Leading men can light up europe
Expect Northampton to be cynical but a full-strength Leinster have the class to cope, writes Neil Francis
Y ears ago I went to see the movie Last of the Mohicans starring the supremely talented and Oscar-laden Daniel Day-Lewis. There was a great scene in the movie where he was out hunting deer in the forest.
Day-Lewis was very patiently stalking the animal and had to reposition himself several times as the deer's peripheral vision gave him a sense that danger was just around the corner. Every time Day-Lewis had a clear shot, the deer would move a little further away and as it came to a now-or-never moment he had to, on the run, loose off his shot on a moving target. The deer, well over 100 metres away, dropped dead. His aim was true.
From the back of the auditorium came a shout, 'G-g-g-great sh-sh-shot Christy'. It is amazing given Day-Lewis' talent and diversity that with most people in this country he is and always will be Christy.
We stuck flamboyant labels on Leinster's persona -- unflattering ones, a transgendered affiliation as the PC lobby would have had us call them. It is amazing that in less than two years this association has been completely removed from memory and Leinster's character and integrity are unquestioned now, so much so that when they take the field in the Millennium Stadium next Saturday you expect only a set of extraordinary circumstances will deprive them of a second Heineken Cup victory.
Every season for every team is a nine-month examination of character. Last Friday night was the rubber glove part of the examination, it was going to be unpleasant and Leinster, although not having to be anywhere near their best, would have to apply themselves and be quite rigorous to see off Ulster. They did so with a margin that does not reflect the level of fuss they were put to and, as usual from matches of this complexity, they will have to sweat all the way through the week to make sure they have a full complement. If they arrive in Cardiff fully laden, then Friday's examination will have fortified their challenge.
Leinster were professional but a little bit imprecise in their disposal of Ulster. Sport without risk is like a Bloody Mary without vodka. Leinster could not and did not hold back but they had to deal with an Ulster side that were just a bit too cynical for my liking. You should never confuse cynicism with competitiveness. Ulster were cynical because they could not compete and some of the things they engaged in -- and it seemed to be team orders -- were objectionable, but it was perfect preparation for next Saturday because Northampton have a first-class honours magna cum laude in pettiness and cynicism.
Leinster were lazy in the way they applied themselves to the winning of this game. It seemed to be a fairly rudimentary gameplan: run directly at Ian Humphreys with your prime ball carriers and you will profit. It worked. Humphreys is a talented footballer and has the vision to make space for himself and for others but, my God Dorothy, Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion could do a dance up and down his spine. John or Edward -- take your pick -- would have stronger defensive application. Leinster line-busted every time they went down the channel, something they won't do against Northampton but at least it will give the Northampton video analysers nothing to work with.
Leinster attacked when it was prudent to do so. On one, Brian O'Driscoll, who was playing at that stage with a serenity of demeanour which would set him up nicely for next week, had run a good supporting line on Fergus McFadden's break. The ponderous Chris Henry read what was going to happen but wasn't good enough or quick enough to do anything legal about it and he stuck his hand out and held O'Driscoll back for six or seven metres before O'Driscoll could get onto the ball.
What does a player do with such provocation? O'Driscoll attempted to get into the ruck and was turned around by Henry. At this stage the Leinster centre had had enough and in contact punched Henry in the face. The punch did connect. Gallingly, Henry looked directly to the assistant referee for justice when he had been the perpetrator. I'm sick of this off-the-ball stuff. There was an Irish match commissioner at the game and this one, deservedly, will be pushed under the carpet.
Suspension will not deprive Leinster of their most important player but maybe injury will. Even though his knee was heavily bandaged before the game you could see that his right knee was hyper-extended in a tackle two or three minutes before half-time. It looked like a medial ligament and it looked severe enough that O'Driscoll might not be anywhere near 100% when he starts next Saturday. Such is O'Driscoll's charisma and aura that the actual name is not just a name anymore, you can define it now as a quality. I am absolutely certain that he will start against Northampton.
As for everybody else who picked up an injury in what was quite a physical game, nobody will know just exactly what state their body is in because the medical bulletins and the press releases that often come directly from teams are just not verifiable anymore. A catastrophic subdural haematoma can be described as just a bump to the head. Despite Ulster's continued cynicism -- Ruan Pienaar's early tackle on Seán O'Brien to stop a certain try and Rory Best's foot trip on Gordon D'Arcy -- Leinster kept their concentration, protected most of their key players and cleared the bench, standard procedure before such an important match.
Unfortunately, Friday night's match did not, in my mind, settle the composition of the back row. The game this Saturday will be won at the breakdown. I am confident that Leinster will more than hold their own at tight in Cardiff. This is the only area of hope for Northampton; if they can't deprive Leinster of quality ball from attacking positions in opposition territory then the game is up.
Leinster's pace in the back row is the key to everything. They are unmatchable in this area. Northampton are strictly quantifiable when it comes to the composition of their back row. Roger Wilson is a clever footballer and is commendably committed but is lamentably one-paced. Tom Woods has just picked up two of three player awards for his season, he is talented, he is used with imagination up and down the Northampton line at lineout time but when the heat came on in the Aviva during the Ireland-England game, he was embarrassingly conspicuous by his absence.
Phil Dowson is probably the most effective performer in their back row, a converted blindside and a good support player and again somebody who is quite capable of slowing ball down, something which he will be instructed to do.
The question is who starts at openside for Leinster? I am always a believer in the concept of picking your best players in their best positions -- O'Brien is unquestionably best suited to playing at blindside -- if that is the case Kevin McLaughlin does not get into the side which is a little bit unfair given his performances this year. But given the type of game I think this will be, I think Leinster need a fox in the hen house and Shane Jennings is perfectly positioned to play that role. He is important to Leinster and he is one of their leaders and as a support player his role will be vital to lubricate and assuage the ball from the breakdown as quickly as possible.
I do not think that Leinster will want to have any breakdowns. They have not allowed themselves to indulge the continuous freeloading offloading type of game they played in earlier rounds and I think they can see off Northampton with this brand of rugby. McLaughlin has been important as a ball carrier and an offensive tackler. His lineout contribution is significant too; if he gets the nod over Jennings, we will also understand what type of game Leinster are going to play.
Northampton are dangerous. They are a capable side and Jim Mallinder is a clever coach. They inject needle into proceedings and they are a provocative and prickly team to play against and they have shown themselves also to be irredeemably cynical and they will play Romain Poite to the zenith of the meaning of the word of the law.
They have quality players out wide but once again Leinster will have a remedy for Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. Both of these players were boxed off with a minimum of fuss at the Aviva back in March. However, this is the beauty of this game. At provincial level players have a better canvas to paint on when they are playing for their club sides and both of these players will cause trouble, when they are not constrained by Martin Johnson's insular, strategic tactics.
When you come to analyse Northampton and you look for their strengths you will find them in the same place as their weaknesses. When they are pressurised and when they are closed off by a suffocating Leinster defence they will struggle. If they are planning their match strategy on upsetting Leinster in the 10 or 11 scrums which will take place in this match then they are barking up the wrong tree.
Leinster will win this game if they turn up with a full complement; the hope is that they can do so by getting out of their gear just this one time this season.
Sunday Indo Sport