Friday, May 17, 2013

Leinster-34 Stade Français-13


In any sport a “final” is meant to be the pinnacle of competition…to take part in a showpiece occasion should be considered a privilege only bettered by lifting the trophy itself.

I remember my one rugby final…in the Leinster Junior Schools Seconds League final back in…well, let’s just say it was a while ago.  I came on as a sub loosehead prop in the second half at Donnybrook and I think only carried the ball once, but it was still satisfying to be part of a winning team and receive my medal.

So there’s not much doubt that the majority of the Stade players were delighted to have reached this Amlin final and were ready for a battle they knew wouldn’t be easy given the opposition and location, but one nonetheless that promised a rewarding end to what was mostly a disappointing season for Les Pinks.

On the other hand, call it cockiness if you want but I’d rather call it fact…Joe Schmidt’s Leinster have come to view finals a little more like a Dublin bus, coming as they do more than once at a time.  And while we may have swapped all three of our 2013 finals to be in the one that was held at Lansdowne on Saturday, we still had to come up with a plan to make the most out of them for the loyal fans.

We can only imagine what the Stade players made of the Leinster lineup…ok, O’Driscoll and Darcy were injured…but leaving the likes of Cian Healy and regular skipper Leo Cullen on the bench?  Just how arrogant are these guys anyway, they must have thought.

For me, it wasn’t arrogance…it was more like a practical decision based on what had to be a 160-minute strategy.  The Amlin may be a major honour but it certainly doesn’t carry enough weight to warrant “leaving it all on the field” as did the last two Heineken triumphs, and what’s more Schmidt had to assemble a second squad for yet another final over in Newcastle at the very same time.

And once this match kicked off, the best thing the home side could do was establish an early lead, and it only took us 3 minutes.  A reverse pass finds Isa in space, he offloads to Sexton, and hey presto Madigan is in under the posts, 7-0, just like that.

That would knock the stuffing out of many a team, but not this Stade outfit.  They came roaring back at us, which meant we had to rely on our trademark defence - thankfully it did not let us down, with two forays into our 22 brilliantly repelled, particularly the second when Paul Williams had his attempt to touch down thwarted by Sexton & O’Brien at the last possible second.

It wasn’t as if everything was happening for us with the ball either…we had trouble early on getting phases in their 22 only the thing was, we didn’t need them.

The difference between these two sides on the night was their respective abilities in both creating AND seizing opportunities.  Defensive setups everywhere are getting more solid with each passing year, but no matter how well drilled the organisation, you will always have a second or two when your opposition are vulnerable.

Several times during the course of this match the Stade pack put immense pressure on the home side, whether it was in a swarming counter-ruck or strong scrummaging.  The outing served as a powerful lesson for Jack McGrath, who it appears was specifically targeted for the first time in his career and will surely learn from the experience, and still had some good carries despite the scrum woes.

But the thing about applying that pressure is that once you have the ball you have to use it quickly, and I lost count of the number of times the Parisians either shipped the ball left and right across the field or just simply dropped it.

Down the other end, by contrast, you had Isaac Boss spotting the Stade defence drifting in one direction leaving a gap in behind their pack so a cheeky box kick high into the evening sun allowed Conway to retrieve and put Cronin through for a 14-0 first-quarter lead that would have been top of Schmidt’s laundry list for the contest.

Man-of-the-match went to Johnny Sexton, though if I dare suggest it, I did have a wee problem with his performance, namely his decision making. 

This thing we called “Leinstertainment” is certainly as enjoyable for us as it is infuriating for other fans (the name as well as the style itself, no doubt) but I believe there are times you need to turn it on and other times you need to keep things simple.

A quick tap penalty when we had just had a successful lineout & maul on 8 minutes, a chip out of his own 22 early in the second half handing back possession and finally a short restart right after Stade got their lone try with 13 minutes left were all unnecessary from where I was sitting.  It’s great to see someone backing themselves & their team but I’m a firm believer in strategy being driven by the match situation more than instinct.

Still, his award probably stemmed mostly from his involvement in the try of the night that ultimately killed the contest on the half-hour mark.  Again, a gap was spotted and Sexton’s cross-field kick was inch perfect, finding Isa who caught, absorbed the tackle and popped it up nicely for Rob Kearney to dive over in the corner.

That kick from the Racing-bound outhalf, followed by a perfect conversion strike from the touchline to add the two points, demonstrated that his next kicking coach is going to have one of the easiest gigs in European rugby :-)

There were pockets of pink-clad fans around the RDS, more than I expected, and to be fair the visitors did their best to give them something to cheer about.  Lyons and of course Parisse were key players in their breakdown success while outside centre Doumayrou provided a few headaches.

For me it was Paul Warwick’s introduction that got their backline making more inroads and he worked well out wide with their two wingers…I had heard some good things in particular about Jeremy Pincelle pre-match and he made some decent tackles as well as grabbing their only try.

While there was much giggling around the RDS at the little remote control car Stade kept sending on with the kicking tee & water when required, when Leinster had the need for wheels on the pitch, that amusement became concern.

As he went to tackle Hugo Bonneval before the French try, Fergus McFadden got his head caught between the number 11 and Rob Kearney and he fell to the ground clutching his neck which meant he had to be stretchered off.  Even though our more usual wearer of the 13 jumper is expected back next week, the versatile back will definitely be in Schmidt’s starting plans.

It was his former Clongowes team-mate Kearney who thought he had put the match beyond doubt as he dove in to the opposite corner for what would have been his second try.  But while the assistant Ian Davies was proven correct in awarding no try for a foot in touch, the man must have x-ray vision to have seen the touchdown through Kearney’s frame; I’m not sure why it wasn’t sent upstairs.

But the visitors to their credit kept coming at us and with the lead just two converted tries and ten minutes to go, the Leinster faithful knew better than to count their chickens so when sub Healy stretched out to plant down in the 78th minute the anxiety could turn to relief and finally celebration.

And a quick glance at the twitter timeline on my phone told me that Noel Reid was the hero over in Newcastle so it had been a perfect night for Leinster both sides of the pond.

Going back to my theme at the start, however, the proper celebrations can’t really begin yet for Leinster fans.  The joy around Ballsbridge (and no doubt Galway too…feel better about sending us McCarthy now, Mr Sears?) was clear on Friday night (even McFadden who was spotted dancing around the pitch after the presentation so hopefully that’s a good sign) but nobody who has followed Leinster for the past few seasons will have forgotten the task that lies ahead. 

So as good and all as it was to see boys in blue from days gone by like Stan & Dr Phil up close again, and as great and all as this fourth European trophy in five years has been, it’s only job half done as far as I’m concerned.  We will have to wait and see who will be making the RDS home next Saturday. JLP

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Also this weekend

Heineken Cup Final

Clermont Auvergne 15 - 16 Toulon

British & Irish Cup Final

Newcastle Falcons 17-18 Leinster A (aet)

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