Saturday, May 31, 2014

Leinster-34 Glasgow-12

lest we forget

Click here for the full set of matchday photos from Ken Bohane

LEINST WE FORGET

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It probably, scratch that - it DEFINITELY goes without saying that this was a satisfying victory for Leinster fans.

Not only was there a major trophy on offer but it was the final farewell for two of the province's most legendary figures.

But for me the satisfaction did not come near to ending there.

This has been a curious season for Leinster Rugby to say the very least. Going into Saturday's final, when you look at the raw stats over the time dating back to that opening day demolition of the Scarlets in Llanelli, you'd see a record in all competitions that any provincial team would envy...played 30, won 23, drawn 1, lost 6.

Yet the thrust of all the commentary around the game was such that Leinster, and by association first-season coach Matt O'Connor, would be considered failures should they fall short against the Glasgow Warriors on the last day in May.

I suppose when you have the amount of success Leinster have enjoyed in recent seasons, that's a fair enough call. Still though...when you consider that the bulk of the criticism in this campaign stems from two defeats in particular over the course of the season, one at home to Northampton and one in Toulon, both of whom went on to win a brace of silverware themselves, you have to feel the bar was being set a tad high even for us.

So what was most satisfying for me about this result and performance was the fact that for all the talent and ability brought by the visitors, Leinster won fair and square on the day. No game-changing refereeing decisions, no lucky bounces of the ball, no reason for anyone to say “the better side lost”, a comment left on HarpinOnRugby social media channels after several Leinster victories this season.

First though, we must pay tribute to the visitors. Glasgow Warriors have done Scottish rugby proud throughout the season, they brought over a superb following on the day, and they most certainly belonged in the tournament's showpiece. In my preview I said the setting was similar to Leinster's 2009 Heineken Cup final only this time the roles were reversed...we were the ones with the big game experience and Glasgow the pretenders. In fact the Warriors even had a young out-half in Finn Russell who had come from nowhere to impress in the second half of the season, much as Sexton did back in Murrayfield.

Yet for all the consistency it took to get the Warriors to this big day, I think it's fair to say they just didn't have the extra 5% at key moments to take the chances when they had them. Hopefully the final margin of victory, which I will admit was somewhat unfair to the way the match went, won't deter them from regrouping for next year's challenge because there is no doubting that the Pro12 is a much better competition thanks to the achievements of Gregor Townsend & his staff in the past few seasons.

And when I talk about not having that extra 5%, it has to be said that it was up to Leinster to make them need it on the day, and I'd find it hard to fault anyone's performance in blue. In fact, not for the first time this season, I have absolutely no idea what the thinking was behind the awarding of Man of the Match...Sean Cronin has been a fine servant to Leinster of that there is no doubt, but I don't know what more you can do to earn the awards than score 2 tries and provide the final pass for the other 2?

Zane Kirchner had a good role in the Fanning try but overall it wasn’t his best outing.  We have all said how he was never going to replace Isa and that is true but I don’t think it’s too much to expect at least one man-of-the-match display from him before the season is out.

I penned that in my writeup for (ironically) our last meeting with Glasgow back at the beginning of March (another one we should have lost apparently), and I believe that although there were fine displays from several players including Gopperth, Ruddock, Reddan, McFadden, Rob Kearney, Madigan and yes even Cronin, Kirchner saved his best outing for last and deserved the gong in my humble opinion.

But let us not forget that this match was still very much a contest going into the final quarter, and much like our playoff win over Ulster, the key moments came between the 55th and 60th minutes.

With the score a mere 14-12 to the home side Rob Kearney connected with a clearance from within his own 22 a bit too well and it went out over the far end line, resulting in a scrum to Glasgow in what was to say the least a great attacking position. But with the clock heading towards 60 as it was the scrum gave the teams and officials a chance to regroup.

Glasgow took the opportunity to finally replace their tight head Jon Welsh who had been absolutely destroyed all day by Cian Healy. I'm not sure how legal Church's sets were (on the call of “bind” he seemed to place his head around his opponent's belly button) but I didn't see Welsh nor his captain complaining so I guess it was ok? Anyway...like I always say we best leave such matters between the front rows where they belong!

