Saturday, May 17, 2014

Leinster-13 Ulster-9

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leinster v ulster

SO NEAR AND YET PIENAAR

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If there are any Leinster fans out there who don't at least have a bit of empathy for their Ulster counterparts after this match then they clearly haven't a soul. And I know that may come across as trite and patronising, but I'm happy to run that risk because the statement is true.

I have shared many a stadium with Ulster fans over the years and there is no doubt that they are more than a match for followers of any other team in the world whatever the sport in terms or loyalty, passion and banter. Sure they have a minority who try to let them down, but so does every team, us included. All you need to do is watch how every single spectator is on their feet clapping off BOD as he left the field for what could have been the last time ever and you'll know what I mean.

Yet while these two great provinces may be well matched in terms of support, the fact that way more often than not one tends to come out on top in big contests shows up the difference in the stage of development of their respective rugby programmes, and even though it took us a lot longer to turn the screw than ever before, the way in which we did it still managed to highlight that very gap.

Apologies if my headline seems to lay all the blame for the defeat on Ruan Pienaar, because that is far from the case. The reason I single him out though has more to do with the pun, however...it's about the personalities and performances a team can produce when their marquee talent aren't available or at the top of their game.

Compare this match to last year's final between the same two teams at the same venue. On that day Leinster had Sexton, Nacewa, Strauss, Boss, O'Driscoll and Cullen all putting in full 80 minute shifts, plus of course there was The Schmidt Factor. With BOD finishing early and Leo starting late on Saturday, plus the fact that the rest of that array of talent were out of the equation altogether, that is a serious amount of big shoes that needed filling.

Of course the changes weren't all on the Leinster side from that final last year...Payne is quite rightly making a timely run for a regular start at 13 so Craig Gilroy was a full back, plus Nick Williams, Tom Court and John Afoa are also massive losses.

And don't think for a second that I'm suggesting Ulster don't have anyone else to introduce when those key figures are out. Iain Henderson was only on the bench for that final but he showed every bit on Saturday why he has to be in contention for a Lions 2017 start, let alone an Ireland one. The other nations may not know too much about him just yet, but it won't be long.

But what I am saying is that pound for pound, while the ideal first string teams of these two provinces may be closer to parity than they have been in recent seasons, it's in the ability to get performances out of the players on the next level down that has proven the difference.

Sure, Leinster were shut out for 58 minutes at home, something that doesn't exactly happen every week, and as well as the visitors were playing, we weren't getting the most out of our top performers, with Gordon D'Arcy and Eoin Reddan probably the biggest culprits in having an off day.

Yet when you preview matches like this, you hardly take into account someone like Quinn Roux coming out of the blue into the starting lineup and putting in a solid 50-minute shift. Nor do you think your near-7-foot lock is going to be able to throw a dummy and play a big role in kickstarting an offence which badly needed it. Nor do you think that a young scrum-half like Luke McGrath who didn't think he'd be involved at all on the day will be able to come on with 11 minutes to go in as tight a game of cup rugby as you'll see and more than hold his own...did I mention he came on as a replacement winger for Dave Kearney?

Meanwhile as Ruan Pienaar had a day he'd probably rather forget, it wasn't so much that Ulster were poor in other positions, rather there just wasn't the spark coming from unlikely sources that was required to get their hard-earned 9-0 lead over the line. Plus with no disrespect meant to the players on their bench, they had nowhere near the talent of Madigan, O'Brien and Cullen to introduce to the fray in the closing stages.

Though there were a multitude of turning points, the flashpoint in this fixture for me was the 55th minute. That 9-point lead had just been established, and Iain Henderson had just forced a turnover penalty at midfield. Paddy Jackson was forced to leave the field to be replaced by Ian McKinney, who despite leaving the province at the end of the season, proved his worth down at Thomond Park last week.

But for the third time in the contest, Pienaar failed to find a relatively simple touch with the kick from the hand. We could perhaps offer mitigating circumstances like the swirling wind plus the fact that Leinster's solid D made him try to eke every millimetre he could out of each kick, but I very much doubt Ruan himself would have any of that.

And as part of the ensuing run back, Ian Madigan surged down the field and before long it was Leinster on the front foot in the opposition 22 and with Callum Black falling into a ruck from the side, Jimmy Gopperth had the chance to not only put us finally on the board, but also keep Ulster's time with a two-score lead to the absolute minimum.

Here I will admit that we were a tad lucky on two Ulster possessions in our 22 over the final few minutes, which came either side of the decisive Madigan try. On both occasions, they had gotten to within a whisker of the Leinster line only for referee Leighton Hodges to award a scrum to the home side. Also on both occasions, there was a strong case to be made for penalties to be awarded to Ulster.

However...when you take into account how the match had gone up to that point, you can see why the ref was favouring the defence, and to be fair he was doing so for both sides for the 80 minutes. Although those were the last two times Ulster threatened with phases in our 22, they were by no means the first, and time after time after time particularly in the first half they were denied by a Leinster defence that to a man was tackling, jackling and covering as though their lives depended on it.

I also think Hodges handled other potential flashpoints well, like collisions in the air and the spat just before halftime between Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney. And in many ways it was the cause of that spat which could have swayed the ref against the Ulstermen in those closing stages...clearly part of their plan to disrupt our D was to hold on to pillar & post defenders a fraction longer than usual but he had their number on it and they didn't seem to have a Plan B in that particular area and kept doing it.

And taken on its own, the try which clinched the match was worthy of the honour. Though Leinster's offence stuttered much as it has in recent weeks, it would only take one key offload/ decent line combo to spark and ironically it was Gopperth & Madigan who provided it seeing how the debate over them has been “either/or” all season.

That Madigan was awarded man-of-the-match despite coming off the bench was probably the right call...he contributed more than just the try when he came on and certainly made a case for himself in the 12 position...don't forget he played 80 minutes there in last year's final. Had the result gone the other way, however, I'd have gone for another Ian, or should I say Iain, namely Ulster's number 5 Henderson.

Overall while this was in many ways a perfect 80 minutes of cup rugby for the “neutral”, given Leinster's success in recent years, I'm not sure exactly how many neutrals there were out there watching! I'm under no illusions that the “ABL” support is growing with every result like this one!

But that won't stop me from getting as much enjoyment as I can out of yet another Pro12 final at the RDS in a couple of weeks, not to mention the bonus of cheering on the A team at Donnybrook this Friday.

Given the run of winning form that the Glasgow Warriors are on, plus the fact that we find scoring 5-pointers so difficult this weather, retaining our Pro12 title will be anything but easy. Still...I reckon it's a safe bet Gregor Townsend & co are thinking exactly the same. Bring it on. JLP

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Also this weekend

Glasgow 16 - 15 Munster

Next fixture

Friday, May 23

British & Irish Cup Final

Leinster A v Leeds Carnegie (click here for tickets)

Donnybrook Stadium, KO 7pm, Live on Setanta Ireland & RFU.com

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