Kearney a colossus among giants

IRELAND’s love-affair with the Heineken Cup is about to reach into the stratosphere, with a first ever all-Ireland final at the headquarters of English rugby in three weeks.

Two years ago Munster and Leinster travelled to the south of France at the penultimate stage, but both returned empty-handed.

With Ulster already qualified after a deserved win over Edinburgh on Saturday, Leinster had it all to do in a veritable bear-pit in Bordeaux yesterday.

Their amazing win here leaves them on the threshold of becoming the tournament’s greatest ever side.

To win three Heineken Cups in four seasons with essentially the same squad of players would be a remarkable achievement. Leinster are now 80 minutes away from realising that dream, but how close did it come to blowing up in their faces after a remarkable second half performance?

It all came down to a frantic last four minutes when for the first time in that entire period, Clermont got a foothold in the Leinster twenty two.

Quite how Clermont Auvergne’s Wesley Fofana failed to ground the ball when over the line is a mystery and Leinster certainly enjoyed more than a suggestion of good fortune in Bordeaux. But based on their overall display they deserved the spoils. On countless occasions in the past, I have been captivated by Leinster’s composure in defence, even when the odds are stacked against them. They defend with a belief that every player will do his job and that instils a trust over time that separates them from the rest. Yes, Fofana will have cause to question himself for the rest of his career but the key was that there were three Leinster defenders in close proximity, thus forcing the French international to doubt himself and lose control.

In last season’s Heineken Cup final, the Leinster scrum was under all kinds of pressure but they had the means of addressing their problems at half-time and fought their way back into a winning position. On this occasion with their scrum and also their lineout in great difficulty, they lacked sufficient quality possession in the opening half to dictate matters. It didn’t help either that referee Wayne Barnes felt justified in penalising both sides with regularity at the breakdown which left the contest devoid of any continuity.

Some of his decisions appeared harsh on Clermont in that opening period and the French were rattled as a result. They also helped the Leinster cause after the break with the early substitution of props David Zirakashvili, who had Cian Healy in trouble, and Lionel Faure who was having a great battle with Mike Ross. As a result the Leinster scrum improved immeasurably as the game progressed and crucially when awarded a series of penalties from five metres out in those frantic last four minutes, Clermont didn’t have the confidence to opt for the scrum which could have forced a penalty try.

Leinster dealt manfully with a series of tapped penalties while stationed on their line but that test of character is an examination they have passed repeatedly in recent years.

If that was the defining moment of the game, their ten point smash-and-grab within seven minutes of the restart gave them the breathing space to survive the final assault.

When heroes were required to step forward, nobody did more than Rob Kearney whose audacious line off a clever inside pass from Richardt Strauss set up Healy for their all important try. Kearney’s drop goal from almost 50 metres out a few minutes later wasn’t half bad either.

In the end the bank of experience this Leinster squad have accumulated was crucial when things were in the melting pot. Clermont lacked the composure Leinster take for granted in similar situations. and at times their play hinted at desperation. It was just as well for Leinster that Clermont were unable to provide former All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu with the type of ball he thrives on as every time he was in possession he invariably beat the first tackle. He is a class act.

On Saturday Ulster negotiated their semi more comfortably than the three point winning margin would suggest. While their progress to the final owes much to the leadership and direction provided by Springboks Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar, there were also tangible benefits for Declan Kidney on the back of Saturday’s game.

After a five month injury layoff tight head prop Declan Fitzpatrick owed his starting slot to the suspension of John Afoa and did he make the most of his opportunity.

He had Scottish loose head Allan Jacobson in all kinds of trouble from their first engagement and the realisation that Ulster’s scrum would not be diminished by the absence of the All Black World Cup winner had a massive psychological effect on their entire team.

Likewise the sight of 20-year-old Paddy Jackson defending well and kicking intelligently augurs well for the future.

Edinburgh’s error count was far too high and they lacked composure when in the Ulster twenty two. However, Michael Bradley has a lot of promising material to work with.

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