Peter Jackson: Cian Healy more than able for historic shot at fifth Champions Cup title

With a little help from his friends, Healy has turned it into such a thriving cottage industry that he now stands within sight of doing what no professional rugby player has ever done, winning five Champions’ Cup finals. Only Johnny Sexton can match that, concussion protocols permitting
Peter Jackson: Cian Healy more than able for historic shot at fifth Champions Cup title

Leinster’s Cian Healy is tackled by Jonny Hill of Exeter Chiefs in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final, Sandy Park. Healy he now stands within sight of winning five Champions’ Cup finals. Picture: Inpho/James Crombie

The comedian Les Dawson used to joke about his boxing career as Battling Rembrandt, a nom de guerre inspired by all that time spent flat out on the canvas. How he would have loved Cian Healy.

A bit of a painter himself, as yet some way below the standard set by the Dutch Master of the 17th century, the durable Dubliner still does things that lovable Les could only dream of, like putting a string of champions out for the count.

With a little help from his friends, Healy has turned it into such a thriving cottage industry that he now stands within sight of doing what no professional rugby player has ever done, winning five Champions’ Cup finals. Only Johnny Sexton can match that, concussion protocols permitting.

It says everything about Leinster’s reaffirmation of their supreme status that the other three went into the hat for the semi-final hoping to avoid them like the plague, not that they would have dared to say so publicly.

Fate decreed that La Rochelle drew the shortest straw, not that Ronan O’Gara will be thinking along such lines. As head coach of a squad whose electrifying rugby has put the club where it has never been before, their adventurous Irish mentor will see it as manna from heaven.

The challenge of seizing home advantage to stop Healy and Leinster from an unprecedented fifth title presents the 10th century seaport on the Atlantic with the chance of a lifetime, to show that their time has truly come. If it has, then Munster’s supreme matchwinner will allow his native province to claim some very belated pay back for Croke Park.

Over the last 20 years, Leinster have eliminated the holders on six occasions starting with a double over Northampton the season after they surprised Munster at Twickenham. Healy has played a softening-up role in the last four.

A permanent presence for almost all the 14 years since his European debut, he is the sole survivor of Leinster’s starting XV against Munster at Croke Park in the 2009 semi-final when more than 82,000 witnessed the new champions beat the old ones by the length of O’Connell Street. What they did to their neighbours that day has become something of a trend.

Healy was there when Leinster knocked Toulouse out at The Aviva in 2011, Saracens at the same venue seven years later and now Exeter on their reservation in Devon, a victory so ruthlessly emphatic that the Chiefs were left with nowhere to go long before the end.

In a changing landscape around the summit of the European game brought about by Racing’s undignified exit yesterday and Saracens doing rugby’s equivalent of penal servitude far from the beaten track, Leinster remain a constant. They are out on their own again as the team to beat which explains why Toulouse were happy to give them a wide berth, for now.

The Bay of Biscay, feared by sailors down the centuries for its tempestuous weather, will guarantee Healy a canvas fraught with danger. His set-piece opponent, the gigantic New Zealander Uni Atonio (repeat Atonio), is four inches taller and five stone heavier.

While Healy dare not look beyond the ultimate heavyweight duel, the draw offers him the prospect of an oil painting as priceless as any Rembrandt, a final for the ages against the tournament’s only other four-time winner, Toulouse.

A handy guide to the art of refereeing

Referee Mathieu Raynal advises Johnny Sexton early on in the Champions Cup clash at Sandy Park. Where others shout ‘use it’, Raynal never fails to say, ‘Use it, please.’ 	Picture: Ryan Hiscott/Inpho
Referee Mathieu Raynal advises Johnny Sexton early on in the Champions Cup clash at Sandy Park. Where others shout ‘use it’, Raynal never fails to say, ‘Use it, please.’ Picture: Ryan Hiscott/Inpho

Mathieu Raynal goes about his business with the air of a man not sure whether he has lost a fiver and found a tenner or the other way round.

His poker face never changes but there can be no denying the French referee’s role in raising a hazardous job to higher levels of courtesy.

No other international uses the two most commonly polite words in the English language more often, as Raynal reaffirmed during his handling of Exeter-Leinster. Where others shout “use it”, Raynal never fails to say: “Use it, please.”

