Victorious Leinster shine spotlight on national failings
Blue was the colour but football was not the game for one team who conquered Europe last Saturday. Leinster -- not Chelsea -- claimed their third Heineken Cup title in four years at Twickenham, sparking celebrations that probably finished as late as those in Munich, even though they began five hours earlier.
It is almost impossible to assess whether accurately Leinster's three trophies are better than the four won over a longer period by Toulouse. How do you compare one era against any other? Much better to revel in what is an extraordinary team, chock full of quality and with a meanness in defence that shut the door firmly on Ulster's attempts to turn early pressure and possession into tries.
Other people have detailed who scored what and when, but you get a feel about games and whatever the closeness of the score on the board for 60 minutes, the truth is that Leinster were in control. They always looked like they had another gear and when they found it in the final stages they ran in scores that enabled them to post 42 points to Ulster's 14.
Defence wins games and Leinster's is as good as anything we have seen in the history of this competition. The decisions about when and how many men to commit to breakdowns, when to counter-ruck fully and when to get men out behind the back foot and close down space are ones with which they seem to cope easily.
But what they add to this is an uncanny ability to recognise instantly when there is the chance of turning over the ball. Ulster's back-row have been central to everything the province have achieved, but they could not do their usual job on Saturday. Stephen Ferris and Chris Henry have dominated the breakdown exchanges throughout Ulster's European campaign but could not do so at Twickenham because Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien had the help of their centres Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, who made the decisive contribution in and around the tackle.
Ulster were always going to have to get their noses in front if they were to win and then hang on by pressuring Leinster into making mistakes. When they could not convert more than 80pc possession into a single try in the opening 15 minutes the omens were not good and so it proved.
But one point has to be raised from the building of the foundations for a Leinster dynasty. Why is this not transferring to the Irish national team? During the same four-year period, Ireland took their Grand Slam in 2009 but then failed to top the table again and departed the World Cup meekly. The contributions made by O'Driscoll, when fit, and other backs have not been enough to tilt games Ireland's way. To explain this you need to look squarely at the front five. The props Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Tom Court may have the measure of other front-rows at club level, but international level is a different matter.
Not only have they struggled in the tight, this has prevented them being as effective in the loose. Their cause has not been aided by the fact that the second-row contribution from Paul O'Connell and his fellow locks has been intermittent, unlike the consistently good efforts of Brad Thorn, Dan Tuohy and the like.
The issue also raises a deeper and more controversial question: are the Irish players, deep down, content to be big fish in the relative smaller pool of European knockout rugby?
With the pool of talent available they should not be mentioning things like their relatively small playing base.
A change in attitude is needed, whereby they seize their status as the most talented group of players in the northern hemisphere, accept they should be and are favourites. Then they need openly to declare their aim for Grand Slams and World Cup finals, being disappointed with anything less. (© Daily Telegraph, London)