DONAL LENIHAN: Rugby’s new untouchables

When Diego Maradona slalomed through the English defence to score that wonder goal at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, RTÉ’s Jimmy Magee provided the memorable soundtrack to genius... “Different Class. DIFFERENT CLASS.”

As Twickenham emptied on Saturday night to close the book on another European rugby campaign, those words kept pecking at my brain. Different class.

This Leinster side are just that. They have the capacity to make very good sides look ordinary and try as they might, Ulster, despite a promising start, were reduced to a disorganised rabble at the end of this final.

Just 63 days after that embarrassing scrum implosion in Twickenham, the Irish returned to English rugby headquarters and took up tenancy for a memorable if brief few hours. With a crowd of 81,744 in attendance, is it any wonder the Heineken Cup is the envy of the southern hemisphere and that more and more of their top players are looking for a slice of the action?

With just a single defeat in 28 games going into the final — that a controversial one-point loss to the Ospreys — Leinster were raging Heineken Cup final favourites, but dealt with it systematically. Ulster, with the benefit of a three-week lead-in and four days preparation on the Algarve had a seamless build-up and ample time to plot the demise of the reigning champions.

To win, however, they needed to produce something special because that is what is required to beat a special team. In the end, they fell well short against a Leinster side that are the best I have seen at capitalising on opposition mistakes.

Ulster erred far too often, looked overawed by the occasion and, if anything, were left under-cooked by the break over the last few weeks. There is a fine line between stepping back from the intensity of rugby at this level for some badly needed recuperation and being over exposed and knackered. Leinster risked all by naming their strongest available side against Glasgow last weekend and shipped some heavy knocks which disrupted preparations. Yet when it came to bossing the physical exchanges, they were streets ahead of an Ulster side that had enjoyed a marked advantage on that front all season.

To have any chance of surviving against Leinster, you have to own the breakdown, slow the quality of ball available to their razor sharp back line, and dominate territory.

Ulster failed due to the excellence of the Leinster back row, for whom man of the match Sean O’Brien had his best game of the season, in tandem with the excellent Jamie Heaslip and the under-valued Kevin McLaughlin. On so many key occasions, Leinster turned over Ulster possession in vital areas of the field and converted them into points on the board.

Their opening try resulted from an error from Ulster full back Stefan Terblanche kicking out on the full from inside his 22 from a pass back when he had a glaring overlap outside him. That ball had to be moved wide and highlighted Ulster’s lack of confidence. From the resultant line out, O’Brien scored the opening try. Their second from Cian Healy came from a ball against the head and a sublime offload from Brian O’Driscoll to the rampant Carlow man. Given that the scrum was about the only facet of play that afforded Ulster an early advantage, that score was a killer.

To add insult to injury, Leinster’s third, a penalty try from a rampaging lineout maul, also resulted from rookie out-half Paddy Jackson repeating Terblanche’s earlier error by also kicking direct to touch on a pass back. That is unforgivable at this level.

Leinster looked far more comfortable in possession all day, whereas an element of panic accompanied everything that Ulster tried. They were afraid to kick long for territory, spooked by the counter-attacking threat posed by Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa while Jackson never looked composed enough in this company to direct an unlikely Ulster victory.

I have always believed it is very difficult to win trophies at the highest level without a dominant figure at out-half. Ulster recognised far too late in the season that Ian Humphreys was short of that level and Jackson, who is very much a player for the future, was given no time to find his feet. Saturday’s final was only his second ever Heineken Cup start and it proved too big an ask at this stage of his development. Ulster would have been better served with a half-back combination of Ruan Pienaar in the No 10 shirt partnered by Paul Marshall. Hopefully Jackson will learn from the experience and come back better.

What marks Leinster out as a special team is that they are as comfortable without the ball as with it. They trust their defence and back themselves to make the right decisions under pressure. By way of contrast, Ulster were forced to run up blind alleys and despite retaining possession through several phases, looked bereft of ideas when it came to threatening the Leinster try line. It didn’t help that a number of their more experienced players, notably Paddy Wallace and Terblanche, ignored overlaps in scoring positions when attempting to claw their way back into the game.

Had they managed to convert some of those opportunities, you always felt that Leinster had the capacity to strike back immediately which they did with venom in response to Dan Touhy breaching their try line with 19 minutes remaining. The manner in which they ruthlessly exposed Ulster’s deficiencies in the last 10 minutes was reminiscent of New Zealand at their best. Their superior bench played a significant role in this and it was no coincidence Heinke Van Der Merwe and Sean Cronin completed the rout with two magnificent, late, team tries.

Ever the perfectionists, Leinster have postponed all celebrations as they seek to go one better than last season by winning the RaboDirect PRO12 final next Sunday. In the crosshairs, the only side to beat them in 2012, the Ospreys.

They had better be ready for what awaits them at the RDS next weekend.


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