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Steel behind Leinster's silk


Leinster's Shane Jennings takes it all in after his team's stunning Heineken Cup victory last weekend. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Leinster's Shane Jennings takes it all in after his team's stunning Heineken Cup victory last weekend. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Leinster's Shane Jennings takes it all in after his team's stunning Heineken Cup victory last weekend. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Half-time at the Millennium Stadium and moods are fluctuating wildly in the press box.The English are giddy with the unexpected, all-consuming dominance of Northampton over a Leinster side that all but the most one-eyed Saints knew to be a superior force.

The Irish are almost at a loss for words, sheepishly accepting the ribbing of the queen's finest while trying to put thoughts of that morning's over-confident previews out of their minds.

The 22-6 deficit looks insurmountable and Leinster solutions hard to find. After decorating the streets of Cardiff with their pre-match colour, first-half events have muted the vast array of Leinster supporters and turned the sponsor's brew sour in their hands. However, a blue-bedecked fan sitting a few rows in front is in no doubt about what needs to be done.

"Bring on Jenno!" he roars.

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FORMER Leicester, England and Lions second-row Ben Kay ruffled a few feathers in 2007 when he stated that: "Shane Jennings is the best back-row forward I have ever played with."

Given that Kay had won a World Cup in front of the esteemed trio of Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio and his Tigers colleague Neil Back, as well as sharing a Leicester dressing room with Martin Corry and Josh Kronfeld, that was a hell of a statement and one that caused the spotlight-shy Jennings considerable embarrassment.

"I don't think it's true, to be perfectly honest," said Jennings at the time. "I don't think I'm anywhere near the finished player. Though I guess he's entitled to his opinion whether he's lying or not."

Citing staleness and the desire for a change of scene, Jennings had left Leinster with Leo Cullen in 2005 to try his hand with the Tigers. There are few harder places to prove yourself.

Anyone threatening to become a "Billy Big Balls," as they term it, is swiftly cut down to size and the Tigers training sessions are legendary, no-holds-barred affairs where those who fail to man-up are left in a heap next to their battered reputations.

The Leinster pair were a perfect fit and, fastidious in his approach to professionalism and life in general, Jennings' attention to detail did not go unnoticed.

"When we go out drinking, he'll even arrange the empty bottles on the table in a straight line," revealed fellow Irish Tiger Geordan Murphy.

"He doesn't even know he's doing it. I like to mess them up when he's not looking and see how long it takes for him to notice."

Jennings returned to Leinster in 2007 after 60 appearances that brought Anglo-Welsh and Premiership medals and Leicester were loath to let him go.

"It is a great disappointment," said coach Pat Howard at the time. "But for both his family and current Ireland selection policy, I do understand. He will be sorely missed on and off the field."

After the Cameron Jowitt/Bryce Williams years, bringing back the two Tigers was one of Michael Cheika's most astute moves as Leinster coach.

A bit of dog was badly needed and, fangs sharpened in Welford Road, Jennings and Cullen provided it.

Two Heineken Cups later, their place in Leinster folklore is secure. Munster used to have Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy -- gnarled dogs of war, standing for no frills or frippery and offering themselves as rallying points in emergency situations. Leinster have Cullen and Jennings.

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IT was impossible for Leinster's management team to hear the impassioned plea of that Leinster supporter last Saturday, but they were obviously of the same mind, for Jennings was the sole change when the team re-emerged.

There were many reasons for Leinster's staggering, unanswered 27 points that threw the Heineken Cup final on its head, but Jennings' ferocious leadership and ability to provide quick ruck ball were high among them.

Since damaging his knee earlier this year, he has been used off the bench behind the extra height of Kevin McLaughlin in the big matches, but Jennings' influence has been huge -- playing a crucial role in the semi-final against Toulouse and in Cardiff.

His coach and captain are in no doubt about his worth to the team. "Jenno brings that real edge to us. It was very tough on him not starting. He's as hungry as any player that I've come across, he demands certain standards from everyone and he's had a massive role to play. We've had a pretty close relationship living in England together and Jenno is a competitor of the highest order," said Cullen yesterday.

"Jenno, he had eight weeks off with a knee (injury) where he couldn't do a lot of running," said Schmidt. "He's added to us every time he's taken to the field and I'm sure he will again on Saturday."

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WHILE he was in England, Jennings' Leicester team-mates used to regularly wonder why his qualities were not recognised by Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan. A few weeks after his final game for the Tigers, Jennings earned his first cap on the pre-World Cup tour to Argentina and has gone on to win eight more under Declan Kidney.

However, he has never nailed down the No 7 jersey -- the durable excellence of David Wallace keeping him in the back-up role. He got his chance against Australia last summer, injuries forcing Kidney to select a makeshift back-row of Jennings at 7, Niall Ronan at 6 and Chris Henry at 8.

In a strange, stagnant Test, which Ireland lost 22-15, Jennings was not able to bring his influence properly to bear and, along with Ronan, was caught out for Quade Cooper's try. However, 11 months on, the Leinster man has forced himself into the mix for the World Cup.

A natural open-side, the philosophy that Kidney should try to recreate nationally what Schmidt has achieved provincially works in his favour and his impact over the last month will not have gone unnoticed.

It makes tomorrow's showdown with Wallace another intriguing aspect to this Magners League Grand Final/Trial and his opponent is all too aware of the threat posed by Jennings.

"He's a very clever player and reads the game very well," said Wallace this week. "You look at his back-row play, his pillaging, he has a lot of strings to his bow. He knows how to play the game just to get the win."

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FROM St Mary's College, through Leinster, Leicester and back again, Jennings, who only turns 30 in early July, has proven himself time and again.

He has had his challenges -- such as the ridiculous 12-week ban imposed last year, injury issues and the battle for first team selection -- but 2011 is threatening to be the most significant year in a long, productive career.

Irish Independent