Monday 16 September 2019

Little joy for the champions against rueful challengers

Leinster 21 Ulster 18

Jack Conan’s shorts start to fall as he breaks away during the move that eventually led to Adam Byrne’s try. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jack Conan’s shorts start to fall as he breaks away during the move that eventually led to Adam Byrne’s try. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

For Leinster, it often seems that nothing is ever enough. We meet Jack Conan afterwards as he is shuffling around distractedly in his pocket for loose change. The wages of a sporting war. Some days it seems as if the pain ain't worth the gain.

He has left a bereft friend and colleague, Dan Leavy, distraught, to a future uncertain.

Before, when the merciful final bell tolled the end of the titanic tumult, he first sought out his hobbling Irish captain, Rory Best, to offer consolation. Not the day for chest-thumping, then.

Victory; so sweet the taste?

"It's very short-lived," says the No 8. "The highs are so intense, but very brief. It's about enjoying them and celebrating them as a group and as a squad.

"We've been talking to Dan and it is tough to see a mate like that go off in such an amount of pain."

Kieran Treadwell goes over to score Ulster's first try despite a tackle from Rhys Ruddock. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Kieran Treadwell goes over to score Ulster's first try despite a tackle from Rhys Ruddock. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Only champions tend to hold sway on days like this, even if swaying uncertainly when challengers try and fail to land a knockout punch.

Even that realisation provides cold comfort.

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"Minimal. There's not a whole lot of enjoyment to be honest. It's relief, when Luke McGrath kicks that ball out. There wasn't mad celebrations, or acting like we'd won anything. We were miles off our best and barely did enough to get over the line."

For all the plot twists, that's the theme; Ulster producing a day of magnificence but unable to make it count against a Leinster side dipping below their best.

Adam Byrne scores Leinster's second try. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Adam Byrne scores Leinster's second try. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"We had it there for us and they snatched it away," says Dan McFarland, the canny coach who, in conjunction with Dwayne Peel, concocted the game-plan which almost prompted a seismic shock.

They might renew rivalry again in a PRO14 knockout stage, but it will never threaten to match Saturday's fervour or, even, compensate for this bulging hurt locker of defeat.

"It's really difficult to take pride and be really disappointed at the same time," McFarland adds.

"There are not many occasions you get to come to the Aviva in front of 50,000 fantastic fans, and come so close to winning away from home against four-times champions.

Rhys Ruddock (right) battles with Iain Henderson. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rhys Ruddock (right) battles with Iain Henderson. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"There's a pride in how we prepared and how we put that out on the pitch, but there's also a real disappointment in the knowledge we could have won that."

They had chances, we all know that by now. Aside from Stockdale's egregious error, the marvellous John Cooney's missed kick was another shot that literally missed its target.

Wayward

Had they effectively managed their first-half dominance, however, they might not have pined so much; 13-11 was a less than flattering reflection of the sensation that this day was in their hands. They all dropped the ball and a wayward second quarter as much as the stifling final 15 minutes did for them.

Ulster would have wanted to force Leinster to chase and their punishing physical intensity in those opening 10 minutes forced Leo Cullen's men to do just that; it is an unusual place for them to be in and largely why it took them until the 73rd minute to regain, finally, a lead they had only once held briefly before the break.

Best of enemies: Dave Kearney consoles his former team-mate Jordi Murphy after Leinster’s victory. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Best of enemies: Dave Kearney consoles his former team-mate Jordi Murphy after Leinster’s victory. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"Everyone is talking about 'Leinster are going to win' and it's just a matter of turning up," says Cullen, whose side now face Toulouse in the semi-final.

"That's just not the way it actually works in reality. Then you have a slow start in the game on top of that and you have to chase the game. It is always difficult.

"Any game when you are chasing it is tough going. "We're through to the next round. But - and it's a big but - we're pretty fortunate as well. The group is still very hungry to be successful. They want to do special things together.

"It's a bit different to this time last year because then it was 'can we actually go and do it?' and then you go and do it and then it's like 'well, that felt pretty good, let's go try and do it again'.

"Then today, it's so close to slipping away from you. That's the feeling you need to remember.

"That's what it's like when you lose. You're gone and it's a pretty horrible sensation."

When the boot was on the other foot last year, his challengers had dominated then champions Saracens from the start in their quarter-final.

"They're having to play the catch-up game and that's the way I was looking at it today. 'Jeez, Ulster have had the perfect start here and are we going to struggle today?'

"At least we were able to find some sort of a way to dig ourselves out."

Ireland struggled with being hunted as well; Leinster tussled with the same sense, but emerged - just.

"It's easier to hunt teams," admits Conan. "I think the success will be greater if everyone wants to beat us and we still come out on top.

"There is still a lot to be done. I'm not saying we're there yet. There is so much to do. It's a long, long road. But today is another step towards that."

Conan laughs at how he was trying to pull up his shorts as he broke for Adam Byrne's try. Now all his team need to pull is their socks up.

Leinster - J Larmour; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R O'Loughlin (N Reid HT), D Kearney; R Byrne (R Kearney 73), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 58 (McGrath 67)); C Healy (E Byrne 58), S Cronin (J Tracy 58), T Furlong (A Porter 66), S Fardy, J Ryan, R Ruddock capt, S O'Brien (D Leavy 52 (M Kearney 63)), J Conan.

Ulster - M Lowry; R Baloucoune, D Cave (L Marshall 63), S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Best capt (R Herring 16), M Moore (W Herbst 56), I Henderson, K Treadwell, N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee (S Reidy 52).

Ref - R Poite (France)

Leinster to look overseas for scrum coach

Leinster may look overseas for their next scrum coach with Wales assistant Robin McBryde and Hurricanes scrum coach Dan Cron the leading contenders.

With current scrum guru John Fogarty expected to be named as part of Andy Farrell's coaching team, Leo Cullen has a vacancy to fill.

The province have begun their search and according to sources, McBryde and Cron are the outstanding candidates in the field.

A former international hooker who won 37 caps for his country, McBryde has been part of Warren Gatland's coaching set-up for more than a decade and is currently the forwards coach and the Welsh Rugby Union's national skills coach.

Cron, meanwhile, has worked at the two-time Super Rugby-winning Hurricanes since 2011 and is the son of the All Blacks' 'scrum doctor' Mike Cron.

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