Wednesday 16 October 2019

Billy Keane: 'Leinster Championes sing in rain as rugby says sayonara, for now'

Tadhg Furlong and Jonathan Sexton of Leinster celebrate in the dressing room
Tadhg Furlong and Jonathan Sexton of Leinster celebrate in the dressing room
Talking point: Glasgow Warriors full-back Stuart Hogg lands heavily after an aerial contest with Rob Kearney, an incident which saw his Leinster counterpart shown a yellow card. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

When the Leinster evaluators look back on the season of 2018/19, the marks will be high.

Maybe somewhere around A minus or, at worst, B plus.

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The Champions Cup got away, but there was no beating Saracens this May.

The PRO14 was won in Celtic Park before 47,000 people and the Leinster supporters will cherish a barely-won victory by a gritty team who knew the best memories are happy ones.

Leinster were cuter. You would swear it never rains in Glasgow. The home team ran everything even though they had two superb kickers in Stuart Hogg and Adam Hastings.

Gene Kelly would have found it hard to keep his feet on a pitch that skiddy. There were more spillages than on a galley in a gale.

Leinster played pick-and-drive, Munster-rain rugby, with short passes and long kicks.

For the most part Leinster played the game in the Glasgow half. This final was a game for hard tackling, manliness, discipline and, above all, backing each other up.

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The block-down from Luke McGrath that brought Leinster back into the game was down to hard work and never giving up.

Leo Cullen deserves enormous credit for deciding to play a short-passing, long-kicking game in the teeming rain.

His captain was criticised unmercifully when he lost his cool in Thomond Park in early January. It was as if the critics thought he was incapable of self-improvement.

One of Jonathan Sexton's many attributes is that he will listen to fair criticism. It took him most of a week to calm down after that battle in Thomond. He was injured by a late tackle and he knew the Six Nations was coming up far too soon for him.

The 10 had a terrible start. He was shaken, and stirred too, in the first minute when he was tackled hard on the hard ground.

He has the gift of moving on: the scene is over, let's shoot the next one. This is a handy template for any job.

It took Jonathan about 20 minutes to regain his composure. The captain was at his best for an hour after that. He tackled like a seven and led by example.

His loop-the-loop was a line-breaker that led to a try from Cian Healy.

Then there were two tricky place kicks on a slippery pitch. He hobbled off near the end. His hip is badly bruised. On came young Ross Byrne who came of age.

Maybe there weren't too many who spotted the young lad's restart after a Glasgow try brought the doughty Scots to three points. Ross drop- kicked the ball to within a couple of metres of the touchline, inside the Glasgow 22. The chase was there a bare moment after the ball. The rest of the game was more or less played out in that general area.

At the end Sexton gave the cup to Seán O'Brien, who was in his good suit. Seán is leaving Leinster today, and will cruelly miss the World Cup through injury, and this was a tribute from an old friend to the best Leinster back-rower ever.

Quite a few say Rob Kearney should have been red-carded. This is nonsense. He barely made contact with Stuart Hogg and it was a sideways coming together.

Stuart Hogg of Glasgow Warriors is tackled by Rob Kearney of Leinster resulting in a yellow card for Kearney

Cian Healy is another with a long-service medal. Healy was on the cusp of packing it all in a few years back. There was a hefty insurance payment placed before him. He didn't sign.

The assessors designated Healy as a wreck, but he never wrote himself off. Healy was man of the match and Joe Schmidt knows he is a match for any man in Japan.

But this was close. Leinster only barely held on.

Their pack dogged it out and the back-row were on top throughout. You will always beat the Scots if you get the better of their back-row.

There was a great turnout from the Leinster fans, who were outnumbered. There was no singing of the Celtic, Irish, Munster and Liverpool anthem known as 'The Fields of Athenry'.

The Celtic fan Rod Stewart was in Cork singing his heart out by the Lee in front of thousands of good-looking blondes. Rod surely sang the Celtic favourite 'Grace', but Leinster only have 'Come On Ye Boys in Blue', a Dublin GAA ditty with only the one line to remember.

Leinster did sing the old Italian favourite 'Championes' with some feeling. If it was Munster who won we'd be bawling out 'Nessun Dorma' - which is an Italian song for tenors and not a Japanese saloon car.

Leinster are badly in need of a song. How about a Song for Leinster competition?

Their team of heroes are badly in need of a holiday after three tough games in three weeks.

So it's sayonara to rugby. From now until September hurling and football will take over.

But then, like Raifteirí an file, we will gather ourselves for Japan.

Ireland have a right chance. Our team peaked in November. Joe knew we had to beat the All Blacks at home to bring the belief we are good enough to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

We can't wait for Japan. I'm told tea bags are banned by the Geisha. Only loose leaf is allowed into the pot. Surely this is a sign of a civilised nation.

But at the same time you wouldn't exactly be wishing away what promises to be a summer of high GAA drama and forever football history.

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