He is equally generous with his thank-yous but nobody is foolish enough to think of him as a soft touch. Raynal’s decisive refereeing enables him to avoid recourse to technology wherever possible.

He did refer six incidents at Exeter to the TMO, Philippe Bonhoure, but refused to be influenced by his compatriot on the fate of England lock Jonny Hill for a swinging arm to Ross Byrne’s head.

Raynal: “Penalty kick only. Are you agree with that?”

Bonhoure, disagreeing: “But the arm touched the face.”

Raynal: “Yes, exactly.”

Whereupon, he stuck to his guns and let Hill off without a card of any colour.

Meanwhile a little later in another part of England, another French referee was showering another Premiership club with them.

Alexandre Ruiz binned three Northampton players at Newport the previous week and duly binned three more within 23 minutes of the Challenge Cup tie against Ulster.

“You speak to your team,” Ruiz told Saints’ captain Alex Waller after the second yellow. “I need a change (in behaviour).”

The third card followed a minute later, a further painful example of a team unable or unwilling to appreciate the ageless tenet about playing the referee.

Ruiz had also given them an immediate warning at the very first scrum. When he commanded Alex Mitchell to ‘use it’ with the ball at the back of a stationary set-piece, Northampton’s scrum-half ignored the order. Ruiz waited the obligatory five seconds and, unlike many other referees, did not repeat his instruction but promptly gave Ulster an attacking scrum.

All-French quarter-finals were non-events

Clermont’s Morgan Parra: Missed sitter. Picture: Julien Poupart/Inpho
Clermont’s Morgan Parra: Missed sitter. Picture: Julien Poupart/Inpho

Broadcasters rarely fail to hype up their live coverage and imaginations duly ran riot at the double spectacle awaiting viewers yesterday.

If you thought La Rochelle were good, wait till you see the blaze of pyrotechnics from Bordeaux-Racing and Clermont-Toulouse.

Maybe it was just the old game deciding that it wasn’t going to be taken for granted. Whatever the reason, the all-French quarter-finals turned out to be non-events.

They generated a grand total of 78 points all from the boot — one drop goal and 25 penalties including Mathieu Jalibert’s last-kick missile from 54m for Bordeaux, which, mercifully, spared the viewers further punishment from extra-time, or those who had not been bored rigid.

Heavy rain gave Clermont-Toulouse a lame excuse for serving up 11 penalties excluding a proverbial sitter missed by home scrum-half Morgan Parra.

Again not a try to be seen, which made neutrals all the more thankful for La Rochelle, a potent concoction of power and beauty generating six tries in the rout of Sale.

Lion still going strong at 90

Back in the late ’40s, when Karl Mullen’s Ireland ruled the Five Nations roost, a boy of 17 made his bow for Neath. At 18, he won a Grand Slam. At 19 he was the Lions’ Test full back against the All Blacks. At 20 he won another Slam and at 21 crossed the Rubicon from Llanelli to Leeds for a then world record fee of £6,000.

Lewis Jones’ all-round ability was such that he turned down £15-a-week to become an apprentice at Swansea Town followed by offers to play professional cricket. He chose rugby and in 1950 became the first player to join a Lions tour by air at a time when everyone else still went by boat.

At home in Leeds on Sunday, the pioneering Welshman celebrated a landmark as towering as those of yesteryear, his 90th birthday. In that respect he still has a way to go to catch up with the Grand Old Man of Munster and Ireland rugby.

Mick Lane, ex-University College, Cork who played on the left wing in that final Test at Eden Park on July 29, 1950, is in his 95th year making him the second oldest living Lion. Courtney Meredith, the Welsh prop who toured South Africa in 1955, is the oldest, by a mere seven days.

Champions Cup team of the weekend

15 Brice Dulin (La Rochelle).

14 Dillyn Leyds (La Rochelle).

13 Geoffrey Doumayrou (La Rochelle).

12 Robbie Henshaw (Leinster).

11 Tom O’Flaherty (Exeter).

10 Ross Byrne (Leinster).

9 Luke McGrath (Leinster).

1 Cian Healy (Leinster).

2 Pierre Bourgarit (La Rochelle).

3 Andrew Porter (Leinster).

4 Will Skelton (La Rochelle).

5 Romain Sazy (La Rochelle).

6 Rhys Ruddock (Leinster).

7 Josh van der Flier (Leinster).

8 Victor Vito (La Rochelle).

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