Monday 20 May 2019

Power game has prompted need to fight another way

Leinster’s Luke McGrath raises his arm as referee Jérome Garcès awards a try scored by Tadhg Furlong at the bottom of the ruck. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Luke McGrath raises his arm as referee Jérome Garcès awards a try scored by Tadhg Furlong at the bottom of the ruck. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Go again and get up. Floored on the canvas, but get up and go again.

And even when the final bell signals defeat, there is always the prospect of another chance, where the result will either confirm superiority, or mock our perception of it. Vengeance for the victims, validation for the victors.

The old Raging Bull Jake LaMotta probably spent more time in the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson than with his own wife: "I fought Sugar so many times it's a wonder I'm not diabetic."

When Ali bruised with Frazier a third time, they threw the most punches ever seen in a heavyweight contest until that day.

The rematch is the compelling narrative that draws us in to any sport.

As Leinster trudge wearily past us beneath the Milburn Stand, the bruises and welts are not yet soothed, the aches and pains are nowhere near salved, the mental scars and scabs too raw to be picked.

And yet still they can't wait to get up and go again. Another day for a different outcome; just as Saracens had delivered the same pledge to us all in Dublin last year, if only we had paid attention.

"I'm sure we will," says Jack Conan, eyes already drawn towards a third rubber; an affray in Marseilles, rather than a Thriller in Manila.

"Please God, this time next year we'll be back in this scenario. So we'll regroup and the start of next year we'll set our eyes on May, to get back into another European final and get that fifth star.

"This isn't the end. Sometimes the despair drives the desire and we'll be better from this. I've absolutely no doubt about that.

"It's tough obviously, losing the likes of Seanie O'Brien in a few weeks. He won't be here, but there are going to be other lads that are going to step up, take the mantle and add to the team and bring their own touch.

"Leinster is a special place and we've got a lot of growing to do. We'll be better for it."

Smashing

Leinster's struggle with Saracens can also, almost, be placed within the context of a wider tussle for supremacy, that between Ireland and England: raw power reigning supreme against more subtle arts.

Munster, too, were all too easily brushed aside and if England begets Saracens, which begets, perhaps, a South Africa in a World Cup, one might wonder can an Irish team try something more elaborate than smashing into a brick wall, repeatedly.

Leinster didn't kick often enough, and then too late; their play ceded control to the red-walled defence.

Unlike England in February, though, Saracens' physical superiority was constant throughout 80 minutes, a studied exercise in ferocious, brutal repetition.

"I enjoyed the fact we put them under so much pressure," coos Mark McCall, now the most successful Irish coach in European rugby.

Sean O'Brien's 12 carries resulted in a net gain of one yard; in reality, he was driven back each and every time.

And yet the Irish side, like that in the Aviva last February, created enough chances even within the coruscating, suffocating violence to have won the game.

Their gambit before half-time has been much quarrelled by the experts tiddling on Twitter or balancing on bar-stools.

However, do we not want our championship sides to show ambition, to be brave amidst the onslaught, to dare for more?

Leinster may have collapsed their lead, but they also knew that 10-3 was not a sufficient buffer; the second-half evidence told us as much.

If anything, Leinster didn't play enough rugby. Then again, the winners made it almost impossible for them to do so.

They may not be pretty, but they are pretty awesome in the business of getting the job done.

"Saracens were fantastic, they're brutal for 80 minutes, they kept on going, kept on pushing us," adds Conan.

"I suppose we probably just didn't show up at times, didn't play the Leinster rugby that got us to the final, which is disappointing.

"We kind of pride ourselves on our varied attack that's unpredictable. We dominate the gain-line, but I don't think we got the right balance of it.

"We were a bit too predictable at times, they had some big physical units out there and they won a lot of the collisions so it was kind of hard to play."

There was little room for the beauty amongst the beasts. At one stage Jordan Larmour sidesteps four men on a hopeful dance into no man's land; Billy Vunipola merely runs into four men and hauls them all across line with him.

"Probably the most physical game I've ever been involved in," says hooker Jamie George.

"It was different to England, in terms of we came out of the blocks and took the game away from them. Obviously we're 10-0 down here, but a lot of the same internationals.

"The intensity of the game was right up there. There was no let-off, it's just relentless, big carry after big tackle. There's no rest. Our ability to back-up that physicality was a real reason we won.

"We wanted to take away their momentum. Johnny Sexton and Leinster on the front foot are the most dangerous team around, but we pride our defence on being the best.

"We knew we could stop that. We gave them too much in the first 30 minutes, but not too much after that."

Saracens were at their most menacing when their circumstances were most grave. Reduced in number by injury and discipline, they liberated themselves.

Owen Farrell didn't need to play much, merely guide his lumbering giants and kick the points.

"This and February were two extremely physical games but probably played in a different way," he says.

"But the main comparison is you definitely feel it after, you know you've been in a game."

Leinster, living by the sword before falling upon it; then, slowly, being clubbed and battered to sporting death with a bludgeon.

When your body is battered your mind is scattered. Why else would Garry Ringrose submit to yet another rib-counter when glorious green grass beckoned outside?

Sometimes it's even simpler, when a big 'un beats the little 'un.

"I don't think we stopped playing," Conan attests.

"I just don't think we deserved it to be fair, we weren't good enough."

Rob Kearney, dolefully, assents. Big moments ceding momentum and defining a day rather than a year.

"I think it's about pinpointing those types of moments rather than a wider view that another Irish team couldn't handle this English team. We had the beating of them today."

There will be another day, in this engrossing tussle of Europe's finest heavyweights.

Before then, Irish players may encounter Saturday's difficulties in a World Cup.

Harsh lessons, like the bruises, must be absorbed in the search for a better way.

Irish Independent

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