Friday 18 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Leo's clinical Leinster leave Munster foes in their wake'

 

Winning talk: The Leinster players listen intently to Sean O’Brien in the team huddle following their victory over Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/ Sportsfile
Winning talk: The Leinster players listen intently to Sean O’Brien in the team huddle following their victory over Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/ Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

RIP, the Leinster-Munster rivalry. It was fun while it lasted but it's over. These days it's no more a real rivalry than the ones between Kerry and Cork in Gaelic football or Celtic and Rangers in Scotland. Mere geographical proximity isn't enough when the massive gulf in class apparent at the weekend separates the teams.

Munster shouldn't be too downhearted about this. Only one team are on the same level as Leinster and that's the side they'll meet in the Champions Cup final 19 days from now.

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The meeting of Saracens and Leinster is the ultimate decider. The English giants were as dominant when winning the 2016 and 2017 competition as Leinster were last year. The clash between the pair will be the first time in history that the champions of the two previous years meet in a final.

All week there'd been gallant efforts to talk up the chances of Munster and Toulouse. Tradition was invoked along with both sides' status as teams on the way up. But reality bit early for both.

Saracens had the game sewn up soon after half-time, while Leinster looked home and dry by the 25th minute. Neither team would have been flattered by a much bigger winning margin.

Leinster's performance made this the most encouraging day for Irish rugby since the win over the All Blacks in November. Leo Cullen's side may not have gone off the rails like the national team, but things have been rockier for them than they were during last year's procession towards honours.

The all-conquering outfit of 12 months ago was reincarnated yesterday at the Aviva as the old irresistible combination of flair, power and machine-like efficiency swept Toulouse aside. Leinster's first try showcased their capacity for invention; backs and forwards handling before James Lowe touched down in the corner. Raw power was responsible for the second, the pack driving a maul over the line for Luke McGrath to score.

Toulouse seemed resigned to their fate from an early stage. Twice they opted for shots at goal from close-range penalties rather than kicking to the corner while trailing by significant margins. It suggested demoralisation. When they did go for the corner in the final 10 minutes, Leinster held out, before Jordan Larmour swooped for a siege breaking interception.

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In 22 Top 14 matches Toulouse have bagged 76 tries. Last week they scored 47 points against Clermont. Yet Leinster's defence made them look pedestrian and predictable.

In attack, Leinster were clinical. Their first two visits to the opposition 22 yielded tries and only the TMO spotting an accidental obstruction by Jack Conan before James Lowe touched down prevented a third on the stroke of half-time. The respite was brief as Scott Fardy scored in the 52nd minute after a patient accumulation of phases. We were in garbage time after that.

Lowe was unlucky to be denied his second try, but not as unlucky as he was last year when missing out on the final due to foreign player restrictions. He surely can't be omitted this time.

His stretching finish for the first try illustrated the winger's great gifts, but an incident in the 46th minute seemed even more typical of the feisty New Zealander. Taking a Rob Kearney pass in his own half, Lowe looked isolated and under pressure, but he first eluded and then powered through tackles to set Leinster on the front foot again.

Lowe adds something extra to Leinster with his devil-may-care sense of attacking possibility. That could be vital in a final between two teams whose key players are so familiar with each other.

The game will probably be billed as a showdown between Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton. Farrell was imperious on Saturday and has the advantage of an uninterrupted season. Yesterday Sexton found himself starting his first game for Leinster since December 29 after a ropey Six Nations.

But for the first time this year he looked back to his old self. A teasing kick which forced Cheslin Kolbe to take the ball into touch near his own line and led to Fardy's try was the distilled essence of classic Sexton.

If the out-half's display will come as a relief to Joe Schmidt, that of his half-back partner should give the Ireland manager pause. Watching Luke McGrath make the right judgement time and again it was hard to believe he might be excluded from the World Cup squad. It'll also be difficult for Schmidt to ignore the claims of Jack Conan for an Ireland starting spot. His huge impact with ball in hand was in stark contrast with CJ Stander's struggles the previous day.

Influence

But perhaps we should reserve judgement till we see how the Leinster go against Saracens. The English club pose problems that few teams are able to answer. How to reduce the influence of Billy Vunipola may be the most important task Leinster face.

Leinster have their own force of nature in James Ryan, whose 18 carries and 17 tackles yesterday were par for the course. There is a wonderful inevitability about Ryan's excellence, but even he will have to find something extra if Leinster are to prevail.

This year's final is the Ali-Foreman bout of Champions Cup deciders. Both sides looked unbeatable at the weekend and it will take one of the greatest final performances in history to overcome either. It's been a long and entertaining season in European rugby's premier club competition. But we ain't seen nothin' yet.

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