Rocky plays it cool as Leinster eye Croker date

THE hype for the next three weeks will veer towards the ridiculous at times but Rocky Elsom won’t be adding to it. Ask the Australian about the all-Ireland Heineken Cup semi-final on May 2 and all he can muster is: “It should be good”.

No-one in the Leinster camp is complaining about the flanker’s consistently understated deliveries off the pitch when he is making the contest for the province’s player of the season a one-horse race.

A late starter with Leinster this season, his debut didn’t come until the September 18-0 defeat by Munster at the RDS but his importance has multiplied since, on both the defensive and offensive fronts.

Five tries in his 18 appearances have been just reward for his rampaging runs with ball in hand and his tackling, both in its volume and in its impact, have seen him emerge as Leinster’s chief enforcer.

It is a run of form that will surprise no-one who followed his progress last season with both the Waratahs, who reached the Super 14 final, and Australia in the Tri-Nations.

Ask him if he is currently playing the best rugby of his career, however, and the 26-year-old evades the question with a short dissertation on the game on both sides of the equator.

“I’m playing very differently here than to how I would back in Australia,” says Elsom. “It is just a different style. I enjoy it wherever I am. Last season I had a great time and this has been fun too but they are just worlds apart in how you play the game.”

His may have been the most prominent, and rounded, Leinster performance last Saturday but all 15 of Michael Cheika’s players displayed commendable character and determination in repelling Harlequins’ many advances.

“It was tough because it could have gone either way. In a game that tight, a referee’s call can cost you the match. They had that drop goal as well (in the last minute). Had they struck it a bit better, they would have had a chance of winning.

“It was tough but I think all the boys are proud of the effort they put in. It doesn’t take ability to want to work like that. We appreciate that win.”

But why did they win? Or, more to the point, how, given the fact that they spent large periods of the game on the defensive, did they fail to score a try and fail to deliver anything like their ‘A’ game?

“We just worked harder. We created a bit but there was the forward pass for Rob (Kearney’s disallowed) try. We created a little bit but it wasn’t about that. It was more about wanting to work hard.”

It is a turnaround as complete as it is surprising for anyone who has watched Leinster throw the ball about with flair and abandon in seasons gone by, only to fall short because of a lack of structure and doggedness.

Elsom was still a Waratah when that was Leinster’s default setting but he has heard those accusations being bandied about many a time in the eight months since he made the switch from Super 14.

“We have been criticised for that but we just needed the opportunity to show something different. (Saturday) was the best opportunity that we had all year because they had the ball for a hell of a long time.

“They were really patient with it too and that is always difficult, when you get a side that knows what they are doing and are patient with the ball.”

It was a scenario for which they steeled themselves at half-time when, rather than revisit the skewed kicks and dropped passes, they focused on what was still to come and the last 10 minutes in particular.

Even then, says Elsom, Leinster seemed to realise that the game would come down to the last 10 minutes and, though it fell their way this time, they are under no illusions as to the fine line they traversed.

“If we had them again next week, they would bounce back from that. They are a very good side. Their attack probably wasn’t as sharp as they wanted it to be but you can see that they are dangerous when they get going. They are doing a lot of the right things.”

And so to Croke Park next month. Munster-Leinster. European Cup semi-final. Up to 82,250 people in attendance. Excited? Been there before? C’mon Rocky, what do ya think?

“I saw England and Ireland, and France and Ireland in the Six Nations. It’s a great stadium and there will be 80,000 people there but it is the crowd that makes the event. It should be a great day for everybody.”

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