Monday 18 December 2017

Schmidt's slick Leinster machine have miles left in the tank

Rob Kearney looks to break. Photo: David Conachy
Rob Kearney looks to break. Photo: David Conachy

For a game that threatened to die a death when Leinster went 14-3 up after 32 minutes, this was actually a compelling spectacle.

And this despite it finishing with Leinster retaining their title with a record score and a record margin in a Heineken Cup final. For this we can thank Ulster as well, for in the full knowledge that their bench was for people to sit on, rather than spring from, they played themselves to a standstill in the face of the best team Europe has ever seen.

The end was instructive: Sean Cronin sprinting around the corner and towards the posts to dot the ball down for Leinster's fifth and final try; preceded a few minutes earlier by Heinke van der Merwe accelerating to get past a tackle on the other side of the field for his score. Both players arrived into the game late. Both were a measured retaliatory strike by Joe Schmidt after Dan Tuohy had opened the door -- however weak the daylight that shone through it -- for Ulster with a fine try after brilliant work by Paddy Wallace.

Ulster had stretched Leinster over and back and looked all done when they were coming up empty-handed, but they stuck at it and Tuohy's touchdown got the Ulstermen standing all around Twickenham. 'Righto', said Schmidt, 'brace yourselves for an injection of pace'. On came Van der Merwe and he started carrying with menace, picking out tired defenders around the side of Ulster's ruck. His score was the perfect reward for player and coach. And then, to make matters worse, along came Cronin who would fancy his chances over 50 metres against any other hooker on the planet.

Only the best teams have these kind of resources. If it is of any consolation for Ulster, they were beaten by the best, though oddly enough a team not quite playing at their best. There might not be the usually intense video review tomorrow morning, but if there was Schmidt could fish out a few dropped balls and misplaced passes that normally would get up his nose.

Rather the coach will luxuriate in the performances of his big-game players, the ranks of whom always threatened to do a job on Ulster. Captain Leo Cullen gave new meaning to the term 'grunt'. His partner Brad Thorn was never far from his side, and his cleaning of rucks, and knack for getting into the road of Stephen Ferris, was first class.

Behind this pair was man of the match Sean O'Brien. He scored the first try, on 13 minutes, and put in a 45-metre run to set up the second, for Cian Healy, 20 minutes later. Dealing with O'Brien when he has a head of steam up is hard; doing it without fresh legs from the bench must be dispiriting. And yet Ulster never looked like they wanted to give up, even when they were being beaten out the gate.

Their gamble with Paddy Jackson, which had been no problem against Edinburgh, was a different story here. Leinster's only punt had been to see if Isaac Boss's hamstring would hold up in the pre-match warm-up. It didn't -- which lead to Academy player John Cooney picking up a Heineken Cup medal -- and neither did Jackson. You really felt for the Ulster outhalf when between referee Nigel Owens and assistant Jerome Garces -- who wouldn't know an offside line if he had the benefit of slow-motion replay -- they pulled Jackson back to his own 22 in the second half when he had returned a kick into Leinster territory. He had looked to Owens for approval before putting boot to ball. And then he was called back?

From the lineout to Leinster, the champions got a turbo maul going and next thing you know Mr Owens is running around behind the posts for a penalty try. That was the last straw for Brian McLaughlin's team. The second half was just six minutes old when that happened, and suddenly Ulster had gone from 14-6 behind to 21-6. They are not geared for catch-up rugby. The outcome was sealed, perhaps already so at half-time when Ruan Pienaar had given the underdogs a glimmer by thumping over a massive penalty from inside his own half, with the last kick of the first 40 minutes. It was a great strike from a great player but he knew how deep the trouble in his own camp was.

He pulled back three points soon after that, but within a couple of minutes Jonny Sexton had cancelled it out. Sexton was excellent. He would have felt for Jackson for it's not long since the Leinster star was a greenhorn. From his vantage point he would have seen Jackson shovel a fair bit of ball, and then with his first punt -- 29 minutes into the game -- put it out on the full when he had been aiming at a broad target.

There was a horrible passage for him then in the second period when he passed up a chance to feed players outside him in the Leinster 22, and followed it up by fluffing a handy drop-goal when Ulster had decided the try was not going to come. Not long after that he was called ashore, and typical of Ulster's day his replacement Ian Humphreys didn't make it to the finish either. The highlight of their second half was that try by Tuohy, who at least has a tour to New Zealand now to focus his mind. It was great pressure by Ulster and lovely skill by Wallace to carve out the space for the second row to score.

It fired up the Ulster fans in the record crowd of 81,744, but it would never change the complexion of the game. The champions never looked worried. They had the calibre of Brian O'Driscoll, who had been operated on eight days previously, to steady the ship. He wasn't match fit but it didn't stop him carving up Darren Cave a couple of times, and producing a sublime offload to O'Brien in the run-up to Healy's try.

He typified the kind of power Leinster were able to bring to this contest. Having been there before he knew how to deliver. And the worrying news for the rest of Europe is that this group is not finished yet. Not long after the final whistle yesterday they will have been installed as favourites for next season's Heineken Cup. That competition will conclude in Lansdowne Road. Tickets are already on sale.

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 ven der Merwe 62), R Strauss S Cronin 68), M Ross (N White 700, L Cullen (capt)(D Toner 58), B Thorn, K McLaughlin (S Jennings 62), J Heaslip, S O'Brien

Ulster: S Terblanche (yc 74); 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 Touhy, S Ferris, P Wannenberg, C Henry (W Faloon 68)

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

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