Saturday 7 December 2019

George Hook: Ireland's domination could come at a cost

George Hook

All the facts, figures and stories have been written about Leinster's magnificent victory at Twickenham on Saturday and they go to the RDS next week hoping to put the seal on their status as one of, if not the finest club side in European rugby history.

Conversely, the first all-Ireland Heineken Cup final and the success of Irish teams will cast a giant shadow over the negotiations to decide the future of the competition.

Five times in the last seven seasons Ireland's provinces have emerged triumphant and that domination will not sit well in England and France. The previous six finals had been divided amongst the Premiership and France, which is the way things were supposed to be.

We can be certain that there will be an effort to curb Ireland's power and a change in qualification from the Pro12 will be the first step.

The biggest margin of victory in the history of the competition was always predictable as Ulster, for all their heroics in the run to the final, are an average side predicated on the kicking of Ruan Pienaar to garner points. Ulster had done well to come out of the so-called 'pool of death', but the big advantage was Edinburgh's surprise win over Toulouse.

Even then the Scots exposed the Ulster defence on so many occasions that one always felt the more clinical holders of the trophy would capitalise in spades.

This was one of the best first 40 minutes in Heineken Cup final history. The commitment to attack by both teams was outstanding and, indeed, Ulster started like they might cause a shock. The first penalty, the first scrum, the first clean break and the first charge-down all went their way.

The only bright spot for the men in blue at that point was the most astonishing catch by Rob Kearney. The full-back made up 30 yards at full tilt to make a catch that he had no right to even attempt. He may be the greatest fielder of a high ball in the world.

Ulster had to get off to a quick start and put some doubt in the minds of the superior force. They failed for two reasons: coach Brian McLaughlin decided on the wrong tactics and his fly-half, Paddy Jackson, had a nightmare.

Before the game, former Munster and Ireland three-quarter, Moss Finn, put it succinctly. "You cannot trust a 20-year-old fly-half in a match of this importance," he surmised. "Ulster to win need to adopt the Shannon tactic of nine-man rugby."

Sadly, McLaughlin had no other choice at fly-half as Ian Humphreys is a terrible defender and a poor tactical kicker. The youngster delivered on Finn's analysis and kicked and passed badly, throwing away the slight advantage his team had won in the early exchanges.

The coach adopted an expansive game-plan which contributed to an enthralling spectacle but was doomed to lose. If Ulster wanted a kicking game then perhaps Pienaar at 10 might have been the answer, or they could have followed the Finn mantra and used the South African to kick from the base.

Leinster were outstanding. Brian O'Driscoll, with a body ravaged by injury and operations, was sublime. The searing pace may be gone but he can still get outside defenders and his ability to pass under the most intense pressure was at times unbelievable.

The beneficiary of O'Driscoll's greatness was Sean O'Brien, who capped an average season with a reminder of what a wonderful physical machine he is.

He may not be an open-side flanker, but there are few more fearsome sights in world rugby than the Tullow man in full flight.

His try might not have been taken by any other of his team-mates because he had to take out two big defenders in his drive for the line.

Throughout the match he was on hand to fetch and carry and his talent presents a challenge to the other coaches responsible for his performance. When he can get his hands on the ball he is superhuman; without the pigskin he is a mere mortal.

Leinster survived at the line-out by using clever variations and ultimately settled in at the scrum.

Ulster needed to have control up front to win but could not sustain the pressure because when in good field position it was given up by the lack of control by Jackson.

Jonathan Sexton had to be merely efficient to ensure his team's success but he hardly put a foot wrong in his choice of play, his delivery of the pass or his kicking from hand or ground.

He was lucky to be paired with the quicksilver Eoin Reddan rather than the pedestrian Isaac Boss. Reddan's speed of delivery was a vital component in giving space to those outside.


Leinster, with a conveyer belt of talent coming through the academy, could be a force for the next five years, but Ulster have a problem at fly-half and Munster are without back-up. The southern province contributed just four players to a recent Irish U-20 squad and face the eventual retirement of Ronan O'Gara with foreboding.

Ireland's future in this competition is now in the hands of the ERC and the IRFU. The European body could change the qualification procedures, which would make it more difficult for the Irish provinces to rest players in the Pro12.

Meanwhile, the proposed restrictions on foreign signings will hit Munster and Ulster hard.

But for now it is time to rejoice in a victory of flair, imagination and risk. Kiwi Joe Schmidt has proved himself to be an outstanding coach and those early games of his reign were simply experiments rather that a sign of what was to come.

Hopefully he will see his future in Ireland rather than his homeland.

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