their sixth piece of silverware in as many seasons.
"It does take something extra special to win trophies," Muller said as he contemplated his time in Ireland as he prepares to return home. "It's not going to happen because you're a nice bunch of guys and you enjoy the game. You've got to take that extra step. Leinster know what it takes and we don't yet."
O'Connor disputed the idea that his team had won ugly, but while it might have been easy on his eye it wasn't aesthetically pleasing for anybody else.
The Australian is working at a club that is in transition but retains an insatiable desire for winning trophies. On his watch, the reigning Pro12 champions have become a meaner team whose defence and scrum are their cornerstones.
They rarely hit the heights of the past couple of years when it comes to clever moves and beautiful tries, but they have a bench that adds real oomph and that's what got them out of trouble.
Madigan has endured a difficult season, largely playing second fiddle to Gopperth in what was supposed to be his year. Two weeks after he had struggled against the same opponents at Ravenhill, the makeshift inside centre changed the game.
The province's two top try scorers for the season were in the stands wearing shirts and ties. Jordi Murphy and Noel Reid would be starters at most other places, but here they must wait their turn.
O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen join Isa Nacewa, Johnny Sexton and Shane Horgan in the incre-asingly crowded departed lounge in a fort-night's time, but while they have spent the season seemingly below their best, Leinster still win the majority of their games.
Their strengths have shifted and they are playing to them. While once their best players were those behind the scrum, their undoubted class act is now their loosehead prop who has the club's player of the year as back-up, while they provide five of Ireland's six Test front-rows and have Sean O'Brien back in harness in a back-row where Rhys Ruddock's reputation is enhanced by the week.
Devin Toner was outstanding on Saturday in a running battle with the brilliant Iain Henderson for man of the match and while Dave Kearney looked threatening when the ball came his way until his devastating injury blow, Leinster's threat mostly comes from their pack.
They are evolving under O'Connor and it hasn't always been attractive, but it has been successful
"I think, technically, I suppose we've done the same if not better than last year," captain Jamie Heaslip said. "We didn't get out of our group last year in Europe, we got out of our group this year albeit Toulon kind of put it to us in the quarters.
"We've got to the (league) final again and will see how that goes. Matty came in and every coach has different ideas, different styles of coaching and all the players adapted to it, and really enjoy Matty.
"He's a great coach and a great bloke, and he's helped bring the club on I think and bring through some players as well.
"I think every club is always constantly in regeneration, or whatever you guys call it, but you've always got to bring through the talent. You can never get stale."
So, in two weeks' time they'll report back to Ballsbridge to try and feed their trophy addiction as the last Irish team standing in 2013/14.
Whether O'Driscoll will get his one more game depends on the state of his head, but he'll do everything he can to go out on his own terms to write his own chapter.
However, after all these years, games and body blows he's taken, the important thing is the great man's health.