When I started Harpin On Rugby back in August 2008, Leinster were about to embark on yet another season in Munster’s shadow, still cursed by the “all style and no substance” tag, with a few far less diplomatic nicknames thrown in for good measure.
But still the season-ticket sales were growing by the year, and gradually a new phrase was being used to describe the capital’s provincial rugby set-up : “sleeping giant”. It was clear that sooner or later the team would have to produce a standard of rugby on the pitch to match the size of their support.
So when Brian O’Driscoll spoke of “trying to create some sort of dynasty” in his post-match interview with Will Greenwood at Twickenham on Saturday, it wasn’t so much a demonstration of arrogance on his part, rather it was an apt description of a process that involved much planning, hard work and dedication to the pursuit of excellence by himself, Michael Cheika and of course now Joe Schmidt that has rightly come to fruition with the unbelievable achievement of three European Championships in four years.
And if you just take into account the final score of this match, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it came from a dominance by the Leinster offence, but that is far, far from the case. A team that was once known purely for its “champagne” brand of back-play has evolved to a point where it can dominate a major final thanks partly to five tries by its forwards but most of all, that fearsome fifteen-headed blue monster of a defence.
For me the deciding of this contest came towards the end of the third quarter. Leinster fans were accused during the week of presuming the match was won before a ball was kicked, but I can assure you the vast majority who have any kind of knowledge of the sport still weren’t comfortable when the score was 24-9, especially when the Ulster attacking threat, buoyed as it was by the presence of Ian Humphreys, put an all-out assault on the Leinster try-line.
That very same assault did eventually result in Dan Tuohy crossing in the corner, but only after a exhausting series of events that included turnovers being handed back to them, an intricate lineout move, a spot of blatant holding by Chris Henry on Sean O’Brien off a scrum (thankfully the man-of-the-match chose not to react as he did with Nyanga at the Aviva last year) and an insane amount of phases by the men in white.
And it was the decision to take that scrum which was key. Conventional rugby wisdom would suggest that when you’re fifteen points down and twenty minutes to go, a penalty directly under the posts should be kicked to bring your side within a two-converted try margin. But that convention doesn’t take into account the fifteen-headed blue monster.
Clearly Ulster captain Johann Muller’s thinking was that if his side was going to need two tries against that defence, since they were so deep in the Leinster 22 it was important to get one then because who knows if or when they’d be back there again. His decision to opt for the scrum was absolutely right, but in the end it took so much out of his side that their power-bar was reduced to practically zero and the five points from the try, however deserved, were quickly wiped out by two Sexton penalties down the other end and to all intents and purposes the match was dead.
I really hope the Ulster fans are proud of their heroes. Emblazoning the players’ match jerseys with their initials was a nice touch and no matter what the result their value is surely immeasurable. For the first ten minutes it was a white tide coming at the Leinster line much as the yellow Clermont one had in the semifinal and just as I expected they took the lead.
But sadly although he had shown plenty in recent weeks to prove he deserved to be there, young Paddy Jackson clearly wasn’t quite ready to produce the goods at this level, and who knows how things would have gone had the more experienced Humphreys started, or indeed if Pienaar had played at 10 with Paul Marshall at scrum-half.
Still though, anyone who suggests they were somehow “played off the park” will have to answer to me. They gave it everything they had, thanks to some outstanding displays all round but particularly by John Afoa, Paddy Wallace and the ever-improving Darren Cave.
It’s just that despite their determination and ability they seemed to have that air about them that comes with an imminent change in the head coach’s office – something Munster have suffered from this season as did Leinster in 2010. Overall though, the Ulstermen are simply at an earlier stage of their evolution and you can be sure it won’t be long before their passionate supporters will have cause to stand up for them again.
Once more I’ll leave it to the professional journos to give you detailed descriptions of the five Leinster tries, but one moment has to be highlighted before all others : “that” offload by Brian O’Driscoll.
We weren’t having things all our own way going forward by any stretch, but the comforting thing was, as it has been at many stages throughout this amazing season, the offensive mistakes were ours. With our solid defence behind us we knew that with perseverance the try-scoring chances would come and as it turned out they did.
But after all the pre-match hype about the importance of the set-piece, it was ironic that a scrum against the head led to the second try, yet although the move was started by Cian Healy’s strength in the tight and finished by his bull-headed determination, in a sport where space must be created by ingenuity and flair, O’Driscoll’s backhanded offload to Sean O’Brien, so brilliantly captured by that photo, was nothing short of world class.
And of course it wasn’t just SOB & BOD who deserved the plaudits. Awesome the defence may have been, but still the individuals deserve to be mentioned, and nobody has gotten their work done so efficiently without standing out in a Leinster jersey than Kevin McLaughlin. He may have been there for his lineout skills but he was certainly taking his blindside responsibilities just as seriously. Officially our “Unsung Hero Of the Year”, perhaps we should be singing his praise a lot more.