Saturday 18 November 2017

Ruthless incisiveness has been hallmark of magical campaign

With qualification already in the bag, seeding for the quarter-final draw was the only item at issue at the RDS yesterday. A simple win ensured a home quarter-final.

That this Leinster group jealously guard their status of European champions has been evident throughout their current campaign, but any doubts which might have existed were well and truly dispelled with a performance which threw down the gauntlet to all pretenders to their crown.

In a remarkable first-half performance, wind-assisted Leinster not only absorbed everything the French visitors could throw at them by dint of a magnificent defence, but seized on every opportunity with the ruthless incisiveness which has been a hallmark of their campaign. Seventeen points on the board in as many minutes, and 20 to the good at half-time without response, was a tribute to their professionalism in attack and defence.

The scrum was the only sector in which they were playing second fiddle. Joe Schmidt's starting front-five combination of Healy, Strauss, Jamie Hagan, Cullen and Damian Browne was an unusual one for a European game and, while getting little support from the officials, they failed to impose themselves on their opponents.

Healy at loosehead was in dynamic form until his injury-enforced withdrawal but his tighthead colleague Hagan had an educational 40 minutes, probably not unconnected with a heavy blow received early on, and definitely not helped by a referee whose management of the scrum fell some way short of the standard required at this level.

Between them, Strauss appeared to be coming back to his outstanding form of last season and behind them skipper Cullen again demonstrated his acute rugby intelligence while his partner Browne, despite the silly concession of an unnecessary yellow card, had probably his best performance since his arrival last summer. The Galwayman was a bulwark of strength and physicality for 70 minutes, and managed to show well in the loose.

Another unusual element of the starting team was the collective appearance in an important European game of so many of the emerging brigade -- Madigan, Hagan, Rhys Ruddock and Eoin O'Malley; with the exception of Hagan, none are short of game time at Pro12 level, and it's further evidence to Schmidt's squad-management skills that the entire quartet were capable of fitting in relatively seamlessly, with Ruddock in particular seizing an all-too-rare Heineken starting opportunity and fully justifying the dual interest in him from the south, in the shape of Declan Kidney and Tony McGahan.

In the pool phase, Leinster always managed to deliver the required result without ever being in danger. They showed their capacity for rugby of the very highest quality at times, most notably in the opening 60 minutes against Bath at the Aviva, and also in the first half yesterday.

The result on Friday night in Galway will serve as a timely reminder of the magic of this competition and its capacity to deliver the unexpected, so the champions will be determined that any future wizardry won't be at their expense. Whether they have the resources to win successive Heineken Cups is still open to question: Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan and Nathan Hines are a formidable trio to remove from a national team, never mind a club side.

The unseasonably mild weather of recent weeks has brought with it at times spring-like conditions; Wales are here in a fortnight for the start of the Six Nations and we've three teams in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup; none of whom are there to just make up the numbers. What a prospect.

Sunday Indo Sport

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