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Leinster desperately miss dining at Europe's top table

Joe Schmidt snatches a glance at the media centre TV screen in the way of an estate agent checking on someone else's portfolio. "Still scoreless, yea?" he asks no one in particular, the game in Montpellier just two minutes old.

The final pages of his story with Leinster promise further European glory, just maybe not quite of the tenor he'd have chosen. Even the questions falling his way now come to Schmidt plump with distraction.

Joe finds himself fielding enquiries about Lions selections, the IRFU's communication skills and Brian O'Driscoll's likely response to crowd coercion. There is, palpably, no journalistic appetite to chart a forensic outline on the destruction of Biarritz, a grand old dame of French rugby now reduced to slapping on layers of rouge in the hope of obscuring how the years have eroded her beauty.

Ordinarily, Leinster might be peripherally conscious of the Amlin Cup final as some kind of warm-up act but, come May 17, it will concentrate their attention like never before. To win against Stade Francais on their home turf that evening would represent a pretty decent consolation prize for forfeiting the vast, jug-eared trophy that has come to define them in recent seasons.


But you could not sit in the sun-splashed RDS on Saturday, watching them reaffirm their fidelity to entertainment through another fountain of tries, without also sensing an ache of melancholy that they will have been down the road on a secondary assignment the day before when the eyes of European rugby descend upon Lansdowne Road for the Heineken Cup final.

This isn't to discredit a season that might yet bring two more trophies to the Leinster trophy cabinet, but rather to note that Schmidt's team is now back playing the kind of rugby that doesn't so much beat an opponent as leave them in need of a chair.

When that great, old god of the Basque country, Imanol Harinordoquy, kicked out wildly at a touchline flag on Saturday, sending fragments flying into the Grandstand, the Biarritz captain seemed to rage– above all – at the futility of trying to rope down a team as uncontainable as the wind.

Harinordoquy had just thrown a pass to where he presumed a colleague might be running slingshot only to see the ball plop limply into the toes of the stand. His day had been anonymous and, seconds later, a voice on the tannoy would identify his direct opponent, Jamie Heaslip, as man of the match.

For a proud warrior, you could tell there was the faint tang of humiliation on his tongue.

Leinster's five-try victory had been garlanded with individual performances that will have sent Rob Howley, Graham Rowntree and Neil Jenkins away with only good things to report to Warren Gatland.

Heaslip, particularly, was electric, availing of Sean O'Brien's absence from the back-row to become Leinster's ball-carrier in chief and reminding us of the quicksilver feet that distinguish him from conventional No 8s.

In broken field play, there is maybe no better sight in rugby than Heaslip sashaying past would-be tacklers as if they were training cones.

And O'Driscoll wasn't far behind, his momentous 51st-minute tackle on Aled Brew setting the platform for Isa Nacewa's try and prepping the crowd for a chant of "one more year" (morphing from some mouths even as "four more years") when the great man touched down Leinster's fifth try with 13 minutes of normal time remaining.

That score followed a bulldozing 60-metre charge from Sean Cronin, Schmidt by now having emptied his bench in virtually one fell swoop as the assignment became almost giddy with the clamour of the schoolyard.

"The big-game players stood up," Schmidt said later, whilst suggesting that any watching Lions personnel should have left Dublin 4 suitably "reassured" that men like Heaslip, O'Driscoll, Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Cian Healy might be worth the air-fare to Australia.

Healy neatly side-stepped questions about tomorrow's squad announcement for the summer tour, reflecting simply: "We're trying to not think about it and you lot are asking us about it."

So, Saturday just felt like a day with a thousand sub-plots once the business of beating Biarritz had been closed. That task was essentially completed in two remarkable minutes on the cusp of half-time when, Dimitri Yachvili having kicked the French back to within a point of their hosts, Heaslip and Sexton danced over for Leinster tries that crushed the French resistance.

Just as the game looked as if it might have been bending to Biarritz's liking, they were sent to their tea knowing that Serge Blanco would not be budgeting on Heineken Cup rugby next season.

Thereafter, there was the sense of a matador toying with a ponderous bull. Time and again, Leinster players intercepted Biarritz passes to blaze the length of the field and when, on one such occasion, Takudzwa Ngwenya made a miracle recovery to rope down Ian Madigan just short of the line, he was promptly sin-binned for preventing release.

Ngwenya's pace had been Biarritz's primary fire-fighting option, highlighted by his remarkable try-saving smother on Sexton just 16 minutes in. As he now walked to the line, you had to suspect the spirit of his colleagues walked with him.

Even when the exchanges had been tight, Healy spoke of Leinster "kind of taking it easy mentally" in the knowledge that Biarritz pride would, at the very least, provide a physical prelude to any high-stepping fun.

Schmidt revealed afterwards that O'Brien probably could have played "but we just didn't feel it was a 'probably' sort of day." And that pretty much captured the essence of the day.

The day was beautiful, the rugby scalpel-sharp, just the context fell short of where Leinster hoped this season might bring them.

So, while Schmidt tried to get his thoughts in order, they kept getting tugged in different directions. The Ireland job? Maybe some news by Wednesday "at the latest." O'Driscoll side-stepping retirement for another season? "I'd be delighted if the crowd can keep that pressure on."

Leinster were back to their urgent best, yet everything they did to Biarritz looked rinsed through with the faintest tint of regret. They'd been playing exhibition rugby, when every molecule in their being ached to be engaged in war.

Irish Independent