The point was...this was a crucial scrum and even though the clock was stopped as the subs came on (including no less a figure than Sean O'Brien by the way) and referee Nigel Owens took a sip of water, every passing moment must have made it more and more clear in Glasgow's heads that this could well be “now or never” time.

The Warriors had some impact subs of their own...most notably in the form of Fijians Nakarawa and Matawalu. The former is a giant back rower whom I call “The Octopus” for the way no matter how he is tackled he always seems to have an extra arm or two free to attempt a cheeky offload. It definitely worked against Glasgow that an injury to Fusaro meant he came on early and Leinster were bang wide to his unconventional decisions by the final quarter.

Then there was Matawalu, who although half the size of Nakarawa has twice the desire to do the unexpected. Glasgow needed to roll the dice, and having won the scrum and worked the phases to get within another sniff of the Leinster line, the stage was set for Matawalu to get over.

But such was the way the famed 15-headed blue monster that is the Leinster defence had frustrated the visitors all day, that final yard or two proved elusive and the sub scrum half reached for the line when he really had no right to and knocked it on...then despite the relatively small area behind the RDS try-line, Leinster had the audacity to chuck the ball out wide and before you could say “see you Jimmy!”, Gopperth was surging down the pitch and eventually it was a 5m scrum way down the other end, which in turn led to a penalty, and the lead was stretched to 5.

In the space of just 5 minutes on the clock, Glasgow got their answer to the “now or never” question and it wasn't the one they wanted.

Of course I couldn't let the writeup go without mentioning the four Leinster tries, all of which were fit to grace any major final. Crossing the whitewash on big occasions has been an area where we have struggled, but one word you can definitely use to describe our offence all season is “patient”, and when it mattered on Saturday we had the ability to keep control through the phases before both finding and exploiting the gaps when they appeared, and as I have already mentioned Kirchner was heavily involved in all four, with Jennings and Darcy also chipping in.

But despite all the 5-pointers it was the superiority in Leinster’s defence which won this contest for me. When Matt O'Connor took the reins, he made no secret of the fact that this was a priority for him. Despite all the success last season, we were a tad shaky without the ball and I firmly believe in any team sport it is in defence where you should get things right first.

And for all the criticism he has copped throughout the year, he has stuck with the winning formula and nit-pick at individual performances all you want...this season has been better than last. Remember...we can't go by trophy count since there's a reason we weren't in the Amlin this time around!!!

Finally I get to mention the two retiring heroes. So much has been written about their “long goodbyes” all season (by myself included) that I'm sure both Brian & Leo can forgive me for leaving it so late in my writeup to mention them.

But as sad and stunning as it was to see BOD go off after only 8 minutes (has that EVER happened?), it was also in some ways fitting...his last act in professional rugby was to run full pelt to try and charge down a clearance for his team despite being injured. Not much more I can add to that to show the man’s dedication.

And as for Leo, I had to laugh watching back the RTE coverage as Donal Lenihan remarked that the Leinster fans didn't seem to know Cullen had taken the field...clearly the chants of “Leeee-o, Leeee-o” hadn't tipped him off. He won us a penalty at a key moment and got busy with his usual sterling work around the breakdown area. Again, a fitting way to end such a successful career.

Still...this great day could not be just about them. Let us not forget the other 44 players involved, the officials, the sell-out crowd, in fact the much-maligned league itself. Hopefully the Welsh regions watching this final, played as it was shortly after the Premiership one, will find some comfort that they are in a league with a much higher standard of entertaining rugby – at least the difference was glaringly obvious to this blogger.

Next season will see many changes...a new sponsor for this league, a new format for Europe and the start of the serious countdown to RWC2015.

But will anything change my support and appreciation for Leinster Rugby? I think not. Many thanks to all involved at the province....yet another job extremely well done. JLP

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Also this weekend

Premiership Final : Saracens 20 - 24 Northampton Saints

Top 14 Final : Toulon 18 - 10 Castres

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