After the heroics of Twickenham last weekend, Leinster returned to base camp at the RDS yesterday for the coronation.
The undisputed kings of Europe had one outstanding issue to deal with before the completion of their greatest season as a professional entity.
Nothing epitomises the hunger of this Leinster squad more than the fact that after their more than deserved lap of honour in the Cabbage Patch in London last weekend, the Heineken Cup was returned to the trophy cabinet in Dublin from whence it came as celebrations were put on hold for a week. The lessons of the past had been learned and absorbed.
The only issue this time out was that Leinster would have to go to the well once more against a side which not only beat them home and away this season but also retained special memories of winning here at the RDS in the 2010 Magners League final. For this Leinster squad the prospect of losing three league finals in a row would be incomprehensible — but against all odds that is exactly what happened yesterday.
Backboned by a pack that contained seven forwards who contributed to the Welsh Grand Slam this season, the Ospreys were always going to carry the fight to Leinster — and what a fight it was. This was a final to grace the occasion, the best game of a Pro 12 season that had many memorable ones. The only pity was that the occasion was spoiled somewhat by a very indifferent performance from referee Romain Poite who was completely at sea when it came to officiating at the scrum. The surprise here is that it is normally a strong part of his game.
Over the course of the 80 minutes, Leinster had two of their props sin-binned — first Heinke Van Der Merwe just prior to half time and then, crucially, replacement tight head Nathan White with ten minutes to go — which opened the door for the Ospreys to turn a nine point deficit into a one point win at the death. In the circumstances, it was pre-ordained that Shane Williams, in his last competitive game at 35, should score at the death and secure a record fourth Celtic League win for the Welsh region.
Joe Schmidt was livid with the interpretation of the referee at the scrum especially as Leinster had the upper hand in that intense area in the second-half. That said, they were extremely fortunate to survive a seven minute full frontal scrum assault on their line just prior to the half-time whistle. However, this game should not be remembered for refereeing inadequacies, as that would only take from a magnificent contest.
The Ospreys, remarkably, made this decider despite shedding their coaches, Scott Johnson and Sean Holly, halfway through the season. Yesterday’s win was their seventh on the trot and their ninth from ten over the Irish provinces this season.
The breakdown was a dockyard brawl from start to finish. The defences were first class yet the contest produced six tries of seismic quality, with the mercurial Williams and the outstanding Isa Nacewa notching a pair each. You would travel a long way to see two better finishers in action. The disappointment for Leinster will be palpable after a league campaign that saw them ten points clear at the completion of the league phase after using 49 players throughout the campaign. Nobody epitomises Leinster’s dominance of Europe better than Rob Kearney. This time last season he cut a forlorn figure, forced to watch his teammates perform heroics in a Heineken Cup final with the man in his No 15 shirt, Nacewa, performing out of his skin.
In a race against time, he returned to action with Ireland in the World Cup last September with precious little game time under his belt and was still under-cooked when he lined out against Australia on that magical night in Eden Park. He looked rusty and started nervously. Then, out of nowhere, he plucked his own Garryowen out of the rain-drenched evening sky, pilfered from under the nose of his opposite number Kurtley Beale, and in an instant, his confidence was rediscovered.
Since that moment his game has reached new heights whether in the colours of Leinster or Ireland, culminating with him turning the tide in the semi final in Bordeaux at the start of the second-half.
His enforced nine-month break from the game has worked wonders for his hunger and appetite and more importantly has given his body a badly needed period of rest and recuperation mid career that is now paying benefits. Brad Thorn attributes his amazing longevity to taking a complete year from off all sporting activity in his late 20s before returning with renewed drive and ambition.
Next Thursday many of Leinster’s finest must dust themselves down for one last examination, a three-test tour of New Zealand. The disappointment of yesterday must not linger too long, they have achieved far too much this season alone for that.
One hopes that the All Blacks get to feel the brunt of their frustration after this epic climax to the season in Dublin.
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