Saturday 16 December 2017

'I don't think anybody else would have scored that try'

Leinster proved against Toulouse that they don't blink when facing adversity, writes Neil Francis

A few years ago I watched a documentary on the Discovery Channel about a climber who got caught up the Himalayas in treacherous conditions. With no oxygen and no food, the bitter cold would suck the life from his body. The chances of survival were remote.

When death is your adversary it takes exceptional things to get back to the light. Such was this man's grim resolve to cling to life, it summoned an unquenchable drive not to succumb to the inevitable and he prevailed. An improbable act in the circumstances. The storm lifted, he found a dead man's oxygen tank, he got further down the mountain and instinct led him to safety. Asked to explain it, his words incorporated the complexity of the human spirit. "Death blinked," he said. He just wasn't giving up.

Last Saturday I watched the two best sides in Europe go at it. What made the match compelling was that nobody blinked, nobody gave up, they both kept going until time expired. Leinster prevailed because they displayed the sort of sang froid which you thought for Leinster would have been vestigial -- not for this group. Their liking for the fight was almost gratuitous.

The quality of the victory, though, was underscored not by the fact that they were playing a Toulouse side that were pretty much firing on all cylinders but that Leinster, even by their own admittance, did not play particularly well.

Some of the little vignettes from the battle crystallised the sentiment that Leinster were not at any stage going to lose this match.

Drico did not have a great game, he made just four tackles which on his average is low, and missed three which on his average is high. He gave away two penalties and got binned in the championship minutes which are either side of half-time. A tackle creates an on-side and an off-side, even though in this instance there were only two players in the tackle zone. Drico's immediate instinct was save the line -- three points instead of seven. Such is the pace of these games that you cannot possibly deliberate, you just do it. It was a yellow, no matter how you dress it up.

I have seen 14 men concede seven to 14 points during a 10-minute bin spell. Seven seem to be about average. In this instance Toulouse picked up 10 points from his dismissal. This was counterbalanced by the fact that Leinster would find it extremely difficult to score or apply pressure without him. O'Driscoll is the last man that you want to have in the bin.

Leinster scraped it all back. Three points through Patricio Albacete's stupidity, and 20 minutes later seven points from O'Driscoll's try, which was a fairly simple conclusion to eight phases, after the work was done by the guys inside him.

Stuart Barnes said it was "not one that you'd include in the pantheon of great O'Driscoll tries." I beg to differ, it was a sensational try. As Jonathan Sexton took the ball in under the posts, Isaac Boss, as he was about to get the ball away, got milled by Clement Poitrenaud.

O'Driscoll had stood off, seven metres out, he clapped his hands three times expressing the sort of urgency that the time to feed him was now. The ball looped out of Boss's hands and as it came to O'Driscoll he took it head high. He had to jump a foot into the air to catch it and this was significant, very often a spilled or a loose ball or an awkward bounce makes an offender lose his bearing and take his eye off the target. It's a momentary thing but in this case it happens in the blink of an eye -- there's that word again.

It's the small imperceptible things that the great players can do in the clutch play in the middle of the helter skelter and the noise and the blur. Quite often in these situations it is very easy to knock the ball on. O'Driscoll had to execute three tasks at the same time. It was like a chameleon -- one eye looking for the bug and one looking into the air to see that he isn't somebody else's meal. O'Driscoll had to concentrate on catching a ball that was as far away from the bread basket as was possible -- above his head.

He also had to spot his gap at exactly the same time. The third thing which was almost impossible was to execute a step while he was in mid-air. As he took the ball above his head he stepped off the foot that you did not expect him to land on. The move was done in mid-air. He pushed off the wrong foot and accelerated back into the space that he had identified in the same moment, it was like twirling a hoola hoop, rolling a yoyo and playing keepy-uppy all at the same time -- ordinary mortals just cannot do it.

