Saturday, January 21, 2012

Leinster-25 Montpellier-3

RK try v MHR

FIND YOUR INNER HOOK

Considering it was a full house at the RDS and the match was virtually over as a contest, the only word I can use to describe the atmosphere in the 2nd half is “eerie”.

Even though there was still a bonus point try up for grabs which would have led to a top seeding in the quarterfinal draw, the crowd, and probably the Leinster players themselves, had been subdued by a nigh on perfect first half display all over the park.

Much as I hate to say so, it's at times like this when we Leinster fans need to find our inner George Hook and channel him like there's no tomorrow. It's pretty clear that if Joe Schmidt's men can maintain that level of intensity for 240 more Heineken Cup minutes it would take one hell of an effort to prevent us retaining the trophy.

Sure, the semifinal draw wasn't kind, and sure, the injury count from the Six Nations could go against us. But these are out of our control – what the squad CAN do is keep their heads level for the battles to come and in a perverse kind of way it's to our advantage that we have so many players with enough recent memories of that Wellington quarterfinal to help make sure that doesn't happen.

trinh-duc 2Whenever a match kicks off so early and a player makes a mistake, commentators are quick to suggest that he hadn't quite woken up yet. If that's the case, the Leo Cullen must be up at the crack of dawn bright as a button every day. Maybe it was Trinh-Duc who was a bit late getting up for his croissants but the Leinster skipper was the only one alive to the rules and made quite the opening statement for his team with that block-down even if it didn't actually lead to a score.

And it wasn't long before the opening try did come. When I saw the lineups during the week I figured our back row might be up against it. Then I remembered what Sean Lineen said last week after our win in Glasgow : “They played like 15 loose forwards”. Sure enough it was crashing carries from our entire front row that led to Sean O'Brien planting the ball over the line.

Then while the crowd were still buzzing after that, Rob Kearney played himself into the highlight reels. Wasn't quite O'Driscoll v Wasps in 2009  but all throughout he played like a man determined to get on the scoresheet and it wasn't merely his fantastic finish from deep that earned him man of the match award.

Then came the game-defining moment. Did I say moment? It was actually seven minutes on the clock that in real time was closer to twenty.

Conventional rugby wisdom dictates that if a penalty is kickable and it will bring you to with 14 points of your opposition, especially if it's the first half and you're yet to trouble the scorers, you should take the three.

But there was clearly an extra component to consider for Montpellier – this was Leinster in their own backyard, and they’re always capable of finding a score. We're going to need the full seven points to have a hope of getting back into this one, skipper Ouedraogo must have thought.

And so the kick went into the corner, then shortly after they won a scrum, and thus it began. Phase upon phase upon phase upon phase on the Leinster line, with only the one transgression, Damien Browne's brainfart. He wasn't even level with the ruck he was so far off to the side when he dived in – even if the ball was available he had no business going near the thing and got himself ten-minute rest and a nasty-looking head wound for his trouble.

Overall though I wouldn't be too quick to criticise Browne...the aggression he brings to his game is badly needed by the squad after losing Nathan Hines, another who is known to see yellow once or six.

Heaslip v MHRBut even with a man down, we were able to hold the monstrous Montpellier forwards out. Rhys Ruddock, a player I was looking to for a good outing, was able to slot into the second row, and in the end it was Heineken Cup débutante Jamie Hagan who stole the ball back for his side and eventually the danger was cleared.

Whether they award bonus points for it or not, for me that goal-line stand was as good as a fourth try.

After that, I reckon the French outfit resigned themselves to focussing on their big home Top14 clash with Stade Francais next Friday and hope that the previous resident of the coach's box at the RDS will be more forthcoming.

The second half started brightly, sparked off by Isa Nacewa's desire to get in on the act by dancing his way forward about forty yards before a similar crash ball effort to the first try by the forwards saw Cian Healy over.

Then came the eeriness...a long period of play when the play was stuck in midfield, the home quarterfinal was assured, and the only reactions from the crowd were a cry for the TMO to be used to check Kearney's attempt at a second and an ironic cheer when Montpellier decided to take an easy three to banish the duck-egg from the scoreboard.

Perhaps the fans' apprehension was also to do with the fact that there were still four pools yet to be decided. Well, now they have all been put to bed and it seems once again our path to Heineken Cup glory involves the city of Cardiff.

Let's hope all our inner Hooks can keep things real between now and Easter weekend. JLP

Elsewhere in Europe

Say what you like about three provinces reaching the last eight for the first time, there was only one contender for top Irish performance of the weekend and that came in Galway. Finished scoring after just 15 minutes, and not setting a foot into the opposition half for the entire third quarter, I've never been happier for a rugby club other than Leinster than I was watching Eric Elwood's brave charges topple the Aviva Premiership leaders. As one tweeter claimed, this was Connacht’s “Alone It Stands” occasion – can't wait to see how they'll reproduce the infamous Galway Gust on stage once the inevitable play is written!

Then there was Ulster...but for a seriously dodgy try they too would have caused an upset in Clermont. I got a sense watching Les Jaunards that they feel they have some kind of sense of entitlement to success, whether its because it's their centenary year, or that they've brought in a host of top names or both. Well the Ulstermen certainly stood up to them and Vern Cotter’s men certainly won't find Saracens at Wembley an easy nut to crack.

Finally in the Heineken, if I feel Leinster needed a devil's advocate to prevent complacency from creeping in, I'm pretty sure Munster need one just as much, if not more. Cracking display running in five tries on foreign soil, no doubt about it. But if anyone is in a position to suggest a bit of caution, it may as well be me. First up, the Saints gave away a HUGE advantage switching the venue from Franklins Gardens. Second, the whole sordid Ashton business during the week had to rattle the side. Neither of those of course are Munster's fault, they had to play what was ahead of them. But I would be concerned about the concession of two penalty tries by a struggling scrum. Re-inventing yourself from past glory days (Zebo is certainly a breath of fresh air to the red back line) is one thing, but this is an area that cannot be ignored. I reckon Ulster would have nothing to fear anyway going down to Thomond in the quarterfinal but certainly Messrs Afoa, Best & Court will be taking several mental notes from Saturday evening's match in Milton Keynes. All that being said, it is genuinely great to see Munster back in the final eight of this great tournament where they belong.

Honourable mention must go to the Leinster A side who comfortably overcame Pontypridd 32-0 at Donnybrook on Sunday in the annoyingly-named British & Irish Cup (I’m trying to get it nicknamed The Bandie Cup (BandI) but no luck yet). Super display all round, with Clontarf outhalf Noel Reid's kicking from both hand and tee impressive to say the least. They join Munster A, Cornish Pirates (who seem to have a liking for this competition) and Cross Keys in the final four...no prizes for guessing which would be the most interesting semifinal opponent!

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