Leinster confirm total shift in pecking order
Heaslip embodies Blues' dominance as Munster are left to lick their wounds
Published 17/05/2010 | 05:00
MIND the gap. Going into this Magners League semi-final we genuinely believed Munster were capable of pulling 'a Perpignan' and tapping into traditional fire-starting, buzzword emotions such as frustration, pride and desire to prevent Leinster achieving a fourth straight victory over them.
They certainly tried, but Leinster handled the best the visitors could throw at them with calm authority and by the end of a pulsating encounter were toying with their opponents.
In his five years at the helm, Michael Cheika has changed the pecking order of Irish rugby, moving Leinster clear of the provincial pack and relegating Munster to the status of also-rans.
With around seven minutes to go, Munster's supporters -- an integral part of the province's remarkable tale of the past 10 years -- began to stream towards the exit gates. The 'brave and the faithful' had become the cowed and disenchanted and they sloped into the night with 'cheerio' taunts ringing in their ears. A tad cruel? Possibly, but Leinster followers have received their share of scorn in reverse and the delirium that arrives with sustained superiority could not be contained.
When Leinster made a hash of the second-half restart and Ronan O'Gara pounced for an excellent drop goal to push his side 6-3 in front, the momentum was firmly with the men in red. With an all-star bench to unleash, it seemed set up for Munster, but while James Coughlan, Peter Stringer, Denis Hurley and, particularly, David Wallace all made an impact when introduced, Leinster had moved to a higher plane and could not be hauled down.
The previous weekend, Edinburgh ran in four tries at the RDS, which did not go down well with a side that regards its claustrophobic defence as their launch-pad for achievement. Kurt McQuilkin has done a fantastic job as rear admiral and his troops mowed down Munstermen at every turn, with only Lifeimi Mafi and Keith Earls getting in behind and then only from broken play.
When Leinster needed to strike -- after O'Gara's drop goal -- they did so with clinical efficiency. Isa Nacewa surged down the left, John Fogarty took it on to suck in defenders before Eoin Reddan fed Jonathan Sexton who executed a perfect wrap-around with Gordon D'Arcy (helped considerably by Brian O'Driscoll keeping Jean de Villiers occupied) to put Rob Kearney over wide on the right.
It was a classy score and they should have had a second 10 minutes later when Cian Healy was taken out by Tomas O'Leary on his way over the line. Munster's scrum-half is an uber-physical, but ultra-fair player and there was no question of intent; however, the tackle which saw O'Leary forced to change direction at the last instant was undoubtedly high, even though the initial contact was with Healy's shoulder.
Referee Nigel Owens went to his TMO for assistance, but a penalty, converted by Sexton, was the only sanction when a penalty try for illegally preventing a certain touchdown appeared the correct call, with O'Leary lucky to escape 10 minutes in the bin.
No matter, Leinster were in the zone at this stage, no one more than their extraordinary No 8 Jamie Heaslip. After a quietly efficient first half, Heaslip exploded in the second, continuing 18 months of consistent excellence that defies logic and justifies comparisons with the likes of Imanol Harinordoquy and Sergio Parisse.
Heaslip's man-of-the-match award was a formality, highlighted by a barn-storming surge through and over O'Gara, an all-enveloping wrap and rumble on Stringer and a superb turnover on the Leinster line when Munster were desperately seeking a way back into the match.
Though the Kildare man was the home side's stand-out performer, he had plenty of support. Captain Shane Jennings had an excellent evening on the open-side, Fogarty produced another assured performance at hooker, the half-backs were controlled and authoritative and Kearney was typically classy at the back.
And, although Stan Wright was the best prop on the pitch, Healy's powerful display was heartening for the watching Ireland management team ahead of the summer tour.
Unwisely written off in certain quarters after a torrid experience against Toulouse a fortnight ago, Healy has responded magnificently and the superiority of the Leinster scrum was a critical factor in their victory.
The downside for Ireland coach Declan Kidney and forwards guru Gert Smal was the sight of John Hayes and Marcus Horan being completely overpowered at scrum-time, particularly as neither Tony Buckley or Mike Ross, two other props in the mix for the trip down south, could make it on to their respective benches.
Wright and Van der Linde gave Horan a thorough going over at the set-piece and while the injury-plagued South African's Leinster sojourn has not been a happy or helpful one from an Irish perspective, his impact on Saturday was considerable.
Now, Cheika has the opportunity to sign off in style when the Ospreys arrive for the final in a fortnight's time and, on this evidence, it is hard to see Leinster being denied their 17th successive RDS league victory.
"It's nice to be playing at home," acknowledged Cheika. "The crowd were unbelievable again. It's a big final at home, and we've got to make sure we do them proud.
"As far as the Ospreys are concerned, you probably won't find a team in the league with more of an attacking threat. They've got a powerful set piece, a powerful back-row: they've got it all. So, it's going to be down to who has got the most nerve, and who has got the most hunger."
The Australian accepted that it took a while to get his head around this derby fixture, his first season in charge including the Heineken Cup semi-final humiliation at Munster's hands in in 2006. He has them well worked out at this stage and this was a crushing end to Munster's unfulfilling season. There was no lack of commitment or physicality and Donncha O'Callaghan, Alan Quinlan, Earls and Mafi put themselves about to good effect, but, collectively, Munster were a level below.
The coaching ticket will come under pressure after a trophy-less season and their situation was not helped by a selection which excluded proven performers like Wallace, Jerry Flannery and Coughlan. Flannery's situation was complicated by a calf injury that precluded his introduction, but Munster's cause would have certainly been aided had Wallace and Coughlan started the game.
However, the fact that Munster's Ireland contingent will be unavailable for a large chunk of next season means expectations will be lowered and McGahan has the opportunity to continue the good work he has done in bringing younger players through,
Forwards coach Lawrie Fisher has a harder case to answer for the Munster set-pieces have been been consistently shaky on his watch and were again on Saturday night.
Leinster march on as Ireland's flag-bearers with the scent of silverware in their nostrils, Munster retreat to their lair to nurse their wounds and plot a route back to the top. It will not be an easy journey.
MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers (D Hurley 60), L Mafi; R O'Gara, T O'Leary (P Stringer 65); M Horan, D Varley, J Hayes (D Ryan 56); D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; A Quinlan, N Ronan (J Coughlan 61), N Williams (D Wallace 53).
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy (Wright 74), J Fogarty (R Strauss 72), S Wright (CJ van der Linde 46); N Hines (T Hogan 79), M O'Kelly; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip.
REF -- N Owens (Wales)