Tuesday 12 December 2017

O’Driscoll wants more as awesome Blues retain European crown in style

Leinster's Brian O'Driscoll celebrates after victory over Ulster. Heineken Cup Final, Leinster v Ulster, Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, England. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster's Brian O'Driscoll celebrates after victory over Ulster. Heineken Cup Final, Leinster v Ulster, Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, England. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian O'Driscoll's brilliant hand-off opens the door for Leinster's second try which Cian Healy finishes off
Cian Healy scores Leinster's second try

Hugh Farrelly

"I JUST hope we get a good pool." It was less than an hour after Leinster recorded the heaviest Heineken Cup final win in history, claiming their second title in a row and third in four seasons, but coach Joe Schmidt was already fretting about next season.

That is the scary aspect for the rest of Europe, this group believe there is plenty more to come -- especially with Schmidt at the helm constantly seeking ways to improve -- and becoming the first side to achieve a Heineken Cup treble is now top of the agenda.

Brian O'Driscoll who, a week after emergency keyhole surgery on his knee, produced the latest remarkable display in a career defined by the out-of-the-ordinary, spoke earnestly of the communal desire to create "a dynasty" and the demeanour of the Leinster players in victory told of satisfaction rather than wild elation.

They may not have said as much in the lead-in, but Leinster expected this.

When you have this amount of trust in your ability, preparation and direction, triumph almost becomes a matter of course and each landmark reached is followed by the immediate targeting of a fresh objective. "What's next?" is the mantra of the achiever and Leinster are not done yet.

"It is about being selfish and wanting more now," said O'Driscoll. "It wasn't as tense going into the last 10 minutes for us and in the dressing-room there was still great elation but different to the other two (titles), people were saying it tongue-in-cheek, 'can you do three-in-a-row?'.

"The pleasure of being involved with this group of players is that I know how hungry they are and I know how they will push one another on."

Schmidt recognises that hunger also, as well as driving it on himself, and though Leinster will bask in this achievement for a while, the prospect of making it a league and cup double on Sunday by beating the Ospreys will snap everyone back into line by tomorrow.

"Players have already spoken to me about next week, there is a degree of resolve there and when it is coming from them it makes it easier for me to crack the whip," said Schmidt.

"It is a hell of an achievement for this group of men. They get on so well together, they are a very tight-knit unit and they are such a coachable group as well, they really do want to try to be the best they can be and work really hard to do that."


Typically, the modest New Zealander deflected any personal credit on to the players but Schmidt was the focus of unreserved praise in the wake of his latest milestone and the main threat to Leinster's dynasty aspirations could emanate from the challenge of holding on to the man now almost routinely referred to as "the best coach in the world".

And all in the space of 20 amazing months which began with the, now risible, knee-jerk proclamations that he was not up to the task after some poor early results. Most people expected a Leinster win but, after their injury-disrupted build-up coincided with Ulster appearing fresh and focused for their gallop at glory, this level of superiority was not countenanced.

The champions were superior in every area and though Ulster had plenty of possession, decent territory and never wanted for effort, the gulf in class was too broad to bridge. Perhaps they might have come closer if they had not abandoned the game-plan which had served them so well up to this point.

We expected a pragmatic approach involving a forward bulkhead allowing Ruan Pienaar to direct operations and keep Leinster unsettled with the kicking game that had tormented Munster and Edinburgh in previous rounds.

Instead, where Paddy Jackson had been tidy but almost incidental against Edinburgh as Pienaar took control, this time the youngster was fed repeatedly as Ulster opted for a running game from the off.

So, once again, Twickenham was playing host to the same misguided change of direction that sank England in the 1991 World Cup final. Goaded by the taunts of David Campese and the Australian media, Will Carling's side abandoned the route-one approach that had brought them to the decider, opted to throw it around against the Wallabies and were picked off accordingly.

Another major factor was the excellence of the Leinster scrum. There was no question that Ulster believed they could gain a significant advantage by using John Afoa to get after Cian Healy but the 24-year-old met the challenge with typically bullish defiance.

