BEFORE we move onto the mouthwatering prospect of a spectacular season finale in Thomond Park on Saturday, I have to go back to what proved a truly absorbing contest in Cardiff last weekend.
As a venue, I have never been too enamoured with Cardiff; it’s difficult to get to, streets, bars, restaurants crammed with people; Cardiff airport....well let’s just say it struggles to cope with occasions such as a Heineken Cup final.
Notwithstanding those shortcomings, once you’re sitting in your Millennium Stadium seat, there is no rugby venue in the world that comes close to replicating the atmosphere, noise and sense of inclusiveness that this great sporting arena generates. The old Cardiff Arms Park was an awesome place to play but I would imagine this place is even better.
Not that the large Leinster contingent were feeling in any way positive about the place as the teams retired to the dressing rooms at half-time in the Heineken Cup final. All around my commentary position in the stand, the Leinster faithful were in shock, completely dumbfounded by the events of the opening 40 minutes.
Was it possible that a team crammed with Lions, Grand Slam winners and experienced internationals could possibly freeze on the big stage at this point in their careers? Not likely. The 10-minute break at half-time will be forever etched in Leinster folklore. Full marks to the Leinster management for generating the maximum return from that badly-needed respite.
Calmness now tends to permeate those crucial moments when the video analysts and specialist coaches earn their corn and put technology to maximum use. The ability of Leinster scrum coach Greg Feek to sit down the Leinster front five and demonstrate on his iPad what needed to be done to stem the tide at scrum time proved crucial. It was equally significant that one of the younger brigade, Jonny Sexton, was the one to hit the right pitch in the emotional stakes.
I have always contended that belief is a key to success. The fact that Leinster retained that belief in the most testing of circumstances is why they are now Heineken Cup champions. In addition, coach Joe Schmidt deserves massive credit. Some believe that a team becomes a mirror image of its coach. I am not so sure about that, but it is clear that Leinster this season are calmer, assured under pressure and confident in their ability to deliver. Now, who does that remind you of? Let’s just say that was not always the case under Michael Cheika.
The one area where this has manifested itself on the field is in their management of referees. Leo Cullen, Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip have been around the block enough to recognise that it is far easier to work with officials than antagonise them. French referee Romain Poite would not exactly be described as a friend to Irish sides but he was excellent on Saturday.
When one examines the penalty statistics, it is astonishing to note that Leinster conceded only four penalties in the entire game and three of those were for scrummaging offences in the opening half. That leaves just one penalty conceded over 80 minutes of intense action from all other phases of play. Leinster enjoy a good reputation with the refereeing fraternity for working with them and this often leads to them getting the benefit of the doubt. They have become a team of Richie McCaws over the course of the season.
Other sides could take a leaf from their book, and when one considers the difficulties Ireland had with officialdom and the concession of countless penalties during the Six Nations, it is a policy that needs to be extended to the national side.
LEINSTER, of course, weren’t the only winners on Saturday and I am sure the good people of Connacht rugby never cheered so passionately and with such desire for a Leinster win as they did for the European cup final. It is fantastic for Irish rugby that we will now have four representatives in the Heineken Cup for the very first time in the history of the tournament and I sincerely hope that the general public, commercial entities west of the Shannon, and indeed the IRFU, get firmly behind their efforts to make them as competitive as possible next season.
The IRFU were the other great winners from Leinster’s success as they are the principal beneficiaries of the ERC prize money generated by Leinster’s triumph. In addition they have also done nicely — to the tune of some €3m — from Munster and Ulster’s presence in the knockout stages of the Heineken and Amlin Cup competitions, not to mention additional funds generated by Ireland’s success in the Magners League.
What they managed to squander from their ill-conceived ticketing policy for last autumn’s opening internationals at the Aviva Stadium has been recouped via the success of the provincial sides in domestic and European competition. At least they had the decency not to attempt to burden the clubs of Ireland with the financial shortfall of that botched ticket policy. Without the success of the provinces, who knows what would’ve happened?
So now, before a brief period of hibernation prior to those World Cup warm-up internationals in August, there is just one more issue to be decided. By topping the league section of the Magners by 13 points, Munster will feel that the Magners League trophy is theirs by right. The concept of the play-offs, which one has to say has breathed new life into the tournament, is a fact of life now in all professional tournaments and therefore Munster must get their head around the fact that they must now go out and complete the job.
Not that motivation will be difficult to generate for Paul O’Connell and his men on this occasion. Many of the Leinster players have admitted over the years that they found it very difficult to watch when Munster enjoyed their days in the sun in 2006 and 2008. Munster’s response to Leinster’s success will have been somewhat different in that they know what that moment feels like.
However, it will make them hungrier for success on Saturday evening. Leinster, on the other hand, stand on the verge of a dream season and would like nothing more than to seal it in style in Thomond Park, snaffling silverware from under the noses of their fiercest rival. It really has the makings of a splendid occasion and one that I will dissect in greater detail in Saturday’s Weekend Sport section.
Leinster have now raised the bar even further than Munster managed at their peak and that does not sit well with the southern province. If they needed any incentive to raise their game and get back amongst the big boys, Leinster’s inspirational performance in the second half last Saturday provided that. Beating the newly-crowned Heineken Cup champions, while collecting silverware along the way, wouldn’t be a bad place to start. We may need the summer break to recover after this one.
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