Let the records show that the 2011 Magners League Grand Final was won after 55minutes, at least according to this Leinster blogger.
A man down, only 7-6 ahead and with the reigning European Champions bearing down on the Munster line, David Wallace inflicted one of the tackles of the season on Fergus McFadden to not only drive him back, but with the assistance of James Coughlan, turn the ball over and allow his side the chance to clear the danger.
What made it such a wonderful tackle is that Wallace knew who he was dealing with. McFadden has shown on several occasions this season that it's nowhere near enough to hit him, for once he pumps his legs he can still make up to 10 yds with the ball afterwards. The Munster no7 solved this problem by simply taking his legs up off the ground altogether in the hit.
But by rights what the records should be showing is a match that was all over as a contest (well in pre-Cardiff terms anyway) by halftime, and how Munster went into the break only 7-3 ahead will continue to baffle me for years to come.
Not quite sure whether that needs to be levelled at the coach, the out-half or both, but I have found this season that the majority of our woes have stemmed from not playing the right attacking game at the right time. Take the penalty we won in only the second minute at Thomond. Munster had the ball from the off and this was our first time with it. We’re on the road against our biggest rivals in a major cup final. Surely some simple forward phases were required to settle us down, but Reddan chose the quick tap, and before you could say “Athenry is in Connacht” we’d lost it for the first in a long line of errors.
Yes, Munster were hungry in the tackle, and many of our turnovers were forced by them. But I still contend that had we played a smarter game when we had the ball, there were more points to be had. There’s a time for the quick-offloading “Schmidt-ball”, there’s a time for forward phases, there’s a time for quick tap-n-runs. Once Leinster can determine on the field of play which mode best fits the situation, then we could very well be talking about doubles again in the near future.
The home side, on the other hand, seemed to have a clear idea of what they wanted to do with the ball, and from where I was sitting (at the very back of the new stand right on the halfway line) it seemed a clever strategy. Leinster’s defence may have been a impenetrable fortress all season, but rather than aim to “chuck it out wide” as Northampton had done, Munster picked one wing and chose to batter it until it broke. That wing was Luke Fitzgerald’s, not that Doug Howlett’s score that ended the drought at 497 minutes (pic) was necessarily his fault, just the result of a tenacious red army gradually boring a hole in a blue wall.
Yet despite our coughing up the ball around a dozen times in the first 40 minutes, the halftime score was still that measly 7-3, so it was clear that there was no need to evoke past Champions League finals to put our dressing room into focus. But one thing was obvious…Leinster HAD to be ahead by a decent margin going into the final quarter, because although the formbook may go out the window on these occasions, the fitness one cannot be ignored and Munster’s extra week’s rest was always going to be a factor.
We showed our intent from the second half restart, and for this period, we seemed to be playing the smart rugby. Save for a clever reverse offload from Drico, our intention was to get it down to their line mostly with the forwards and gain the upper hand with a 5-pointer. But after 24 phases on their line, the Munster defence wasn’t cracking, until of course Donncha O’Callaghan gave away what turned out to be an extremely clever yellow-card penalty.
We got three points either side of his time in the sin-bin to sneak into the lead, but what happened in between, not least the Wallace tackle I mentioned earlier, is pretty much what settled the match. Sexton’s pass being a fraction too high for a wide-open McFadden didn’t help much either.
But once we had the lead, the clock ticked past 60, and Joe Schmidt had no choice but to start going to his bench, which was considerably weaker than seven days before. Munster kept their resolve and started punching away at our left wing corner again…and of course when you keep doing that with the ball for three-quarters of a game, the option of a cross-field kick the other way is always on the cards, and once they had a free play courtesy of Nigel Owens’ upstretched left arm, ROG’s boot got it to Keith Earls who forced the ball over the line by sheer will and determination – the home side were back in front.
The conversion was missed, and after Isa provided the traditional “run-through-ROG” moment and had him seeing stars a few minutes later, yet another penalty attempt failed and the lead remained at three. At any other time of the season, you’d fancy Leinster to at least have a chance only 3 points down with 10 minutes left, but the forced substitutions were taking our scrum beyond the word “makeshift”. Richardt Strauss may have played flanker for the Cheetahs, but at a crucial stage of a cup final you certainly don’t want him there, nor do you want Aaron Dundon, our 4th string hooker when the season began, extending his arms around the Leinster props.
The history books, one with a certain leaning anyway, will credit John Hayes for the forcing of the penalty try which sealed the match once and for all, and indeed technically that is true. But I guess we’ll never know how this contest would have turned out under more, shall we say, “traditional” circumstances, with both (or neither) teams having bigger battles preying on their minds & limbs.
And although it was partly tongue-in-cheek when I suggested on Twitter that morning that no matter what happened, Irish rugby would be the “real winner”, it really was as Munster lifted the Celtic League silverware at the end of this great contest.
There was something in this season for everyone….Connacht’s long tenure as development province was finally paid off with a Heineken Cup slot, Ulster have re-emerged as a major force getting into two sets of playoffs, Munster were rightly rewarded for an excellent Magners League campaign and of course at the top of the achievement tree this season, well, I guess you don’t need reminding who that was.
That just leaves me with two issues to address from the day before bringing the curtain down on what has been an extremely enjoyable spell of rugby blogging.
First, “that” challenge by Marcus Horan on Brian O’Driscoll. It was every bit as stupid as it was cynical and forget about citings, he should have been off for ten. Not suggesting Leinster would have benefitted from a sin-binning as they didn’t later on, but it was a clear yellow card. And to those who say “What about Drico himself v Ulster?” and “What about Sean O’Brien v Toulouse?” I have already acknowldged they were yellow card offences, but if you insist on comparing them, at least they were provoked. And as for Nathan Hines’ hit on Horan in the second half, the prop’s reaction was almost more embarrassing that his earlier hit and the Leinster fans can simply consider the shot as a parting gift from the Clermont-bound Scottish international.
Second, there was my first visit to Thomond Park. Well, I really wish I could have gotten to spend more time there. The OLSC buses were not allowed to park near the ground so we literally had time for one pint before kickoff, and one after before making the trip home. But the stadium is indeed impressive and although we were right down the very back we still had a great view of the action. And I also got to see at close quarters the trademark silence during opposing kicks…the look on the face of the lady in front of me as she turned to shoosh some nearby noisemakers was only priceless.
Here’s to a marvellous season for Irish rugby. No Grand Slam maybe, but with two if not three powerhouses on the Heineken Cup front now established, who knows what lies ahead.
Before that, of course, there is the small matter of the World Cup, now less than 100 days away. If all this success doesn’t make you feel good about Ireland’s chances then I don’t know what will.