Thursday 21 November 2019

O'Driscoll's signature all over an unlikely resurrection

Once Brian O'Driscoll was passed fit, the Saints were doomed, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A fter 40 minutes of withering ineptitude Leinster returned to the field of play last Saturday. How they performed so badly in the first half could not be explained by a lay person. Stephen Hawkins or Carl Sagan would be stumped as well.

The reversal of form and peculiar swing in momentum had metaphysical overtones. Leinster, who couldn't ad lib a belch after a runny goulash, picked up on a seam of energy which would make the Jedi blush and swept all before them. The nation -- well most of it -- is incontinent with delight as an Irish team pulls off an improbable victory in extraordinary circumstances.

We need to be certain why they won. Let's get to the root of it. Once it was positively identified that there was hope in the chase, Leinster went after the game. There were many things to admire in the pursuit. Leinster's freedom of expression and selflessness cut a new high tide mark in performance levels. Discipline too was key, four penalties in total, none in the second half. Physiological conditioning that left the engine purring as Northampton seized up. A positional change that prompted itself 20 minutes earlier left the blend in the back row refocused and ready for the challenges.

Seán O'Brien morphed into the 5.40 from Paddington. Yes, he did miss 50 per cent of his tackles. A blip when you consider that he carried the ball an astonishing 22 times, bringing chaos to Northampton's normally consistent line. He was also Leinster's main agent out of touch with three catches. Leo Cullen and Nathan Hines combined caught one.

Jamie Heaslip beside him had 15 carries and 15 tackles with no misses and a performance full of guile and athletic grace underscored with a splash of cynicism.

Hines offloaded like a spiv selling yesterday's stolen stock. Shaggy's set-plays and intellectual capacity with and without the ball were telling and essential, particularly in the first half. The halves were chillingly efficient in controlling the game for Leinster . . . and that was it -- I think we've covered everyone.

Bollox to that Lumley -- if you look at critical plays at the vital moments, every scene was signed by the greatest player ever produced by this country. When he was passed fit, Northampton were beaten. It is not what O'Driscoll does in a match that is telling, it's how other players react to what he does and that includes opposition players.

He only got the ball in his hands 10 times in the game; it was not what he did but how he did it. Leinster's first multi-phase was repulsed and cleared to touch by Northampton. Off the resulting lineout, O'Brien and Heaslip came in a running swooping arc. The ball was left on the deck and Heaslip, whether it was luck or prescience, cleaned Brian Mujati out of the tackle zone way beyond the hindmost foot. Courtney Lawes at pillar only had eyes for more waves of runners. Gordon D'Arcy and Isa Nacewa lay to the left in a dangerous looking formation. Even the cameraman was taken by the speed with which O'Driscoll picked the ball up at the contact zone like a pickpocket at Las Ramblas, out of sight before you realise your wallet is gone.

Why is it always O'Driscoll? Why don't other players think of doing these plays? Think of the Grand Slam tries against England in Croker and Wales in the Millennium. He has a pathological sense

of awareness when the play or the try is on. You are born with it. You just can't cultivate it.

O'Driscoll had a 15-metre line break. After his earlier line break in the first half, when he got nailed by Ben Foden and the realisation that his knee wasn't strong enough for the step, he comes forward to Lee Dickson and freezes him. Heaslip takes the pass but yet another quality tackle from Foden brings him down. Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross clear out assisted by the hovering O'Driscoll in a quality clean-out and Jonny Sexton cuts a vector outside Soane Tonga'uiha. Leinster score first in the second half. Northampton's lead and resolve crumbles. Anybody else could have done what O'Driscoll did, but they didn't.

Minutes later, O'Driscoll made three significant breaks which led to D'Arcy's disallowed try. Northampton were simply unable to close him down.

As Sexton scored his second try and the scoreboard started ticking, an unlikely hero came to aid and abet O'Driscoll. In the 63rd minute of an absorbing and physically draining game, O'Brien got on the ball again. He freight-trained Dickson and offloaded to Strauss who made progress but doesn't take too much out of the ball. His pass to his right was for Cullen. The pass is not unsympathetic but it was flat and low. Cullen was two paces off making a clean catch. Calum Clark, the Northampton centre, is already clambering over Cullen. As he reaches for the ball it goes forward off Cullen's extended right hand and he just fails to collect cleanly. But, with a supreme effort and a superior piece of concentration, he collects on the second attempt one-handed -- four inches off the surface -- to keep the ball live and the move alive. For a 6 foot 7 second row who had just spent 65 minutes in the trenches, it was an astonishing bit of skill.

The ball continues to Shane Horgan who rides Foden's tackle and flips up for the advancing Sexton (pictured) to go in for his hat-trick. Luke Fitzgerald, it would seem, is not the only one who over-runs his lines. But the move is still live. Hines feeds O'Brien. This is it -- the clinching try. Who is his wing man? Number 13. That nose for the try. O'Driscoll drives with O'Brien to within a metre. He gets up again and effects a council-shredder clear-out. Hines picks up and flops over and O'Driscoll points out where the ball is over the line to Romain Poite. He was only short of blowing the Frenchman's whistle for him.

Simple things. One percenters as Matt Williams calls them but magnified by 10 when O'Driscoll does them. Another Heino that Leinster have picked up -- but could not have been done without O'Driscoll's presence on the park.

Mention must be made though of Eoin O'Malley's stupendous performance away to Clermont in O'Driscoll's absence. He did not make the match-day 23. Ian Madigan might not have recognised what was going on around him before he picked up the ball in the 81st minute and kicked to touch. Pretty much the mood of the team was to administer the coup de grace in much the same way as the All Blacks do in the final few minutes when the opposition are out on their feet. No mercy. No quarter. Their ruthlessness in scoring 40 points would have sealed in stone this team's legacy.

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