Vincent Clerc, who was on the line but was a metre inside him, for all his quality could have assessed the situation in a better perspective. Great players can see the wide angle in Panavision. He had Census Johnson inside him with the world's deadliest poacher about to come on to the ball. Yes Isa Nacewa had come outside O'Driscoll but Jean-Marc Doussain had him covered. It was disingenuous for him to drift. He stuck his left arm out abdicating tackling responsibility to Johnson. The prop might be first in line at the sweet shop but he just wasn't quick enough and O'Driscoll's direct line was impossible to stop. I don't think anybody else would have scored that try.

I watched bits of the royal wedding the previous day. One of the things I found intrusive about the whole affair was the fact that the TV stations had hired lip-reading specialists who were able to tell us exactly what William and Kate said. Private words should be exactly that.

Cian Healy had a wonderful 52 minutes, I'm not sure how much Berocca have to do with his energy levels but he was packing an awful lot into his game up to his storming run down the right hand side of the pitch. He was absorbed by the game and he was really enjoying it. He got split for his troubles in the immediate aftermath of his dash, as did another seven players throughout the game -- a huge amount of claret for just one match. As he was being bandaged he got a tap on the shoulder. You didn't have to be a royal lip-reader to find out what he said, "am I being subbed? Ah fuck." It spoke volumes about where Healy's mind was. The memory of the semi-final in Toulouse was fully exorcised and you wouldn't blame him for not wanting to come off.

A few people complained to me about my attitude to Sean O'Brien's travails at the scrum where Louis Picamoles scored his try. Yannick Nyanga very clearly held O'Brien back at the openside channel to the point that he was unable to be in a position to execute a tackle to stop Picamoles scoring. Dave Pearson correctly was looking at where the ball was being played and did not see Nyanga's illegal intervention, if he had he would have disallowed the try and awarded a penalty to Leinster. This was one for the assistant referees, Wayne Barnes and Stuart Terheege, to see, but most assistant referees couldn't find a sequin in Elton John's wardrobe. There was no point in O'Brien looking at them in plaintive fashion. The match commissioner didn't cite O'Brien and he didn't receive the same sanction that Paul O'Connell received when he was sent off by Christophe Berdos in Thomond for a similar offence when being held back off the ball.

My attitude to this is simple and it is this: natural justice should prevail. The provocateur deserves what he gets. If it's a broken nose, so be it the bastard deserves it and if there is any citing or suspension, the provocateur gets a stretch as well. I have a funny feeling that Jonathan Thomas will be receiving a little bit of natural justice when he returns to the scene of the crime next Saturday when Ospreys go to Thomond.

This match though was decided by great plays from great players. Jamie Heaslip's turnover on Greogry Lamboley in the 73rd minute was a stunning essay in persistence and obstinacy when other mortals would have been happy to stand guard at pillar because of tiredness. Heaslip's indefatigable levels of enthusiasm and energy allowed him to compete legally. It was a technically brilliant steal at ruck time. The Toulouse support were too slow into the ruck, they were the victims of their own punishing wide game.

Nacewa's tackle on Lamboley which preceded the steal was also technically brilliant as was his wondrous catch in the 61st minute. But you knew that this was a far more fraught affair for the Leinster fullback. In the quarter-final against Leicester the Tualagi brothers sought contact every time -- meat and drink for Leinster's line. Nacewa, behind, did not have to make one tackle all afternoon as Leinster's blanket in front of him held firm. When Toulouse came chasing the game in the last 15 minutes the quality, accuracy and precision of their passing was chilling, they were cold blooded and measured as they checked the drift with every pass.

The receiver stopped momentarily, stepped in and then let the ball flow to the extremities. Not one ball was dropped or put behind in the chase as they fully extended Leinster. Nacewa had to make five tackles -- all of them vital ones. It demonstrated the jump in quality from the Leicester game and also demonstrated how primed Leinster were, signalling a small trumpet of defiance in single plays as the pressure came on. They were magnificent in adversity.

It bears repetition: this was one of the best contests at this level . . . ever.

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