Leinster's homework puts them top of class
Leinster beat Leicester, the might of the English Premiership, at a packed Aviva Stadium on Saturday and in the process established themselves at firm favourites to lift the trophy.
This was not the expected victory for flair over power but a victory for attrition aided by some very favourable refereeing.
Not for the first time, Nigel Owens proved himself to be a "home-town ref" but his performance was also in marked contrast to what we have come to expect from the so-called directives from the refereeing brains trust at the IRB. Rarely, if ever, did he give the advantage to the visitors when they were dominant for much of the first half. The comparison between Dave Pearson in Brive and Owens was instructive.
Owens has been known for years as a referee that does not look behind him at the breakdown and Leinster had done their homework. The offside line seemed to run through the centre of the ruck rather than the hindmost foot, so far forward were the Leinster defenders. Sean O'Brien in particular must have scared the living daylights out of attackers as he launched himself from a starting point three yards forward than was legal.
At the line-out, on the referee and in defence, the Leinster management had done their homework and the team followed the plan to the letter. They also played with courage and commitment that must have had the Irish journalist that once christened them "ladyboys" crying in to his laptop.
If Leicester were to win they had to win the set-piece battle. They had the edge at the scrum, where Boris Stankovich proved the toughest opponent this season for Mike Ross. However, the line-out was the determining factor in this game where Leinster were allowed to dominate by poor refereeing and the inexperience of the Leicester locks.
Time and again, the jumpers in blue, with impunity, attacked the opponent's arm rather than the ball to register a steal against the throw. The departure of Louis Deacon left the neophytes, Steve Mafi and Ed Slater, at the line-out and they never raised a whimper of protest. One can only imagine what Martin Johnson would have done in similar circumstances.
It was indicative of the disparity between the two teams that only on the wing would Leicester have had a player in a joint side. Luke Fitzgerald's awful season continued and not only did he butcher a gilt-edged try opportunity but he seemed incapable of catching the ball in the air or retaining it in the tackle. It was quite simply a horrendous performance and Joe Schmidt's decision to substitute Shane Horgan rather than his unfortunate colleague was a clear indication that the coach is going to give Fitzgerald every chance to play through his poor form. Few coaches would be as forgiving.
This was a mind-numbing game of rugby played with little invention but huge physical intensity. Rugby union is now the hardest field sport on earth. A linebacker at the Pittsburgh Steelers would not survive the 80 minutes of collisions that were in evidence yesterday. More worryingly, was that once again Brian O'Driscoll, the greatest player Ireland has ever produced, demonstrated that may also be the bravest.
He stayed on the pitch bloodied but unbowed but also with a shoulder injury, which is invariably shrugged off as a "stinger" but in reality is damage to muscles and nerves of the joint. In one astonishing piece of courage, nay foolhardiness, after a head-on tackle, with his right arm hanging useless, he continued on to join the ruck to try and win the ball.
The big difference between the two sides was at full-back, where Isa Nacewa was always a threat as a counter-attacker. In contrast, Scott Hamilton was one-paced and predictable. Geordan Murphy was a huge loss to Leicester whereas the change in Leinster's game this season began when Rob Kearney was injured and Nacewa was moved from languishing in obscurity on the wing and at fly-half.
On such minor threads do coaches' careers hang. It is mind-boggling that Michael Cheika and Schmidt thought that the Fijian could function as a fly-half. Had Kearney played, Leinster would have descended to an aerial bombardment and possible failure instead of marching to glory.
With a home semi-final beckoning, Leinster are justifiably favourites for the trophy and the title of the best side in Europe. Talent there is aplenty in the ranks of the pale but money has been a crucial ingredient. The salary cap in England has meant a wage bill of four million for Leicester, while Michael Dawson has 50pc more in the coffers of Donnybrook. It makes a crucial difference when trawling the globe for talent.
There was not an empty seat in the house for this contest and rugby must now be a real worry for the FAI and the GAA. The oval ball game is now routinely attracting bigger live and television audiences than its competitors with presumably a greater attraction for sponsors. Money may not be the only worry. It would be an interesting comparison of the sale replica shirts for the three sports.
Saturday was a good day for Irish rugby and Cardiff could be an interesting place on the weekend of May 20/21 if Munster and Leinster come to town for the Amlin Challenge and Heineken Cup finals.