Leinster fail to find final spark at the RDS
Soaring Ospreys add to Irish rugby's tale of woe
THIS time last year, Irish rugby was reflecting (rather smugly) on Grand Slam, Triple Crown, Heineken Cup and Magners League victories and anticipating being the dominant nationality on the Lions tour to South Africa.
The summer brought Churchill Cup and North American tour clean sweeps, followed by an unbeaten autumn, and 2009 was marked down as one of the greatest years in Ireland's oval history.
Twelve months on and the perspective is rather different. An unfulfilling Six Nations was followed by a grim Gallic experience in Europe, when three Irish provinces were dumped out in the space of 48 hours, before the Ospreys spoiled the Magners League consolation party with a well-merited victory at the RDS on Saturday.
When you throw in the Eamon Ryan free-to-air controversy, budgetary issues regarding the country's playing elite and the spate of injuries hovering over Ireland's summer tour, it is safe to say Irish rugby has gone from pinching itself to feeling the pinch.
Leinster were the most consistent side in the Magners League, as the regular-season table testifies, but when it came to this winner-takes-all showdown in Ballsbridge, the Ospreys were a level above.
It was a deeply disappointing finale for Leinster coach Michael Cheika ahead of his switch to Stade Francais next season, but the Australian was happy to acknowledge that the Welsh side were worthy victors.
"No excuses," said Cheika. "It was a final, two teams went out there, the Ospreys went out there and were better than us on the night.
"They took their opportunities when they came and when, early on, we had some pressure on them they were able to release that pressure. We had some chances, got some goals and stayed tough as we have all season, but we weren't able to convert enough points to put them under (enough) pressure.
"In the first half, we lost the ball far too many times. We had enough opportunities to start the play in their half and around the half-way mark, but coughed up too much possession and played most of the opening 40 within our own half or inside the 40-metre mark. That pressure eventually told because if you keep on giving opportunities to a team like that, they will take them."
Tries from Tommy Bowe and Lee Byrne, both converted by Dan Biggar, gave the Ospreys a convincing 14-3 lead at half-time, but Leinster re-emerged with renewed zeal and set up a title-grabbing scenario when Jonathan Sexton kicked them to within five points, limiting the Ospreys to a sole second-half penalty from Biggar.
At 17-12 with 10 minutes to go, you would have backed Leinster to secure their 17th successive home win in this competition, but the Ospreys were not for budging and registered a win that coach Sean Holley reckons is the most significant in the region's seven-year history.
"It was a special night. I wouldn't say it was our best performance, but it was one of our most courageous," said Holley.
"We went out to try and win it, to score tries and we did that; not a lot of teams come here and score tries against Leinster. We got two in the first half and it gave us more belief that we could push on. We tried to lose it in the second half by giving away some penalties, but our defensive effort in the second half was outstanding.
"We had a game plan, we had a strategy and sometimes it comes off; we felt we could get through on our short passing in midfield and that led to our first try. It was a great finish because Leinster have a great defence. Still, I'm not surprised at us scoring tries because we have some real talent; it hasn't happened in every game this season and we have blown chances but we took the two most important ones."
Leinster's successes in recent seasons have been based around Kurt McQuilkin's claustrophobic defensive system and the New Zealand-born Ireland international will be a hard act to follow when he returns home this summer.
However, the home side's rearguard was badly exposed for the two Ospreys tries, with Andrew Bishop bursting inside Gordon D'Arcy before feeding Bowe for the opener and James Hook finding considerable space to set up Byrne for the second.
And they should have had another first-half try, but Alun-Wyn Jones failed to use the men outside him after a good break down the left. Leinster's set-pieces worked well, John Fogarty's throws were on the money and Malcolm O'Kelly leapt as well as he ever has in his final game, while the home side also had the edge at scrum-time -- particularly after Cian Healy replaced CJ van der Linde on 48 minutes.
However, not helped by the injuries which forced off Kevin McLaughlin, his replacement Stephen Keogh and captain Shane Jennings, Leinster lost the back-row battle, with Ospreys open side Marty Holah doing tremendous work at the breakdown and his fellow All Black Jerry Collins a consistent menace in the tackle.
They also had their homework done in defence, smothering the trademark Leinster wrap-around move with the result that Brian O'Driscoll found it hard to get into the game.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney will be hoping Kevin McLaughlin's knee injury does not rule him out of the next week's trip to New Zealand and Australia -- an expedition that appears increasingly daunting at the end of a seemingly interminable season.
A victory here would have been a welcome psychological boost ahead of a long flight Down Under and a fitting way for Cheika to mark the end of a five-year term when he took the province to a different level, changing the face of Irish rugby in the process.
Not to be. A low-key end to a low-key season, but this defeat should not detract from Cheika's achievements at Leinster, nor indeed from the contributions of fellow departees McQuilkin, O'Kelly, Girvan Dempsey and Bernard Jackman.
"I'm disappointed, but I'm proud of my involvement with this team; our supporters backed us to the limit and they have that respect win or lose or draw," said Cheika. "In time, we will look back and see the contribution those guys have made but it was disappointing for sure."
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; S Wright, J Fogarty, CJ van der Linde (C Healy, 48); N Hines, M O'Kelly; K McLaughlin (S Keogh, 30;T Hogan, 42), J Heaslip, S Jennings (capt, R Strauss, 67).
OSPREYS -- L Byrne; T Bowe, A Bishop, J Hook, S Williams (N Walker, 71); D Biggar, M Phillips; P James, H Bennett, A Jones; A W Jones, J Thomas (I Gough, 62); J Collins, R Jones (capt, F Tiatia, 67), M Holah.
REF -- C White (England).