Sunday 25 February 2018

Alan Quinlan: Fired-up Blues bare their teeth at the right time

Luke McGrath celebrates at the final whistle of the Guinness PRO12 Play-off match between Leinster and Ulster at the RDS Arena in Dublin (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)
Luke McGrath celebrates at the final whistle of the Guinness PRO12 Play-off match between Leinster and Ulster at the RDS Arena in Dublin (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

Alan Quinlan

All season, we've been looking at the Leinster team on paper and then looking at the performances on the pitch and wondering when they are going to match up.

Three weeks ago, they left Belfast after a humbling defeat and their prospects looked grim. Johnny Sexton went public in questioning what has happened to the province's culture and, while they managed to top the table with a win over Treviso on the final day, they came into last night's semi-final under a cloud.

The only way to disperse the doubts was to produce a performance of intensity and accuracy. From the moment Paddy Jackson kicked off last night's Guinness Pro12 play-off, they delivered.

Going public with your frustration can backfire, but Sexton is such a winner. He's not worried about offending people.

Everyone has to be on board and, while one swallow doesn't make a summer and I wouldn't say everything is rosy in the garden just yet, Leinster showed that they are still a cup team and they showed the kind of resilience and quality that we haven't seen from them in some time.

You wouldn't bet against them winning it now. They looked very focused from the start and even when Ulster stemmed the tide and came back at them, they never panicked.

Leo Cullen has had plenty of disruption, but it's taken longer than you'd expect for his team to find their feet since the Six Nations. Last night, they played with great pace and were ferocious at the breakdown, they looked cohesive and that's been lacking this season.

One moment summed it up for me. On 46 minutes, Ulster were going through the gears and held on to the ball for 16 phases. The ball went loose and Jamie Heaslip pounced, altering the momentum of the game. Within minutes, he was scoring at the other end.

The No 8 played well, as did the entire back-row and Jack McGrath, who was everywhere. Sexton closed it out with his clever kicking from hand and by taking the correct options. This was cup rugby and Leinster were operating on muscle memory.

For Ulster, this was another defeat to Leinster in another knock-out game. I wouldn't go calling them chokers, but you'd have to wonder how they go about picking themselves up after another loss at the RDS.

I feel for Rory Best in particular. He is such an honest player, he gave everything to the cause last night and yet again he came out on the losing side.

Les Kiss will learn from this and they'll need to find consistency next season. With Charles Piutau on the way, they'll certainly be good to watch, but after another semi-final went the way of the home team, they need to get back to Belfast in the play-offs next year.

This evening in Galway, Leinster will find out who they'll face at Murrayfield next Saturday. After Connacht lost in Grenoble, I was critical of their gung-ho approach because I wanted them to win and I felt like they had missed an opportunity.

Their attacking approach has gotten them so far this season, they have scaled fresh heights, yet when they did so well to build a substantial lead in an intimidating away venue in France, they kept pushing the envelope.

It backfired - twice - and a home European semi-final slipped from Connacht's grasp.

This is a second chance to show they can win in a knock-out game of rugby. Their confidence is so high and there were signs last time out against Glasgow that Connacht had learnt from Grenoble. The conditions were poor, as they are forecast to be today, and they showed real physicality to get over the line.


Glasgow are an excellent team, the deserved champions. Gregor Townsend has a squad packed full of internationals and they were on an incredible run of nine wins in a row before coming to the Sportsground last time out.

That afternoon, Lam's men showed they could roll up their sleeves, that they could be dogged and get the win.

They have brilliant, abrasive forwards. Guys like John Muldoon, Tom McCartney and Finlay Bealham can all stand up against good packs.

It's fine having the attacking approach to play the way they're playing. But, if it's a knockout game played in the wind and the rain, it might come down to one penalty. If you're running the ball from your own line against excellent players, you're running a massive risk.

I always found semi-finals to be more difficult than finals, they're nervous, tetchy affairs. You're worried about not losing, whereas in a final you throw everything at it and feed off the energy of the occasion.

In the last four, you can sometimes hold back and become edgy. In the build-up, you can let your mind drift towards the final and let your imagination get the better of you.

Connacht can't let that happen.

I'd love to see John Muldoon play in a final as captain, the man is a warrior.

He embodies Connacht's passion and is an example to the young players with his dedication. If anyone deserves to lead his team at Murrayfield, he does. Still, Leinster will take some stopping.

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