Sport Champions Cup

Thursday 22 February 2018

Jim Glennon: O'Driscoll epitomises a Leinster side whose hunger is not sated

Twickenham just a staging post for even better things, says Jim Glennon

I've spent the best part of the last week trying to put the events, and indeed the achievement, of last Saturday at Twickenham into context and, in all honesty, I've struggled.



It was undoubtedly an outstanding performance by Leinster but finding context demands an assessment of the opposition too. How much of Ulster's non-performance was of their own making and how much was a direct result of their opponents' dominance ?

It has been said Ulster had the benefit of the bus lane into the final, with games against a fading force, Munster, and surprise semi-finalists, Edinburgh, both in Ireland. But that is to do them an injustice. Both finalists played nine games in this season's competition, and while Ulster suffered two defeats prior to last week, their defeat by Clermont was controversial too and they gave the mighty Leicester a hiding they won't forget in Ravenhill in January.

They were at full strength for the final too although, as with any selection at this stage of the season and in matches of this importance, they probably had several players functioning at less than 100 per cent fitness -- Chris Henry and Stephen Ferris in particular. Without either a proven playmaking pivot or a strong bench they were always going to come unstuck someday and, regrettably for them, that day came on the biggest stage of all. To my mind, they were still worthy finalists. Equally, however, it's fair to say also that there have been better runners-up in the competition's history.

So what of Leinster? Jonny Sexton, Seán O'Brien and Kevin McLaughlin all won their individual match-ups with Paddy Jackson, Henry and Ferris respectively, but there was far more to the performance. The lineout, fortified by the inclusion of McLaughlin, was significantly improved and the scrum, around which I had some concerns, turned out to be a surprise source of advantage. Cian Healy comprehensively outplayed All Black World Cup-winner John Afoa who, for all his undoubted ball-carrying and defensive talents, simply failed in his basic responsibilities and, on the other side, Mike Ross was always comfortable with Tom Court.

Most striking of all for me however was the impact of the Leinster bench. The replacement of skipper Leo Cullen by Devin Toner after 57 minutes was, even by Joe Schmidt's standards, a bold move; the game was just about beyond Ulster, and the easy thing to do was to leave everything as it was, forcing Ulster to chase harder.

Within five minutes, however, two more front-five subs had taken the field, to be quickly followed by the remainder of the bench. It was clear that the subs were being used as an offensive weapon and not a safety-net for a team in command of the game, wishing to close it out.

The outcome probably ranks as the most effective use of tactical substitutions in the history of Irish rugby -- precisely when Ulster were at their make-or-break stage, the champions upped their tempo dramatically and moved on to a new level of performance, leaving their hapless challengers flailing in their wake.

Effective squad-management and proactive substitutions have been hallmarks of Schmidt's tenure in Leinster. He has pushed the boundaries to where no one, except the French possibly, has gone before -- effective 23-man rugby is impossible to counter when the opposition is incapable of mustering more than 15 or 18 for the confrontation. Ulster didn't even have 15.

And what of the force of nature wearing the blue jersey with 13 on its back? Another personal milestone achieved, in extraordinary circumstances even by his standards. Quite apart from his by now customary on-field heroics, his post-match interviews were interesting, I thought. While obviously enjoying the moment and in celebratory mode, he nonetheless displayed a remarkable hunger which appears to remain unsated. He believes there's more to come. In his customary calm and articulate manner, he referred at length to the collective desire within the group to create a legacy.

The manner in which Leinster have handled themselves has been in keeping with O'Driscoll's utterances too; brief, low-key celebrations and back to work on Monday, as usual, with no public celebrations; indeed the word is that some may have been in on Sunday too.

Everything points to Twickenham being a staging-post en route to greater things. Ten years ago, the current success couldn't have been imagined; indeed even five years ago it would have stretched credibility, and likewise the next five years is impossible to predict. It can be said though that the current group of players and management already see it as their mission to convert three from four into four from five; were they to achieve it, their legacy would be assured.

jglennon@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Sport

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