“Leinster’s first two tries from Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy stemmed directly from lost ball after an Ulster put-in”
Forget the fact they won it back-to-back and became the first team in the history of the tournament to claim three Heineken Cups in four years. No, the main point of interest was the manner in which Leinster achieved it on Saturday.
Three years ago, they stuttered past Leicester Tigers with a basic gameplan that hinged on a monstrous showing from Rocky Elsom. Last year, they floundered for almost 40 minutes against Northampton before resurrecting Houdini’s act after the interval.
Performances lag a long way behind results in terms of importance, especially so when a trophy awaits the victor after the 80 minutes, but Saturday’s surgical evisceration of Ulster spoke of a team whose belief and abilities are only expanding.
Their legacy didn’t depend on a win of this magnitude but they are good enough to target it and the most pertinent fact here is that they weren’t even at their best. As was the case after the semi-final defeat of Clermont Auvergne, players and coaches spoke of the need to improve. Scary.
Their 42-14 success now stands as the record winning margin in a European final, and by a distance. Men in both camps spoke afterwards about how the game was in the melting pot for an hour before Leinster feathered the scoreboard with two late tries.
That’s true to a point but it is the mark of great sides that they can make hay in that final quarter once they have stretched the opponents to exhaustion.
Isn’t it what the All Blacks have done time and again? Such are the heights this Leinster team have now hit.
It is a universal in sport that you target the other guy’s strength, do your damndest to neutralise them, and Ulster travelled to London hanging so many of hopes on the scrum, lineout and breakdown.
In the event, Leinster’s first two tries from Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy stemmed directly from lost ball after an Ulster put-in and the sight of Chris Henry, chief scavenger at the coalface, coming off with 12 minutes to go said it all about the contest at the ruck.
“They are always crucial,” said Leinster coach Joe Schmidt of those three key areas.
“Those are your lifelines and if they get cut off, you can’t really survive. For us, it’s an area we worked hard on and we tried to get the technique right, as well as the passion to get in and do the job because if you can get the best of both worlds there, you can get a product.”
Ulster had started the afternoon well yet the only period of dominance that brought any reward was a 10-minute spell towards the end of the third quarter that resulted in a try for Dan Tuohy and, by God, Leinster made them work for it.
“They fatigued themselves in the 10 minutes they were attacking us but they would have got an energy boost when they did score that try,” said Schmidt, “and it was really important for us to get up and get the next score, however many points it was.”
That they did, thanks to a Jonathan Sexton penalty which was accompanied by two late tries by Heinke van der Merwe and Sean Cronin but perhaps the most telling score of them all was the five-pointer claimed six minutes after the break.
When Stephen Ferris carried the ball back into his 22, Paddy Jackson made the unfortunate decision to kick out on the full and Leinster were only too happy to accept the invitation. Within a minute they were mauling towards the line for a penalty try.
In all, they scored five tries on a day when their total number of chances didn’t amount to a whole lot more and this against a defence that has been the very definition of parsimonious against a whole host of Europe’s best teams.
“Leinster are an outstanding rugby side and show that week in week out,” said Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin.
“That’s why their quality is so good. We have to learn from them because for the first 10-15 minutes, we were in a match. We make two smashing line breaks and we can’t polish them off and for one we give away a penalty.
“The Leinster defence has been outstanding and we have to learn from that because they got two chances off our set scrum and they took them. That’s the difference between the sides and that was the difference at 60 minutes. It was still a ball game but they had that edge and when they have that edge they are very difficult to beat.”
Don’t bet against a threepeat.
LEINSTER: R Kearney; F McFadden, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen, B Thorn, K McLaughlin, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacements: D Toner for Cullen (58), S Jennings for McLaughlin (62), H van der Merwe for Healy (62), S Cronin for Strauss (68), N White for Ross (70), D Kearney for O’Driscoll (blood) (67), O’Driscoll for R Kearney (blood) (72), J Cooney for Reddan (74), I Madigan for Sexton (74).
ULSTER: S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller, D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg.
Replacements: I Humphries for Jackson (46), W Faloon for Henry (68), P Marshall for Humphries (70), D Fitzpatrick for Afoa (74), P McAllister for Court (75), N Brady for Best (78), L Stevenson for Tuohy (78), A D’Arcy for Cave (78).
Referee: N Owens (WRU).
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