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Peter Bills: Can Ireland now play like this?

Joe Schmidt likes to set his Leinster players a challenge. He certainly set them one at half-time in Cardiff on Saturday.

"Go out there, just put behind you what has happened in the first half and show how you can really play" was the gist of the message. The rest, as they say, is history.

But never forget, history teaches us important lessons. And the most important from a tremendous, captivating Heineken Cup final, one of the best there has ever been, was that rugby in this part of the world is still capable of matching most of what the southern hemisphere can achieve.

In a World Cup year, that is certainly a lesson worth remembering.

Saturday's final was a terrific advertisement for the game in the northern hemisphere. The way both sides played was a stirring re-affirmation of the potential of Irish and British rugby players.

When inspired by a coach whose philosophy is to attack, to create and to play with the ball in hand, albeit varying the tactics to suit the moment and the situation, players from the northern hemisphere do have the skills to embrace such a fluid, fast-moving game.

Northampton played superbly in the first half, yet Leinster were even better in the second. This was a match that commanded intense focus from spectators. No Mexican waves, born of crass boredom, here. No one even thought of one, so spectacular was the entertainment.

But if the Heineken Cup continues to get better, year on year, to such an extent that it is now, in many of our minds, a better tournament than the Six Nations, it is heartening to say the same of northern hemisphere rugby.

This has been, as a whole, a fairly ordinary season. Pragmatists like Saracens and Racing Metro, who seek a largely risk-free game, threaten to win the championships in England and France respectively.

Yet in Ireland, Leinster have shown that another way is perfectly possible. This different philosophy embraces (whisper it in the company of those who eschew individuality, individual player responsibility or risk-taking on the field) decision-making by those in a position to make the call.

Furthermore, those players are invited, challenged even, to be bold, to take chances in pursuit of opportunities.

But this is not one person's ludicrously misplaced fantasy. Schmidt and his coaching team work like dervishes to ensure every single player is not just physically prepared, but mentally attuned to the demands of such a strategy.

Ball skills must be of the highest order, concentration levels so exalted that players feel mentally shattered by the end of a game.

The way Leinster applied a tourniquet to Northampton throats in the second half, kept it rigidly tight by holding onto the ball, was an object lesson in how to play this game. You have to be precise and patient. That had been Leinster's undoing in the first half. They had utterly lacked precision and patience. Their first-up tackling had been poor, too.

But as Sean O'Brien said later, no one panicked at half-time, least of all Schmidt. Nor did the brilliant coach ever think of compromising his values. Leinster went out and won in thrilling, ball-playing style.

So why can't Ireland play the same way in the World Cup?

Irish Independent