Thursday 20 July 2017

Ospreys boast perfect mix of steel and flair

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The first Magners League Grand Final indisputably went the way of the team that deserved it most on the day. The Ospreys are a quality outfit, pure and simple. When they click they are up there with the very best and, unfortunately for Leinster, when it really mattered on Saturday, they clicked.

Defeat, however bitter, doesn't detract from Michael Cheika's departing legacy one iota, but it does make for a disappointing end to a season in which the province led the way for Irish rugby.

Unfortunately, and not for the first time, they blew it on home soil. Finishing top in the league -- followed by victory over Munster in the play-off semi-final --had set up the dream finale, but once again home comfort turned into a nightmare.

It would be overly simplistic and downright wrong to suggest the side that wanted it more prevailed. However, what cannot be denied -- and here Scott Johnson and Sean Holley must take a bow -- is that the side that adapted better to the job of negating the other team ultimately won out.

It wasn't in the tight five, as hinted in the build-up, but all along the gain line, and specifically in midfield, where the most telling damage was done.

I am not one to criticise match officials, but on this occasion, let's just say the Ospreys pushed it to the limit and beyond. Not that Leinster would do it any differently if they could, but this time it was the team in white meandering at the breakdown, deflecting opposition passes and putting in the odd despairing high tackle.

Not for a minute am I suggesting Leinster were innocent lambs to the slaughter, but certainly I don't think it was one of Chris White's better games.

The Ospreys succeeded in doing to Leinster -- operating a full-court press -- what Leinster have done to so many others over the course of this Heineken Cup and Magners League season.

Others have tried a similarly destructive modus operandi, but the Neath/Swansea franchise, much like Toulouse, is also riddled with creative class.

It is some time since Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll have been as closely marshalled, legally or otherwise, in a game of this consequence.

By contrast Dan Biggar, James Hook and Andrew Bishop managed to pick the Leinster defensive lock and release Lee Byrne and Tommy Bowe for the type of high-quality tries that are their trademark. That statistic alone, two tries to nil, leaves little room for argument.

Perhaps if Jonathan Sexton had landed a relatively straightforward penalty with three minutes to go, they could have gone on and stolen it by way of the out-half's boot at the death; but in truth it would have been just that -- a steal.

On the plus side, we witnessed a top-quality performance from Malcolm O'Kelly (in the absence of skipper Leo Cullen) to round off his outstanding professional career. Beyond that there was little to enthuse, with only Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney coming close to the level required.

Having led Clermont Auvergne to the long-overdue summit in France, one area in need of address for incoming head coach Joe Schmidt is pace on the wing.

In the enforced absence of Luke Fitzgerald, both Shane Horgan and Isa Nacewa have sealed the wide slots, but neither is a finisher in the Denis Hickie mode.

effective

Fitzgerald comes close, but will still be at his most effective when he moves into the centre, preferably to the outside channel, when that opportunity eventually arises.

He has sensibly been held back from touring with Ireland, thereby ensuring his rehabilitation and pre-season conditioning will be complete when he returns to Leinster colours in the new campaign.

Indeed, on the subject of pace and panache on the wing, what would Leinster give to have the Irish and Welsh Player of the Year on their books now. Ulster's loss of Tommy Bowe was certainly the Ospreys' gain, but equally Leinster must rue the opportunity missed.

Kevin McLaughlin's injury is a cruel blow to player and country alike. Stephen Ferris's absence had all but paved the way for the Leinster man to take control of the No 6 shirt Down Under.

It's tough on Declan Kidney too, what with Fitzgerald, Ferris, Paul O'Connell, Rory Best, Denis Leamy and now McLaughlin out of the upcoming two-Test, three-match tour.

The trophy cabinet too is now bare; all so very different to when the Irish team headed off to the US and Canada 12 short months ago.

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport