Heady days for Leinster. Less than 24 hours after their Heineken Cup semi-final heroics in France the European champions announced that 18 players had inked new deals with the province.
Luke Fitzgerald remains the only regular still locked in negotiations while Rhys Ruddock has resisted temptations to seek more regular exposure with a move south. Manchester isn’t the only place where the blues have stolen a march over their rivals in red — but all sport is cyclical and with the announcement of a new management team due in a matter of days, Munster are also making plans for the future.
The dominance of both the Heineken Cup and Rabo Direct Pro12 by Irish teams has reached unprecedented levels and left foreign rivals green with envy. Leinster now stand on the threshold of greatness and have earned global admiration not only for the quality of rugby they produce but for their ability to get the job done when the odds are stacked against them.
No matter what they achieve from here on in, last season’s Heineken Cup success is likely to be their greatest given the quality of opposition they had to overcome in the pool stage alone. Clermont Auvergne, Racing Metro and Saracens were all quality outfits and, having negotiated those hurdles, Leinster then saw off Leicester Tigers, Toulouse and Northampton in the knockout phase. Overturning a 16-point deficit to finally sink the Saints’ challenge in the decider was the stuff of legend. And the final four minutes at Stade Chaban-Delmas on Sunday will now rank high in the list of great achievements by the eastern province.
Their journey this season has been less fraught, even if they required a last-ditch penalty from Jonny Sexton to secure a draw away to Montpellier in their opening game. The ease with which they accounted for the Cardiff Blues in the quarter-final, if anything, rendered them slightly vulnerable heading for Bordeaux last weekend. The colour and volume of support that Clermont brought to the semi-final was incredible and by far the best I have seen from a French side in the tournament’s history.
While Clermont will be haunted by Wesley Fofana’s failure to ground the ball for a try, I still feel Leinster were full value for their win. If anything, I was both surprised and taken aback with the limitations of Clermont’s multi-talented side, both in their execution, game management and decision-making on and off the field. They were completely blown off course by Leinster’s stunning start to the second half.
Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt made an excellent coaching duo for Clermont over a number of seasons but they have gone backwards since Schmidt left for Dublin and, even allowing for the disruption caused by the injuries to Julien Malzieu and Lee Byrne in the opening quarter, pose nothing like the attacking threat they should do given the mercurial runners at Cotter’s disposal. I think Cotter made a number of bad calls during the semi-final, not least with his decision to break up the centre partnership of Fofana and Aurelien Rougerie when Regan King was introduced off the bench.
The former Scarlet should just have been accommodated on the wing. As it was that change also necessitated the switch of Clermont’s best attacker, Sitiveni Sivivatu, from the right wing to the left and took him out of the game for long periods.
Cotter also erred in replacing his starting props too early in the second half and those changes facilitated a big improvement in the Leinster scrum. Julien Pierre was always going to be introduced in the second row but why Cotter took off Nathan Hines and not Jamie Cudmore was also a mystery. Even in those final pulsating minutes when opting for a series of tapped penalties as opposed to scrums, Morgan Parra showed a lack of composure by passing to an isolated Clermont forward which made it that little bit easier for Leinster to defend.
That is not to take in any way from the magnificence with which Leinster dealt with the considerable challenge they faced on Sunday but only to highlight that when it comes to closing out tight games at this level, the experience that both Leinster and Munster have accumulated over the years is not something that can be bought with a benefactor’s cheque book.
It must be a big worry for Ulster’s Brian McLaughlin that Leinster won their semi, away from home against such a star-studded opposition, without reaching anything like the form they are capable of. If they can sort out the issues that impacted on their set-piece in the opening half then Ulster could be in for a long day in Twickenham.
Ulster’s progress over the last two seasons has been spectacular and David Humphreys deserves a huge amount of credit for the giant strides they have taken. While Leinster will be hot favourites for the final, I believe Ulster will take a lot of confidence from their performance in defeat in their final pool game against Clermont in January. They competed better in the set-piece against them than Leinster did on Sunday and with John Afoa back from suspension for the final, I think they will make that their first point of attack.
The problem with trying to beat Leinster is they can play in so many different ways that it is very difficult to outsmart them.
McLaughlin is faced with a challenging few weeks in defining a game plan to suppress the holders in what will be his last game in charge. That, if anything, will make him even more determined to succeed.
Last weekend’s sequence of results was also received enthusiastically in the west, with Connacht’s place in next season’s Heineken Cup secured three weeks in advance of their best estimates.
Eric Elwood’s men will have learned a lot from their inaugural voyage in this season’s tournament and that first Heineken Cup win in their final pool game against Harlequins will enable then to tackle next season’s challenges in an even more positive light.
Winners all around then for the Irish last weekend.
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