Tuesday 23 May 2017

Magnificent O'Brien gives Kidney a major headache

Heaslip's stand-in stakes claim for Ireland spot with all-action display, writes Jim Glennon

After Leinster's victory yesterday, their next big challenge is to keep their feet on the ground. I was impressed by the work ethic they showed at the RDS, particularly the manner in which they defended their line in the last five minutes.

This ethic is admirable and thoroughly professional, and it will ensure that they maintain their focus and progress in the Heineken Cup.

Joe Schmidt's side all but nailed down their home quarter-final spot with this victory over Saracens. The game started off with a bang: Leinster found themselves 12 points up after 12 minutes and it's often said that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is too good to be true.

They seemed to lose their way for the next 20 minutes or so -- there was sloppy passing, weak defending and questionable decision-making. In many ways they were lucky: if they had been up against stronger opposition, they'd have been punished more severely.

Leinster were playing the first half with the benefit of a very strong breeze, and they went in for the break 22-12 ahead. That advantage certainly didn't give them any comfort but Schmidt once again showed his keen strategic awareness.

He sent out a rejuvenated side who put in a thoroughly efficient performance to brush off a weak challenge from Saracens. He then had the luxury of emptying his bench after 60 minutes, at which stage the game had been put out of Saracens' reach.

It was striking that despite bringing on almost half a team, the cohesion and teamwork on the field was very effective.

However, Luke Fitzgerald had a day that he would rather forget and there is no doubt that Schmidt will allow him to do just that. The winger will still be selected again next week despite a very poor performance. He had rust and injuries written all over him. Fitzgerald is a much better player than he showed yesterday and will be given the chance to prove himself.

The man of the match for me was undoubtedly Sean O'Brien, who was standing in for Jamie Heaslip at No 8. His ball-carrying was what we have come to expect from him; even though it is the norm, we should never stop appreciating real quality, and O'Brien definitely has it.

Every time he played the ball, it was another little headache for Declan Kidney. Leinster are well capable of going to Paris next week and getting what ever is required to ensure the home quarter-final.

I believe they can get the win and they will go for the win. It would ensure a big day out at the Aviva Stadium and almost as importantly a big pay day for the Leinster coffers.

For the last 12 years while Munster have been on their wonderful odyssey through Europe, Ulster, who led the way for Irish teams with success in Europe, have been languishing behind.

Yesterday was a big day in Ravenhill for Ulster rugby and for this group of players and management. The fact that they only won their game with a last-minute long-distance penalty from Ian Humphreys will be of little concern to them today. They have emerged from a remarkably long valley period.

Like at the RDS, the primary influence on the game was the weather: heavy rain accompanied the strong wind for much of the match.

Both sides played a safety-first, up the jumper game, keeping errors to a minimum and limiting the opportunities of each other's place kickers.

Willie Faloon, who up until now hasn't nailed down his starting position on the Ulster team, was outstanding in a pack in which Stephen Ferris and the unfortunate Rory Best excelled.

Best's obvious disappointment as he left the fray in the last five minutes bore ample testimony to his commitment. He was clearly in some discomfort with an apparent rib injury. His disappointment may have reflected a worry that he could miss next Saturday's crucial endgame in Italy.

Those considerations are minor by comparison with the result and the potential opportunities arising from the win Ulster have awaited for so long.

They go to Italy in search of a bonus-point win over Aironi. And they will be anxiously waiting to hear if events in Biarritz, where Bath are the visitors, go in their favour.

The bottom line is that they are guaranteed knock-out rugby in Europe this year, in the Amlin if not in the Heineken -- whichever it is represents a real breakthrough and a notable milestone for Ulster rugby.

Sunday Indo Sport

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