The All Blacks tight-head numbers among the elite in the position and, in scrummaging terms, this was a coming-of-age display by Healy as part of an excellent Leinster operation. It was fitting that the loose-head ended up drilling his way over for a try with possession initiated by an against-the-head effort at the scrum.

That was Leinster's second touchdown, Man of the Match Sean O'Brien grabbing the first, and they would go on to score five in all, including a penalty try, the late touchdowns by Heinke van der Merwe and Sean Cronin emphasising the dynasty-empowering strength in depth in Leinster's squad -- good to see John Cooney get a chance, his whippy delivery, a regular weapon for Lansdowne in the AIL, looked good on the big stage.

With Sexton kicking beautifully, bar one skewed effort, Ulster were chasing the game despite taking an early lead through a Pienaar penalty. Much has been made of the influential role played by their overseas contingent but, on the biggest occasion, the foreigners fell short. Pienaar was contained, Muller matched by Brad Thorn and Leo Cullen, and Afoa, though typically ebullient in the loose, depowered at scrum time.

But it was Pedrie Wannenburg, who had been truly immense in the win in Thomond Park, who was the biggest disappointment. Ulster still had an outside chance of forcing their way back into the contest when the Springbok broke off the back of the scrum inside the Leinster '22' on 56 minutes.

Ulster paid big money for Wannenburg but they did not shell out for the type of tag-rugby pass he flung forward from behind his back when there was a gap open for Stephen Ferris to the line. The Ireland flanker doesn't do airy-fairy and Wannenburg got an earful from Ferris, who knew the game was up.

Then Stefan Terblanche let his frustration out in a brainless spear-tackle on Cronin that warranted more than they yellow card it elicited from Nigel Owens. Ulster's overseas players have had a big impact but if they are going to keep Irish-qualified players out of the side they need to justify it and on this occasion, everyone lost out.

The saddest aspect to the result was that it can be used as justification for the branch's decision to shaft Brian McLaughlin on the basis of the Ulster coach not being able to carry his squad that final step. This ignores both McLaughlin's remarkable achievement in getting Ulster to this point -- through a pool containing Clermont and Leicester and by way of inflicting only Munster's second Heineken Cup defeat at Thomond Park -- and the fact that no European side would have been capable of taking the final step against this Leinster side on Saturday.

There was no hint of bitterness from McLaughlin, merely the same dignity he has maintained throughout this unsavoury usurping.

"I have been very fortunate," he said. "I have had three good years with Ulster and the players, management and supporters have been fantastic. From where we were to where we are now, yeah, it is hard to take but Leinster are an outstanding rugby side.

"We have moved a great distance, we are back at the top table now and we have to stay there. We have to make sure this is the norm, not the exception."

While McLaughlin, unjustly, retreats into the shadows, the spotlight on Schmidt is only going to increase in wattage and, overall, it was wonderful to see a record Heineken Cup final crowd of just under 82,000 present to acclaim two Irish provinces and a timely spur for the formidable challenge in New Zealand.

Leinster confirmed their status as national standard-bearers for the foreseeable future but it is not just the other Irish provinces falling behind, it is the entire rugby-playing continent.

LEINSTER -- R Kearney (D Kearney 73); F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton (I Madigan 74), E Reddan (J Cooney 74); C Healy (H van der Merwe 62), R Strauss (S Cronin 68), M Ross (N White 70); L Cullen (capt, D Toner 58), B Thorn; K McLaughlin (S Jennings 62), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Ulster -- S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave (A D'Arcy 77), P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson (I Humphreys 46 (P Marshall 70)), R Pienaar; T Court (P Mcallister 75), R Best (N Brady 77), J Afoa (D Fitzpatrick 74); J Muller (capt, L Stevenson 77), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry (W Faloon 68), P Wannenberg.

REF -- N Owens (Wales)

Irish Independent

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