Tuesday 23 January 2018

Finding sustenance in bread and butter fare

Sean Cronin goes over to score Leinster’s third try against Ulster at the RDS on Friday night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Sean Cronin goes over to score Leinster’s third try against Ulster at the RDS on Friday night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Rhys Ruddock reckoned it would be a nice idea to watch last night's Guinness Pro12 semi-final from Galway as part of a group. Not on high stools in Kiely's bar in Donnybrook, rather in quieter surroundings with his team-mates, hydrating, with their feet up.

It's not clear if his opposite number Iain Henderson watched the game at all. And you could readily understand if instead he chose a watering hole, or maybe just a black hole, such was the polar opposite emotion dominating the mind of the Ulster player.

The pair will hook up soon enough, to prepare for Ireland's tour to South Africa next month, but already Henderson is filing away Ulster's season in the positivity file. This is probably the only way to deal with it, yet in the circumstances it's remarkable. Ulster's awful record in knockout games features Leinster as the lead player in the nightmare: for five straight seasons now Ulster have bombed in either the semis or final of Europe or the Pro12; and in four of those five Leinster were the ones turfing them out of the competition.

"It's probably indescribable," Henderson says. "I can't describe what it feels like for everyone in the changing room. Not one of us went out there tonight not feeling that we'd prepared ourselves right. We felt everything we did was perfect; we knew what we wanted to do; we had it nailed on. But obviously we have to go away, back to the drawing board and learn from these experiences.

"Rory (Best) mentioned it earlier in the week: this team, the squad - not just the 15 or 23, or the 26 who came down today even - but the guts of more than 50 people including the Academy boys who train with us, they're taking small steps forward and I think we're waiting to take that extra small step forward to break into winning cup final rugby. Rory said it and I believe him fully: this team will come on in leaps and bounds now.

"We're constantly building - constantly maturing as a squad, building and learning from our experiences. I know that's rich for me sitting here to say that, after losing another semi-final. It's been a really tough season for us all."

The arrival of Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee - it will probably be November before the South African is fit - for next season is perfectly timed. As is the emergence of Kiwi back-rower Sean Reidy as a player of real quality. When Ulster lost tighthead Wiehahn Herbst and No 8 Nick Williams from their run-in this season it put huge pressure on the group to stay in the race.

Reidy stepped up manfully. He is Ireland-qualified and it will be interesting to see how quickly he can occupy the mind of Joe Schmidt. Along with Henderson, who was outstanding on Friday night, he made a big impression.

Putting more power into the Ulster scrum is another issue. It's hard to see Rodney Ah You ticking that box for them, but clearly they fancy their chances of turning him around, for Ricky Lutton has a bit to go yet.

That much was clear on Friday night where Leinster's set-piece was mostly very good. The hard scrummaging and carrying of Mick Kearney has been a revelation for them since recovering from a long-term foot injury.

And the arrival of Seán Cronin and Tadhg Furlong to the party in the second half on Friday had an immediate and positive effect on their scrum.

With Ulster desperately trying to get back in the game at that point, to start developing issues there - despite being beaten out the gate in Kingspan three weeks ago Leinster's scrum was far superior - had a grim look about it.

The reaction of the home fans to that scrum penalty just before the hour mark was significant. Johnny Sexton had a fine game and as he stroked the ball home for a 23-11 lead, the stewards were considering their end-of-match positions as the volume went up again.

"Tonight was one of the best atmospheres and the feel of the place was unbelievable," Ruddock said. "I have to say I was personally absolutely wrecked out there. It was right up there, intensity-wise, with anything I've played in, so I'm sure most of the lads felt the same.

"Just that level of noise from our fans and theirs made the atmosphere like a cauldron. It allowed us to get over the line, and those tough moments, those turnovers in our own 22, it was just what swings the momentum in your favour at the crucial point."

Sometimes you'd be fairly dubious about stats that spew out during a game but here is one you couldn't miss: after 17 minutes on Friday night it was claimed Sexton had touched the ball in play 15 times; Paddy Jackson hadn't got it in his hands once. By our reckoning it was actually 17 minutes 52 seconds when the Ulster 10 finally got a pass.

It illustrated perfectly the mindset of the home team who had gone to Belfast a few weeks ago knowing that their home semi was virtually sorted - and lost. Then they came to the RDS two nights ago understanding clearly that the loser would be folding his tent.

"You don't need much more motivation than that," Ruddock said. "Yeah, the hurt from a couple of weeks ago certainly added to it. It's always the way, this year even more so because we've had over 50 players who've got us to this point, who have played in the Pro12 and only 23 get selected to go out and do the job in the last few weeks. That leaves a lot of people hurting but also a collective that's really strong and has a common goal.

"So you've got people who are disappointed not to be involved and then the responsibility on the guys who've been selected to go out and perform. It just raises everyone's level of intensity and that really allowed us to prepare best for knockout rugby."

The upshot is they will go to Edinburgh on Saturday chasing a fifth title, which would push them one ahead of Ospreys on the honours list. Having been shown the door from Europe early enough to have the fans shuffling their feet, the reaction from Leinster has been positive and rewarding. Moreover they have an advantage over their opponents Connacht, with an extra day's rest in which to prepare.

You'd like to think that Iain Henderson too is on the money, and that Ulster will manage the same. In what has been a mediocre season for Ireland, and our provinces in Europe, the bread and butter of the league isn't tasting too bad at all.

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