Berne set to put boot into French aristocrats
An early cameo from Shaun Berne's career south of the equator illustrates perfectly just why his forthcoming responsibilities as Leinster's primary place-kicker in the Heineken Cup inflict tranquillity and terror into supporters' hearts in equal measure.
It is 2003 and the Waratahs are facing down the mighty Crusaders, the New Zealand side that had dished out a 96-19 humiliation to the Sydney side en route to the Super 14 title a year before. With regular kickers Matt Burke and Mat Rogers off injured, Berne has missed four chances to push his side into a commanding position. Seconds remain. 31-31. The Crusaders slip offside.
That the crime is committed centimetres inside the Australians' half barely registers with Berne. As the Sydney faithful and Crusaders bench join in watching nervously behind their hands, the son of a Belfast man tonks over the three-pointer.
He is engulfed by team-mates and acclaimed by the crowd. How swiftly his previously errant attempts are forgotten. It is always thus in the lonely life of the place-kicker, for whom the distance between hero and zero can be a matter of mere millimetres.
Already this term, Berne has slotted clutch kicks, albeit in the less rarefied atmosphere of the British & Irish Cup and yet it is the memory of a wretched display at Ravenhill which will continue to leave Leinster fans on tenterhooks as the semi-final countdown begins in earnest.
Ironically, Leinster have another superb place-kicker ripe to step into Jonathan Sexton's shoes; unfortunately, that player -- Fergus McFadden -- is unlikely to make the side unless Rob Kearney or Brian O'Driscoll lose their injury battles.
McFadden performed superbly at Thomond Park against Munster, in both attack and defence, yet was not included in the Leinster squad that squeaked home against Clermont a week later, losing out to Girvan Dempsey after Shane Horgan and O'Driscoll returned from injury.
And so, with Sexton's broken jaw unlikely to heal in time -- unless Leinster investigate further the possibility of fitting him with a Gazza-like 'Phantom of the Opera' face mask -- Berne will have to assume the goal-kicking responsibilities.
When the Irish Independent put it to him after training on Monday that this area of his game was not exactly his forte, it was swiftly acknowledged that no offence should be taken.
Laughter envelops the press pack. "It's too late, mate, you've already offended me," he smiled. Unlike some Irish players, at least he doesn't shirk or sulk when the hard questions are posited.
"Of course I'm working hard on my kicking," he continued. "We have a good kicking coach here in Richie (Murphy) who is working with all the boys. There's a group of us here who are always kicking with Sexto, Fergus McFadden kicks the ball well as does Isa Nacewa.
"So the group is there and it just depends who's striking the ball well as to who steps up on that front and who's in the team that day. You know I'm not afraid to step up and kick goals, I've done it for other teams. I did it at the start of the year.
"As you said, it probably wasn't as high a standard as I'd like but, going forward, I'm happy to do that role if I'm required. But there are a few guys there, so we'll see how it works out.
"I had a run of 'A' games during the Six Nations when I kicked. We had a couple of wins in the British & Irish Cup. So I struck the ball not too bad there, a few crucial kicks helped with the 'A' team here, so yeah I'm not afraid."
Berne's decisive late kicks helped see off English National League Division 1 clubs Plymouth (16-13, kicking 11 points as well as creating the only try for Michael Keating) and Cornish Pirates (12-10, kicking all four penalties).
He has already played his role in Leinster's Heineken Cup campaign, his creativity at pivot the spark for Leinster during their back-to-back bonus point-winning pool games against the Scarlets in December; you can be certain that Leinster's back-line will not be hampered by his introduction at this crucial stage.
And he has experience of Le Stadium, more recent than the survivors of the classic quarter-final win in Michael Cheika's first season in charge of Leinster, as Berne was involved with Bath last season when they unluckily succumbed to a late defeat by a penalty goal.
Leinster manager Chris Whitaker, a former Waratahs team-mate of Berne, has spoken of the player's absolute commitment to the Leinster cause.
"Every session he gets cut somewhere on his head, or his nose would be broken," according to 'Whits'. "Every session he spills blood. It is unbelievable. He offers a very good rugby brain. He is someone who is a very good thinker on the game. He does a lot of work behind the scenes.
"Shaun is a good one to have on your side in terms of controlling the game. He has plenty of European experience from his days at Bath. His basics are really good. His lines of running are really good. His kicking game is solid. He kicked big goals at The Waratahs. He is definitely someone you wouldn't be too worried about.
"Shaun is one of those guys every team needs. You always need an uplifting, positive character like him at a club. It is that type of guy that turns individuals into a team or squad. He is just a decent bloke."
As for Berne? He'll do things his way. "I can't play the game like Jonny Sexton, he's a good player, he plays the way he plays. I can try to fit into the Leinster team and play like Shaun Berne, try to bring my strengths to the team," he said.
"We had a few good games when I slotted in before. I had a bit of a shaky start to the season myself, but I've settled in since then, things have worked out well. I'd like to be able to fit in and carry on the job Jonny has been doing.
"There's not too much weight on my shoulders. I've been around long enough to know that you don't win a game on your own."
Berne hopes it will stay that way.