Thursday 12 December 2019

Majestic, menacing and brilliant

Ulster were sliced open by a team on top of its game, writes Neil Francis

A great occasion, a raucous atmosphere, a sense of what two tries were about and the possibility of sporting nirvana. One of these teams would attain serendipity but the tortured truth tells another story. Ulster were hopelessly outclassed by a side that has psychological resilience and an incorruptible honesty in terms of playing the game the way it should be.

Any of the pre-match predictions that this would be an uncomfortably close match for the champions proved superfluous. Leinster played with such clarity of thought and with a resolution that no team in Europe can match. Ulster were lucky to keep it to just 42 points. This is the best team in history.

I have been critical of Leinster this season in the sense that they only played when they were bothered, and if it took 30 minutes of application to dispose of their opponents then that was all that they would do. Ulster, to their eternal credit, ensured, nay pushed, Leinster to perform for the full 80 and while their endurance of labour brought it close in the 60th minute when Dan Tuohy got over in the corner which was as a result of Ulster's most intelligent period of play.

That try in the 60th minute signalled the end of any hopes of a mini-revival.

Leinster showed undeviating steadiness of purpose and went after Ulster and controlled the ball with a ruthlessness in the last 20 minutes that I had not seen from this team. Looking at the Ulster players and their ultra-competitive fringe and back five, their body language told you everything. It was with a sense of foreboding that they made their tackles and it was certain that Leinster would not leave the Ulster half without scores once they got a little bit of traction going and some purchase on the ball. Ulster under the cosh looked a suspicion shop-worn.

I said before yesterday's final that Ulster had made a great mistake in the lead-up to the game. It was a miracle that Chris Henry got through 70 minutes. John Afoa was Ulster's most productive player with or without the ball. Ulster were a long way off the pace and while they were comfortably in their stride in the mid-section they simply could not sustain their effort at this punishing pace because they were not match fit.

They sent their shadow squad down to Thomond to get tonked by Munster. I always feel that the side that play hard rugby right up until the final have a distinct advantage. Their senses are honed, their propensity to get into matches and maintain that pace are far better than a team who have been wrapped in cotton wool for three weeks.

Ulster had nothing left in the tank once the 60-minute mark came along and then something which was rarely spoken about in the pre-match -- Ulster's lack of depth in their squad -- manifested itself in a rapid eye movement nightmare as players who were a long way off Heineken final level came rolling on to the pitch.

It is to Leinster's immense credit, and quite a difficult thing to do if you are playing against friends, that you punish them clinically and ruthlessly and you do not stop until the very final whistle. Leinster were almost surgical in their dissection of Ulster's reserve guard.

The impact of Leinster's bench was phenomenal. Heinke van der Merwe carried as much ball as he would have done in an 80-minute game and he punctured huge holes and offloaded with real intelligence as Ulster scrambled in the frenzy. Sean Cronin too put in a very healthy last 15. Ian Madigan, although the match was over by the time he came on, poured salt into the wounds.

Eoin Reddan had an imperfect game and was inconsistent in his distribution. Maybe coach Joe Schmidt was reticent about sending on somebody as inexperienced as John Cooney, but the kid had read his lines and injected a real zip into the proceedings at the breakdown.

We always knew the breakdown would decide this encounter and we checked to see who was doing what. O'Brien was the dominant influence and completely outplayed Stephen Ferris on the day -- that is not to say that Ferris played badly, once again he was a force of nature but he spent an awful lot of time on the back foot and looking to make other players' tackles. Jamie Heaslip looked very sharp, certain and abrasive, and he was excellent yet again at the breakdown and also leading Leinster's defence.

What about the old fellas? Brian O'Driscoll is a phenomenon. In the recent census where it said O'Driscoll's 'Place of Birth' that should have said 'manger'. Anybody who has had keyhole surgery to cut some cartilage off the knee will realise that you just cannot play in a match of this intensity two weeks afterwards. It's a miracle that he played but you can see why, and it was vital that he took his place.

In the 30th minute, when Leinster decided to impose their will at scrum time, they hooshed Ulster off the ball and took the turnover. The Leinster back line had anticipated it, Jonathan Sexton made a break after taking the ball up himself and from the recycle O'Driscoll cut back inside, treating Darren Cave with contempt and out of the tackle came a sumptuous offload which only a celestial being could perpetrate. O'Brien was on the radar, connected and made a forceful and storming run up through the middle, where you would have to say that some of Ulster's tackling in defence of their line wouldn't have gained any medals for valour.

O'Brien was hauled down five metres short and to their credit Ulster scrambled for their lives. My only sense of recognition came from the replay on the screen because I was sure there was an exocet missile playing in the blue jersey.

The other 'old guy' screamed in with murderous intent and cleared the entire ruck just as it looked like Ulster had slowed the ball down. Reddan found Cian Healy and he squeezed over the line.

That is the difference between winning and losing matches -- scoring tries and being stopped short -- and it was no accident that Brad Thorn chose the support line and knew exactly where the ruck would be and was the first and most important support member to come in, well worth every penny they paid for him.

The garden gnome (Declan Kidney) will have observed the game that Ireland should play for the next five years. If he is unable to translate what Leinster are doing at this level into international success then he should walk away.

Congratulations to the Leinster coaching staff for getting absolutely everything right in terms of how to play against Ulster, which weaknesses to attack and for giving them a definitive game plan.

For Ulster as they reflect in thoughtful dignity and they go away and go to a place where regrets take the place of dreams, they will come to the realisation that there was nothing they could do to stop a team as awesome as Leinster and they can, with confidence, say they gave it as good a shot as they could.

Leinster were majestic and there was a degree of menacing brilliance in their performance which Ulster, even though they scrapped right down to the marrow of their bone, couldn't halt.

The Leinster rugby public should acknowledge their heroes and their quality for their achievements. To demonstrate their voracious appetite Leinster did not simply carpe diem they went one stage further and carpe omnes which is the badge this team wears on its chest. Congratulations to all.

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