Tuesday 24 October 2017

Healy comes of age in stunning scrum riposte

Although it was imprudent to avert one's eyes from such an extraordinary, epic encounter, it was occasionally necessary.

And, even then, only briefly, to thieve a reassuring glimpse of the Pigeon House, just as a reminder that this really was Dublin on an April Saturday afternoon.

Because, for all the world, this was a day hewn from the killing fields of the south of France, where this type of entertainment is rarely packaged for export. Saturday changed all that. And so much more too.

A game for the ages offered such a stirring riposte to a gnawing anniversary of another semi-final defeat, one year earlier on French soil, when the fortunes within this captivating European rivalry had been spectacularly reversed.

For a year ago, there was no Jonathan Sexton to kick an unblemished total from the kicking tee and there was certainly no apprehension within the French forward pack that their rear-ends would ever concede a millimetre in the scrum.


Such a pity to distil so much bravery, skill and mental strength into the merest morsel of evidence in analysing this thrillingly nerveless prosecution of victory. But alight on a turning point we must, as tacitly acknowledged by Leinster coach Joe Schmidt among others.

Toulouse, as ever, are graceful in defeat; Guy Noves thanking his audience as he departs, before a stream of unlimited players' voices flood the mixed zone to share their despair.

Among them, Daan Human, the luckless prop served up to the feral scrum that pushed so forcefully in the 54th minute to win the penalty that finally swung the scoreboard Leinster's way, and ultimately the momentum.

In one terrific blow, a Toulouse strength had been weakened; a former Leinster flaw eliminated.

"We were really disappointed there because we had a lot of confidence in our own scrum from last year," explained the classy South African, delightfully deigning to endure yet another interrogation.

"But they made it up, they sent on Heinke van der Merwe and I think he had a hell of an impact on the game, although Cian Healy for me was a top player today.

"But Heinke came on and he made a difference and we were going backwards and there was no doubt that it was a penalty."

Sexton (right) kicked for 22-20 and although little logic attached itself to the day's events, one sensed the heavy imprints of a line in the sand.

Whereas last year Healy's be-hoodied, distraught boyish status reflected a nascent career shrouded in doubt, Saturday's anniversary rematch against les Toulousains marked his graduation into manhood.

"I must congratulate him," said Human, smiling through gritted teeth as he reflected on a conversation with his compatriot Gert Smal, Healy's occasional mentor as Irish forwards coach.

"I spoke to this friend of mine and I said to him: 'Listen, that's not the same player anymore.' I couldn't believe that he's only 23, I can't believe it.

"It's amazing. He's got a great career in front of him, especially the way he played today.

"He played a hell of a game. Especially in scrum time, that's where we really had them last year, I think, and the way that he improved there was amazing, I don't know who helped him -- maybe he can come over and help us as well."

Of course, it had been Healy's lung-imploding 30-metre dash between the lengthening shadows that had created the field position for the seismic heave that was to be deemed beyond his physical capability.

He departed bloodied, but, unlike last year, defiantly unbowed.

Isaac Boss, another of the trio of influential Leinster replacements who mocked the supposed superiority that seemed to be housed within the Toulouse reinforcements, confirmed the significance of a mighty, brutal scrum amid an afternoon of so much beauty.

"Yeah, when Heinke came on for Cian Healy and we had that strong scrum. That was one of the crucial parts of the match; that's what you want from your bench. Everyone is fighting for positions so when you come on you want to put pressure on.

"You have to add something when guys are tired.

"But definitely that was a crucial moment in a game that swung one way and then another. That was just after we had been down to 14 men so it was a huge psychological boost.

"You could see us lifting. We managed to step up a gear from there. That was a very good turning point."

Louis Picamoles, Jean-Marc Doussain and Vincent Clerc also detailed a sorry tale of indiscipline; five of Sexton's penalty kicks derived from infringements other than that scrum.

Sean O'Brien -- anxiously awaiting news of whether his season survives after a Paul O'Connell-like smite of his opposite number Yannick Nyanga -- issued a bulletin which reflected the intensity of the occasion.


"Commitment. We spoke about winning those 50-50 balls, getting those chances. That commitment is there now, lads jumping into things head first and not really caring about what way they do it, just trying to get the ball back. It paid off in the end, but it was hard work."

And theirs is not done yet. Twice in succession now they have defeated multiple European champions, two of the competitions most decorated establishment figures.

Now it is time for Leinster to embed themselves within that elite grouping.

"Definitely, if you look at the way that they played and the way they've been coached by your man over there," as Human grits teeth once more and points to Schmidt.

"Obviously there's a special factor there. I think to win two Heineken Cups you need to be disciplined and that showed today and if they're going to stay disciplined like this I can't see any team beating them, not in the final.

"I discussed this earlier with my friend Shaun Sowerby. I said to him: 'Listen, the team that won today will win a Heineken Cup.' You can make a bet here, and if I have money I will bet it on them."

Irish Independent

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