Wednesday 23 October 2019

Tony Ward: Schmidt leaves O'Connor with a hard act to follow

What we witnessed at the RDS on Saturday was as good as it gets. Strip away all the commercial paraphernalia and what you're left with is two Irish provinces giving it their all, at times over and above the call of duty.

Factor in the emotion surrounding Nevin Spence and the soon-to-depart Joe Schmidt, Isa Nacewa and Jonny Sexton and you have got the extraordinary cocktail that made the pyrotechnics before and after pale into insignificance when measured against the explosive action in between.

Schmidt & Co took the glory, embracing a first knockout Celtic League title and with it a history-making European and domestic double – although not the European silver salver of choice.

At least that leaves coaching heir apparent Matt O'Connor with a new threshold to chase.

It might not equate with the challenge facing Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich – the Germans have just completed a treble under Jupp Heynckes – but it's right up there.

Schmidt inherited a pretty good set-up from Michael Cheika but what the new Ireland head coach has done in the three years since has been mind-blowing he has brought Leinster to another level.

O'Connor, having made his own winning stamp alongside Richard Cockerill at Leicester Tigers, has some act to follow.

What Schmidt has achieved at Leinster isn't just winning rugby – four trophies and six finals out of seven competitions in three years – but pragmatic and aesthetically pleasing all-in rugby. Some of their play has been pure poetry.

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A squad that can strike from anywhere at any time and still defend with such aggression and disciplined trust in each other is special. Maybe we are enjoying the fruits of rugby's equivalent of 'The Special One'.

His next step is a massive one but I, like everybody else in this neck of the woods, cannot wait for the November Series to come around. And I have never felt like that before. The Schmidt brand is infectious.

But back to Saturday, and while Ulster will of course see it differently, it was the perfect exit for the departing trio. True to form, Sexton ran the show, with Nacewa slotting seamlessly in at full-back when Rob Kearney pulled out just before kick-off.

Leinster lined out minus the European Players of the Year for 2012 (Kearney) and 2011 (Sean O'Brien) without it making a whit of difference.

They defended superbly, scored two tries, conceded none and the reconstructed back-row of Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings either side of Jamie Heaslip were absolutely outstanding, despite Nick Williams putting in another towering effort for Ulster.

Isaac Boss was again a dominant figure against his former team, while that trademark ducking and weaving, consistently creating forward momentum, was at the heart of an encouraging 80 minutes from Brian O'Driscoll.

Devin Toner was also prominent, imposing out of touch although still vulnerable to turnover at contact because of the difficulty in getting that giant frame to a more effective ball-carrying position on the charge.

COHESIVE

Tries don't always win games but on this massive occasion, they did. Both – by Jennings and Heaslip – were the result of cohesive forward graft close to the opposition line. Leinster on Saturday were as they have been throughout the Schmidt era: smart, varied, committed, organised, honest, patient, disciplined and pragmatic.

Mark Anscombe has undoubtedly built on the foundation laid by his predecessor Brian McLaughlin. The resurgence is under way but the final two inches at the upper end only come with the experience of days like this.

The atmosphere in the RDS was electric, the buzz off the field being matched, carry by carry and tackle by tackle, between the white lines.

There will be bruised and battered bodies aplenty this morning as the two teams on top of Irish rugby at this point in time – and yes I know Munster went closest in the Heineken Cup – did the game and the Pro12 competition proud.

I have taken time to warm to the revamped Celtic tournament, but I am coming around.

And if Saturday's fare is a sign of things to come, then the off-season can't pass quickly enough. Just the little matter of a Lions tour first...

Saturday was as far removed from Barbarian rugby as it could possibly be. Instead, what we witnessed once again was clinically efficient winning rugby the Schmidt way.

Pity poor Matt O'Connor having to follow that.

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