O'Driscoll lights Leinster's way out of trenches
Published 04/10/2010 | 05:00
Salvation for stuttering Leinster but not complete absolution. Not yet, anyhow. But encouragement at least for Joe Schmidt as his players finally atoned for their dereliction of so many duties this past month.
It could yet prove to be the turning point of their season. In the 52nd minute of a predominantly fractious and frenetic bout of trench warfare, Brian O'Driscoll illuminated the stadium in a fashion no other mortal could possibly emulate.
An audacious chip and charge down the blindside, followed by the most outrageous of lay-offs to Sean O'Brien just as he was brutishly manhandled by two tacklers incited the first burst of riotous, inventive spark into this poverty-stricken parochial affair.
Belatedly discovering their defensive zeal, their previously proud physicality, their set-piece solidity, Leinster were preparing, Ali-like, to escape from the self-induced inertia of the past month and bound free.
Leinster should have scored then but young Dominic Ryan ruined an otherwise excellent evening by overstepping the ball in the scrum and allowing it to squirt free. All the while, Jonny Sexton and Eoin Reddan were limbering up menacingly.
Four minutes later, the duo emerged from the sidelines and suddenly a match laden with grey was awash with a technicolour glow that rendered the previous hour an almost distant, prehistoric memory.
Sexton began running loops and dummy loops, scissors and dummy scissors and a host of other unnamed contraptions as the backline that, less than two years ago lest we forget, conquered Europe, belatedly sparked into life.
Luke Fitzgerald, seemingly sipping lattes in a nearby cafe such was his mournful unemployment on the wing, exploded into the encounter; O'Driscoll's genius shone in contrast to his previous inhibition.
The punishing pounding of Jamie Heaslip and O'Brien, buttressing another belatedly amended flaw -- the line-out -- created the space and time for their wizards behind to cut a most thrilling dash.
Their rewards could have been so much more than just the solitary 70th-minute try that eventually won the day, but then this was about so much more than an offering of the fleetest glimpses of the riches that still exist notwithstanding Leinster's coaching changeover.
Leinster's reputation, their status as one of Europe's elite, had been severely questioned in recent weeks thanks to a series of timorous displays that had sorely tested the patience of the substantial attendance which packed a raucous Lansdowne Road stadium.
Mercifully, the players answered their own demons with a resounding display of defensive fortitude and admirable physicality, which left one wondering what the last month of ineptitude was all about.
Surely Schmidt, lumbered with unwanted pressure after seeing his team flop repeatedly in his opening bows as a head coach, deserved a heartfelt apology after his team finally managed to deliver some goods?
"We weren't concerned at all," offered O'Brien, a towering presence and obviously one of the defensive leaders alluded to by his patient coach after the game. "We knew if we looked after our own shop, things would go well."
Which begs the question: why they couldn't have bothered to extricate a similar performance before now, on less-pressurised stages, against far inferior opposition than that laid before them on Saturday?
That said, there is much to furrow the Leinster brows as they prepare for what Schmidt is already anticipating to be a bruising battle with Racing Metro in next Saturday's Heineken Cup opener at the RDS.
Their commitment to the breakdown was rarely sufficient, although an enduring irony of their winning try was that Munster failed to secure the turnover on the deck, allowing O'Brien the space to wheel away and deftly supply his centre with the crucial score.
Leinster's difficulty in securing ball away from the gratifyingly improved areas of line-out (albeit with two concessions) and scrum (notwithstanding Wian du Preez sneaking beneath Mike Ross' bind) remains a concern ahead of another anticipated grunt-fest on Saturday.
With Leinster still struggling to admit honestly just what they have been playing at for the past month, ignoring their bleating about systems and the player management scheme, it was left to Munster's Johne Murphy to sum up the game's decisive final quarter.
Clearly, he couldn't point to the switching of the half-backs as a pivotal moment and perhaps he was partly right, for that would be to ignore the previous hour of intense defensive pressure that exposed Munster's lack of guile, at the same time laying the foundations for Leinster's late flourish.
"There wasn't really any difference when Jonny and Eoin came on," he averred. "It was just pressure, pressure, building sequences the whole way. Everyone adds something from the bench but the pressure got to us in the end."
The opening quarter was in stark contrast to the last. Leinster were all over the place, Isa Nacewa's fluffed kick-off setting the tone while Munster set the agenda, bossing the breakdown and dominating territory and possession.
The game degenerated into petty squabbles before exploding violently with Lifeimi Mafi's chilling forearm smash to the head of Gordon D'Arcy; later binned for another offence, Munster's centre should have seen red and we await the citing commissioner's verdict -- a verdict which should have been rendered superfluous had not summary justice been overlooked by the eccentric French referee and his officials.
It took until the 40th minute before the game first delivered a move that threatened either touchline; viewers from France and beyond in the southern hemisphere will not linger long upon the DVD of this one.
Mafi was eventually sent to the cooler but still Leinster struggled; indeed, Munster seemed set fair to pluck a characteristic victory from the unfolding carnage. Unlike the home side, though, Munster had no aces on the bench from which to pick.
Without Keith Earls, and with Paul Warwick subdued, Munster's midfield mash, however defensively -- and illegally -- a deterrent to attack, was unsuited to creative subtlety.
When Rob Kearney and Fitzgerald combined, the pair were too swift and elusive even for the hapless touch judges, who missed a blatant forward pass. A try seemed inevitable.
"When I was coming around the corner, I knew Drico was there," said O'Brien. "There were two defenders coming for me so I just went for the gap in between them. Drico was there. We were looking for a try and we knew we had to get one to break them down."
A massive O'Driscoll hit on the villainous Mafi signified Leinster's return to rude health. The last seven minutes of defensive solidity offered a stirring rebuke to what had been a self-confessed nightmare start to the campaign. The next seven days can reveal how much substance lies behind last Saturday's significant statement of deferred intent.