Wednesday 13 December 2017

Leinster swat Ulster aside to cement place in history

Leinster celebrate their third Heineken Cup success in four years after defeating Ulster 42-14 in Twickenham on Saturday
Leinster celebrate their third Heineken Cup success in four years after defeating Ulster 42-14 in Twickenham on Saturday

JOHN O'BRIEN at Twickenham

THE figures harbour no lies. An unprecedented third Heineken Cup crown in four years. Only the second club to win back-to-back titles and the first to march through a European season unbeaten. In a near-capacity Twickenham yesterday, Leinster overpowered a brave Ulster, 42-14, and announced themselves as a team for the ages.

What is truly frightening is that this Leinster side is by no means old and will return with sharpened appetite to explore new frontiers.

It didn't have the pyrotechnics that lit up last year's final against Northampton but, on a day when history was made with the first all-Irish European final, we still witnessed a memorable contest that will linger long in the memory, not just for Leinster's supreme authority but also for the spirit of adventure Ulster brought. A 28-point margin did them scant justice. They will be back and much the stronger for it.

They will be disappointed, of course, because they came to win and a hugely encouraging start would have cheered them. The received wisdom had been that Brian McLaughlin's men would seek to put their stamp on the game, keep their shape as narrow as possible and be as cynical as they needed to be to keep Leinster pinned back and frustrated. Sprinkle a dollop of luck on top and, who knew, it might just come off.

So what did they do? They did what every pundit worth his salt least expected, what Leinster coach Joe Schmidt probably considered and then dismissed. They threw caution to the wind and, incredibly, set out to beat Leinster at their own game, flinging the ball wide at every opportunity -- and there were plenty early on -- and trying to startle Leinster into making mistakes. The audacity of it was breathtaking.

Five minutes gone. Ulster had played all the rugby and their inspirational scrum-half, Ruan Pienaar, had kicked them into a three-point lead. Leinster's first attack had ended with Jonathon Sexton turned over in a ruck. Their first lineout was scrappy and ended up in Ulster hands. Maybe, we thought quietly to ourselves.

But the risks of Ulster's brave strategy were soon apparent. Leinster began to gain some ground, as you knew they would, and when Seán O'Brien barrelled over for a try in the 12th minute, Ulster didn't have a lead anymore to show for their bright start. The more they took the game to their opponents, the more difficult it became to dispel the feeling that, at any moment, Leinster would simply cut loose.

Mistakes were made, but some of the rugby was of sublime quality. Beefy Ulster forwards flinging offloads about like they were Kiwi backs. Darren Cave piercing relentlessly up the middle. Stefan Terreblanche coming close to nipping over in the corner.

Rigidly, even when Leinster threatened to steal a march, Ulster stuck to the game plan. Never lost the belief that they could still carry the day.

Here's what makes Leinster the team they are, though. Brian O'Driscoll was, palpably, some way short of full fitness yesterday, yet the magical off-load he delivered to O'Brien on the half-hour mark showed what even a partially-fit O'Driscoll can do. O'Brien bounded into the Ulster 22 and released Cian Healy for the touchdown that pushed Leinster 11 points clear.

To Ulster's credit, they never lost heart. Pienaar landed a monster 60-metre penalty on the stroke of half-time to keep them interested. With 60 minutes gone it was still a 10-point game. Leinster still weren't over the horizon. Yet they simply overpowered Ulster in the scrum and were awesomely clinical with the chances they created in the opposition 22. Five clear chances, five tries. That just about summed it up.

Ultimately, they just had too much know-how and experience. Consider that of Leinster's starting XV only 37-year-old Brad Thorn hadn't appeared in a Heineken Cup final while Ulster, a touch recklessly perhaps, fielded a 20-year-old rookie at outhalf and it backfired badly. Paddy Jackson is a star of the future but that future should not have been yesterday.

Almost sadistically, Schmidt unleashed a pack of established players from the bench and two of them, Heinke van der Merwe and Seán Cronin, nabbed late tries to push the blade in even deeper. With another final looming against the Ospreys, Schmidt could not afford to be in a merciful mood, and who would bet against them adding a second trophy to cap a season of all seasons? They are simply some team.

Sunday Indo Sport

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