If I'm a coach, doesn't matter for what team and doesn't matter in what sport, I'd have to be asking myself just how does a team go as many as fifteen games unbeaten at the highest level, winning fourteen of them?
Every Leinster fan knows the run has to come to an end sometime, but even if it does so as early as next week, it has been quite the achievement, and I reckon this match at Firhill had a little sample of everything that has gone to take the streak this far...a tapas of secrets for success, if you will.
DOING THE UNEXPECTED – Leinster are the reigning Heineken Cup champions, and have healthy leads in both their pool this season and the Pro12. This, quite naturally, puts a giant target on their backs wherever they go. If you thought for a second the Scots weren't going to do everything they could to cause an upset in this match, you obviously haven't seen Braveheart.
I'm pretty sure Joe Schmidt & Jonny Sexton have seen it, and so they had to come up with a plan that would confound Sean Lineen's preparations. Well right off the bat we saw Sexton throw a dummy deep in his own 22 and before you could say “Quade Cooper”, his side had an attacking lineout way down the other end of the pitch. Of course we ended up losing said lineout, and at first I thought it was down to the Sean Cronin toss, but on second look I think it was an incorrect call to throw deep at that moment.
Another thing you wouldn't be expected to do on the narrow Firhill Park pitch is attempt a cross-field kick. So what does Sexton do on more than one occasion? And more often than not, it paid off, spectacularly of course in one case as it led to the game's first try courtesy of Rob Kearney.
LUCK – There's no doubting that a large slice of luck is required to string so many good results together, that goes in any sport. Some might say the Sexton kick to Kearney for the try got a fortunate bounce. However, I have a feeling that if a similar kick had gone from O'Gara to Howlett (as it has in the past more than once) then Munster fans would resort either to “he meant the kick to do that” or “you make your own luck”.
And it has to be said that over the past few weeks Leinster have enjoyed their fair share of good fortune – not only Sunday's bounce but also a gust of wind or two in Galway and Cardiff. I'll leave it to yourself to make of those what you will. Personally I'm tempted to sway towards divine intervention ;-)
COMPENSATION FOR WEAK AREAS – Of the five front row players used by Leinster on the day, there was plenty of World Cup, Heineken Cup final, even NPC final experience on show. Of the five Glasgow front rowers used, all were Scottish (even though one was named Welsh) yet despite the fact that there's only two clubs to choose from, not even ONE of the players were in Andy Robinson's original Six Nations squad. Still, Leinster struggled in the scrum, not only losing penalties on several occasions, but also unforgivably losing one against the head from 5m out near the end of the first half.
Yet man of the match was awarded to Sean Cronin. Why? Because of an outstanding performance in the loose that surely had the Glaswegians wondering if he was the other Sean in disguise. And Cian Healy wasn't far behind him in the ground-gaining stakes, with a bone-crunching tackle or two thrown in for good measure.
NOT RELYING ON STARS – The two names that would normally jump off the Leinster team-sheet, Sexton and Nacewa, were both happy to take back-seat roles. Well, when I say “happy”, maybe not so much with our Number10. Schmidt said he got “grumpy” after he rolled his ankle, but he still chipped in a penalty shot from inside his own half to level the scores. As for Isa, although he did give a masterclass in how to avoid being isolated after the tackle at one point, he won't be happy to see his name at the top of the Leinster list of turnovers conceded (4).
But even when they haven't been firing on all cylinders, not only was there Messrs Cronin & Healy in the forwards, much credit must also go to Devin Toner. Is it just me or did he play like he was the senior lock on the day? Is the apprentice close to over-taking his master? Whatever it is I'm THIS close to reaching for some Star Wars metaphors, but not just yet. Still, he owned a lineout that included Richie Gray and wasn't shabby in the loose either.
DEPTH OF SQUAD – If the rumours are true and poor Luke Fitzgerald is out for the season, that is of course a terrible blow for a chap who can't seem to buy a slice of good fortune. But from Leinster's perspective, they were still able to field David Kearney for his first cap in this great competition, and although the lone Glasgow score came on his wing, it couldn't have been much closer to the furthest edge of the tryline (worth a look upstairs to confirm the grounding I thought) and it was all he gave away.
