The house divided in the latter half of last week, and remains so until today. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our united front, but for one last time, each half of Team Cordite will look at the final from a partisan perspective. Here are Palla’s thoughts from Twickenham.
As Sean Cronin raced to touch down under the posts and the clock ticked into the red zone, this blue-clad Leinster fan’s first thought was that the all the talk of the strength of the respective benches had panned out. In fact, as is the case less often than you might think, the fairly straightforward pre-match expectations largely came to pass. Maybe the margin of victory was glossed a bit, but plenty of the pundits’ boxes got ticked: Ulster forwards serving up a good fifty-ish percent of possession – check. Leinster backline having more invention with their share of the ball – check. Leinster bench able to take the game away from the opposition – check. Gulf in class between the opposing 10s – check.
The one thing that didn’t come to pass was Ulster’s put-on-the-squeeze gameplan. In fact they played quite a bit of rugby, looking to work the ball to their dangerous wide runners quickly with long cut out passes – as we thought they’d do against Embra, but never really managed. They played pretty well at times and contributed much more to the game than the scoreline suggests. Paddy Wallace had an outstanding match from where I was sitting, and Cave and Gilroy threatened. They just weren’t quite sharp enough – Trimble’s season has tapered a bit and Ulster needed him at his most dynamic, and they played a passing game but left their best passer on the bench. On Friday’s head-to-head I’d said I thought Ulster might benefit from having iHumph in the team to bring a bit of flair. Turns out they asked too much of young Jackson and in iHumph’s 20-minute cameo he showed what they’ll be missing next year. He was a risk that had to be taken to give Ulster any chance.
But this was Leinster’s day. Two in a row, three from four, on for the double – this is a team that is writing the history books right now. Future generations will ask if you were actually around when BOD, Sexton, O’Brien and Kearney were all in the same team together, and really, were they as good as everyone says they are? So start practicing those stories about how Kearney would leap 50m into the air to pluck high balls out of the sky, or how O’Brien would hand-off seven bullocks at a time in his Tullow fields. Folk will want to hear them.
There were a few dropped balls, the odd sliced clearance, and at around the 60 minute mark, I had the feeling Leinster were making hard work for themselves. Then they brought on the bench. Every reserve seemed to have an impact. Jennings’ arrival and the speedier ruck ball were hardly coincidental. Toner made one great carry and followed up with the softest of hands moments later. van der Merwe looked seriously up for it and Sean Cronin was hugely effective as a carrier – he has been great off the bench all season. Leinster won the last 18 minutes 18-0. It served to underly the remarkable depth of Leinster’s squad. van der Merwe, for example, is rarely talked about by anyone but has been a totem for Leinster over two seasons. Healy knows he can waste himself in 60 minutes and Leinster can bring on a teak-tough, technically excellent replacement to see out the match. Ireland, to name but one team, don’t have the same luxury.
Leo Cullen’s choice of Shane Jennings to lift the cup was a lovely moment, and was testimony to Jennings standing in the squad, even if he no longer starts regularly. It held up a mirror to the image of a photo of the pair doing exactly the same thing after Leicester’s Premiership win in 2007. It served as a reminder of how far Leinster have come in that time, and that success has come the hard way to many of this group. Cullen and Jennings went to Leicester because Leinster was a poorly-run shambles, and in 2007, when Jenno and Leo were scooping up silverware, Leinster were beaten by Wasps in a one-sided quarter-final and blew a huge lead to gift the Magners League to Ospreys. Truly, the recent past can be a foreign country sometimes.
For Leinster it’s a triumph of skill, great players and great coaching. The ease with which they can integrate different players into the team without diluting their style is remarkable – they play the Leinster way whether it’s the Heineken Cup final or home to Aironi on the thursday before a Six Nations match. Take a bow, Joe Schmidt. Nobody doubts that the likes of BOD, Sean O’Brien and Sexton have the talent and the temperament to dominate these sorts of occasions. But when the regal Sexton comes off with eight minutes to go and his uncapped replacement (Madigan) attacks the gain line and passes to those outside him with such skill as to appear to the manor born, the only conclusion can be that we are in the presence of greatness.