Sunday 8 December 2019

Tony Ward: A beautiful game played by a really beautiful team

Sean Cronin’s late try summed up the hunger and desire which flows through this magnificent Leinster team. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean Cronin’s late try summed up the hunger and desire which flows through this magnificent Leinster team. Photo: Sportsfile

It was one big match too many for Ulster but one more on the road to immortality for a Leinster squad unquestionably the greatest of the European professional era.

Almost all pre-match evidence pointed to a close encounter with Ulster's previous performances in this tournament and the possibility of a tiring Leinster squad at the end of a gruelling season.

Well, if what we witnessed on Saturday was a squad in fatigue, then brace yourself for what wonderful excitement lies ahead. Make no mistake -- this was classic Leinster, squeezing the life out of the opposition through bread-and-butter graft, before breaking open the champagne and caviar in the final straight.

The margin of victory probably did flatter them but therein lies the key to what makes this exceptionally talented group stand out from the rest.

Whereas the hunger should have been with the team in white, Leinster are building a foundation that holds no limit in their desire for success.

Here is a prime example of management and players working in tandem with the overall goal of creating something special, or as the one who typifies team Leinster better than any -- Brian O'Driscoll -- alluded to in the aftermath, "the aim is to create our own special dynasty."

It was said without a tint of arrogance. Our greatest ever player doesn't know the meaning of that word, but in his own committed way epitomises everything that team Leinster embodies.

We all wallow in the special attacking moments -- the magical try against Cardiff scored by the Ireland captain and Sean Cronin's fifth and final romp over the line on Saturday, but what makes this unit complete is the hard work that goes before.

On Saturday morning I watched the Super 15 clash between the Highlanders (Otago) and the Blue Bulls (Northern Transvaal). The intensity was breathtaking. Forget this myth about southern hemisphere tip rugby/basketball, by any standard this was the real competitive deal.

Move the clock forward a few hours to Twickenham and for either southern hemisphere province substitute Leinster. I do not make that assertion lightly for, like Toulouse in their pomp, this is the level at which Leinster are now performing.

If you've got the relevant skill, then combined with the right work ethic and precise but simple organisation you've cracked the code. Joe Schmidt and Jono Gibbes embrace those key ingredients but also clearly have the respect of the players in the way they go about their daily rugby business.


It is wrong to pick out individuals such was the collective performance but O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney (what a class, confidence-inspiring act), Cian Healy, Jonny Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and Sean O'Brien were sublime. Yet again Sexton was the rock of sensibility. He is growing more and more into the role of commander-in-chief.

By contrast Paddy Jackson struggled to meet the demands of the occasion, his tender years and inexperience leaving him exposed at vital times.

That said, I was delighted Brian McLaughlin rubber-stamped his selection ahead of the departing Ian Humphreys when saying he wouldn't have changed a thing in the build-up. It augurs well for the future and rest assured Jackson will come again.

But if anything epitomised Leinster it was the final two tries going to replacement front-rowers Heinke van der Merwe and Sean Cronin at opposite corners as last receivers at the end of flowing moves. Great teams in any code wear down the opposition and then they go for the jugular and Leinster did it ruthlessly on the biggest stage of all.

Before Saturday's showdown, I suggested we pinch ourselves at having two Irish teams in Europe's premier club rugby competition and, after such a performance, it's tempting to do the same again.

What we witnessed in London was quite simply a beautiful game beautifully executed by a beautiful team, and in this case that beauty extends way beyond the eye of the beholder. Don't know about you but this exceptional group makes me mighty proud to be Irish.

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