Thursday 16 August 2018

Neil Francis: Three moments of sublime skill put Blues into a different orbit

Jordan Larmour celebrates with Garry Ringrose after scoring Leinster's fourth try. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jordan Larmour celebrates with Garry Ringrose after scoring Leinster's fourth try. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I was only a small boy when the 1970 World Cup final was played in Mexico City. The match was well over and Brazil, probably the greatest football side of all time, were toying with their hapless Italian opponents. The Brazilians, not really wanting to humiliate the Italians, managed to sustain the pitch of their performance right to the end. The BBC's Kenneth Wolstenholme coined it beautifully when he said "they are just taking it in turns to give an exhibition of their skill". As their passing flowed, they finished with a Carlos Alberto goal - mesmerising stuff.

The Aviva yesterday wasn't too far away in terms of movement, flow and skill. There should be parity of esteem between these two teams because Leinster and Llanelli are wonderfully skilful sides and they can both hurt any team in the world when the mood takes them, but yesterday Llanelli could not tell you why Leinster were so much better than them.

The Welsh were game, and in their 80-minute performance there was manifest will and stark determination, but it simply wasn't enough, and three moments of sublime skill moved Leinster into an orbit that Llanelli could not fly to.

Years ago in a Test match against Australia, the ball was put to ground on a low grubber kick. The only one close to it was the inestimable David Campese. The ball was bobbling unpredictably and Campese had to run back as quickly as he could. When he went down on the ball he was going to get a good kicking from at least six Irish players who were in hot pursuit. At full pace he lowered his left hand and scooped up the ball on the fly. Without any change of pace he took the ball away from danger and went back on the counter attack. The crowd gasped in amazement. It is rare in any Test match I played that I would actually stop and almost applaud such genius; it took the breath away and you knew that his name would be in the pantheon of greats when he retired.

In the 58th minute of yesterday's match, Jordan Larmour did something similar. Rhys Patchell threaded an awkward ball in behind the line. Most wingers would have been happy to shield it in to touch, Larmour took control of the ball and in a very tight circle, swivelled and kicked the ball down field and parallel to the touchline despite heavy pressure from Ken Owens.

Somehow Larmour managed to ride the tackle and to get up on his feet quickly. There was nobody in the back field and the ball kept on its course with Larmour in pursuit at full pace. A little side-footed dink, even at full pace, and he would have a good chance of a try. This is what Steff Evans thought and this is what the whole crowd thought. Larmour, as the brilliant ones do, thought differently, dropped his right arm to the ground and scooped the ball up without breaking stride. The scoop wasn't absolutely clean but the execution was so good that he caught it with his first reach and scored a truly brilliant try.

There were the same gasps of incredulity at his audacity as there were for Campese. That is the company he keeps. Llanelli toddled off under the posts utterly bemused and emptied with the brilliance of his imagination. What else could happen?

Ten minutes later another wunderkind took his turn to show his skill. Joey Carbery had come on to replace Johnny Sexton, who once again showed his awesome quality on the big day. Hadleigh Parkes is one of those handy Kiwis who travels up from New Zealand because he is nowhere near good enough to get close to the All Blacks, but he is good enough to play for Wales.

He is by no stretch of the imagination a mug; he is a competent and intelligent player. Carbery got lovely service from Luke McGrath which gave him an extra second to think. Carbery feigned to go outside but stopped and looked for a pass inside while his feet were still moving and Parkes bought the move, cash on delivery. The acceleration to go outside was magical and Carbery connected quickly with a flat, sharp pass back inside to McGrath who connected with fed Jack Conan, but not before James Davis elbowed him in the face - 40 points to 18 and the crowd were mesmerised.

We knew already that Leinster would be champions because for the umpteenth time this season they scored in the championship minutes. In the 43rd minute Leinster went hunting for a scoreline that would reflect their dominance. Cronin's throw was a wibbly wobbly wonder - no spin, no proper flight and it got in to the general vicinity of Devin Toner's considerable presence. Toner had to manoeuvre himself and he found a remarkable one-handed catch to spare Cronin's blushes. When Toner landed, the ball looked well packed and low enough to get a drive on, but it went nowhere and it was probably a pre-planned move where Sexton followed McGrath around the blind side. It all happened at incredible speed. Like a cobra bite. Sexton ran flat at the line and Johnny McNicholl was obliged to come in with a forlorn hope that Sexton's flat pass would let him down. It didn't.

James Lowe caught it and scored in the tightest of corners. A magnificent try. Lowe had a busy day yesterday. I think we are going to have to call him J-Lo from now on - he has a bigger bum than Jennifer Lopez and he uses his midriff to great effect, bumping and bouncing people out of the way. He was a threat every time he got close to the ball and it looked like he really enjoyed himself, which hopefully will have made up for his disappointment missing Bilbao.

This was a performance for the fans where Leinster could demonstrate the fruits of their originality and their passing game which very few sides can match. They had a great run of ideas throughout the game and when they were without the ball they were breathless in defiance. A truly superb performance to cap a most memorable season. Congratulations to the whole squad.

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