Sport Rugby

Monday 11 December 2017

Benchmark has been raised but the job isn't done yet

Excellence on and off the field has allowed Leinster to peak at just the right time, writes Jim Glennon

F or a demonstration of Leinster's progress during the latter years of Michael Cheika's tenure, and now in Joe Schmidt's maiden season, one need look no further than their performance in last week's Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Toulouse.

Some have described it as the best game since the tournament's inception, although my own preference remains their 2006 quarter-final win in Toulouse. Last week, the concession of two soft tries at the beginning of each half and the sin-binning of Brian O'Driscoll tested Leo Cullen's team to their limit. But the intensity of effort, mental and physical, and the atmosphere in the stands, was definitive confirmation of Leinster's place at the top table of European rugby alongside last week's opponents, Leicester Tigers and Munster.

While the home team's attacking play didn't exactly set the world on fire, their capacity for ball-retention while remaining comfortable in the collision and making the hard yards was most striking.

A rugby team which doesn't win the physical battle at the collision, set-piece or otherwise is at a distinct disadvantage. In this regard, players like Seán O'Brien, Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss were very much to the fore but the pack were excellent to a man, and it was no coincidence that Jamie Heaslip was back to his imperious best. A No 8 of his ability, and they are few in number, will only play to his optimum when his seven colleagues are all doing their share too. It was of importance too that the entire unit responded within minutes to each of the Toulouse tries, reminding their opponents, and their supporters, that they were intent on doing serious business.

For me, the seminal moment of the game was that scrum after 52 minutes. A marvellous 30-metre charge by Cian Healy was eventually contained by the covering Louis Picamoles, resulting in an accidental offside and scrum. The bloodied Healy was replaced by Heinke van der Merwe, as part of a bold triple substitution by Schmidt, and the South-African's first act was to demolish his massive front-row opponent Census Johnston, forcing the Samoan out of the scrum, and winning a penalty which yielded three points for Leinster. A triumph for skill and technique over weight and brute power, and a huge psychological boost at a crucial juncture.

Toulouse are the envy of European rugby because of their squad depth, but in terms of bench-management, Schmidt outplayed his more experienced counterpart, Guy Noves. Van der Merwe's impact, alongside Shane Jennings and Isaac Boss was immense, particularly in its timing, as were the introductions of Stan Wright and Fergus McFadden.

That represents some serious firepower at Schmidt's disposal on the bench, and his willingness to use it will be giving his Northampton counterpart Jim Mallinder some food for thought in the run-in to the final in Cardiff. With intense competition for places across the squad, and a remarkably-short casualty list courtesy of Arthur Tanner and his medical team, the league/cup double is now a real possibility.

It's worth making the point, however, that not all of Leinster's heroes last week were on the field. There is Kurt McQuilkin, chief architect of the squad's wonderfully disciplined and effective defensive system; team doctor Tanner, who has managed to deliver all bar Rob Kearney at the sharp end of a physically attritional season.

Credit also to Schmidt who, with no dedicated defence-coach on the payroll, has taken up where McQuilkin left off and brought it to the next level, and has also rotated his squad to maximum effect to maintain the perfect level of freshness within the group.

There was another important development for Leinster last week with some astute signings for next season. Winger Fionn Carr's return from Connacht, and the vastly experienced second-row Damien Browne coming back to Ireland from Brive, may not be big headline acts in themselves, but in the context of the squad's requirements for next season, and combined with the earlier signings from Connacht of hooker Seán Cronin and returning Balbriggan tighthead Jamie Hagan, Dan Carter's Crusaders understudy Matt Berquist and South African forward Stephen Sykes, they represent some really good business.

For the moment, events on the pitch are paramount; a league/cup double is what every team in every major field sport aspires to as they embark on their annual pre-season grind. Only the chosen few find themselves with aspirations intact a full nine months later as others, having fallen by the wayside, are in wind-down mode.

Aspirations, however, are no yardstick for sporting achievement. And sadly too, last week's heroics will have been for nothing if the job isn't finished in Cardiff.

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