But one of the most embarrassing set of riches we have is at scrum-half. Back in Montpellier Isaac Boss didn't have his finest hour but Eoin Reddan was able to come on and steady the ship. This time the roles were reversed, which in many ways is poor timing for Reddan with a Six Nations campaign on the horizon and Paul Marshall doing such heroics at Ravenhill.
And although the Glasgow try was scored seconds after Boss took the field, the first time Leinster actually had possession for him to use (when Toner hauled in a Sexton 22 dropout), he not only marched us down the field but actually got what proved to be the decisive score (main pic). It was an excellent cameo all round from him, though I doubt it will be enough to get on Declan Kidney's radar.
ALWAYS HAVE A SCORE IN YOUR BACK POCKET – I actually have hard data to back this one up, but I decided to display it on my “#2amrugbyfact” feature on twitter – follow this link to see it, it's quite a stat to behold. Basically it means that every time Leinster fall behind they've been able to dig deep and turn things back around.
DEFENCE – Of course I had to save the best till last. Sean Lineen said afterwards that Leinster defended “like 15 loose forwards”. Actually it was 14 for the crucial last 5 minutes after Sean O'Brien didn't realise what was meant by a tap on the back and some stern words in a Welsh accent. Yet it was all the Warriors could do to gain ground let alone get over our line, and whatever about Leinster's weaknesses this season and there have been several, you'd be hard pressed to fault their performance when they don't have the ball. And this a good year and a half after Kurt McQuilkin's departure.
I'd like to add one last contributory factor to the result from the day – although the Monday morning press is full of talk about the “valiant” Warriors display and this is true to an extent, you can't deny they were found wanting in some key areas, not least Duncan Weir's decision-making. No doubt he can boot a ball over the bar from every angle going, but he has a ways to go to show he can lead his team out of a Heineken Cup pool, let alone lead his country at Murrayfield.
So overall, a third away win on the bounce for Leinster. None of them have been pretty, but all of them have been satisfying. Now we have three in a row to come at the RDS, before our next away day – at Firhill Park, Glasgow, no less. JLP
ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE
Looking at the Heineken Cup tables after Round 5, the sight of Leinster as number one seed and Munster as only team with 100% record would have you thinking they're the big Irish story in the competition at the moment. You'd be wrong though.
The history boffins can say all they want about what has happened in the past – Ulster still had quite the job to do in Ravenhill on Friday night and boy, did they do it. Top notch displays all over the park not least from Andrew Trimble, who by logic should have played his way into contention for a starting jumper against Wales somewhere on the park. That's providing logic is used in the decision-making process.
It wasn't only him though...Ferris was more of an animal than usual if that's possible, Ruan Pienaar paid back half of the worth of his new contract with the ink barely dry and Paul Marshall's cameo could lead to his name being read out by Kidney on Wednesday. Sure, the Tigers were found wanting in many areas but still would have run a lesser side close...hopefully the Ulstermen can do enough in Clermont next week to get out of the pool because they definitely deserve it.
Meanwhile at Thomond Park...have you ever heard the crowd there more subdued when their heroes have won a match? The Castres XV, certainly nowhere near their first choice selection, didn't come to make up the numbers but still were comfortably dispatched, but whether it's the standards laid down by history or the continued success of the brethren at the other end of the N7 that's demanding more, I'm not sure. With the Northampton Saints on a high after their win in Llanelli you can be sure they'll have a hostile reception ready for Paul O'Connell & co next week, though perhaps the hostility would be a little stronger if it was actually at Franklins Gardens and not Milton Keynes.
Then there's Connacht. Never really had a chance in Toulouse did they. But they were praised by Guy Noves afterwards, and by all accounts brought a following with them that did them proud. There's no doubt that it's an enormous flaw in the qualification system that Aironi, thumped 82-0 at home, are guaranteed a spot in next year's tournament while Eric Elwood's men have to resort to prayer for one of the other Irish provinces to taste European success to get back to the top table.