Season in Review: Leinster

What a pity.  Two scores in front with nine minutes to go with a historic double knocking on the door.  But even then you never felt Leinster were in control.  With Poite on their back at scrum time, a couple of costly errors gave the all important territory to Ospreys: Sexton’s booming spiral kick bouncing just into touch and the crossing incident when Leinster were attacking the Ospreys 22.

Such is life, as the French say.  Once again, the double has proved elusive. Leinster will be aggrieved at Poite’s refereeing of the scrums and the offside line, but in truth they never really controlled the game – and it wasn’t Poite’s refereeing that caused them to miss so many tackles.  Ospreys’ quick feet and offloading game got them through plenty of gaps.  It all served to underlie just how difficult it is to win back to back titles. Leinster restrained their post-final celebrations, and clearly wanted this trophy, but, down to the reserve front row for most of the match and missing Sean O’Brien, it was not to be.  Maybe they used up their good luck chips with that Fofana ball (mis)placement.

The sad thing is that the players will wake up this morning feeling gutted when they have so much to shout about over an extraordinary season.  They lost just four games all season, and took their game to new heights.  At times – the first halves against Cardiff and Bath, the second against Clermont, and the final against Ulster stand out – their passing and ingenuity in attack were unplayable.

What’s more, they scorched the earth in a season when their two marquee forwards had difficult seasons.  Sean O’Brien endured something of a ‘second season syndrome’, (though he found his form for the knockout stages of the Heiny) and Heaslip had a quiet campaign confined mainly to dirty work at the coalface.  In addition, BOD was out for all but the final few weeks.

Huge credit must go to the footsoldiers who stepped up.  Kevin McLoughlin had a terrific campaign and deserves his call-up for the summer tour.  Shane Jennings had another solid season, McFadden stepped up another notch and place-kicked exceptionally well for much of the campaign.  Devin Toner – previously a bête noir of ours – improved out of sight.  There were plenty of starlets on view too, with Ian Madigan, whose sweet pass and probing runs have been thrilling to watch.

We’re going to single three individuals out for special praise, contrary as it may be to the notion of the ultimate team game.  Joe Schmidt, the coach extraordinaire for his high standards, now infamous video meetings and empowering the team to play the way they do.  It’s particularly impressive how the ‘midweek’ team is able to fit in seamlessly and play in the same ‘Leinster way’, albeit against lesser opponents.  His recruitment of Brad Thorn to shore up the second row showed the sort of ambition and shrewd thinking that sets him apart.  Secondly, Johnny Sexton, whose form this season has been unmatched in Europe.  His pass is sublime, he can boom the ball 60m down the pitch and his place kicking nudged close to 90%.  He’s Leinster’s Cranky General.  Finally, Rob Kearney.  The forgotten man last season, his feats under the high ball defy belief, but his determination to run the ball back and his improved passing game were just as impressive.

It’s hard to see Leinster falling off a cliff next season, and they should be competitive again.  Three in a row?  They’ll certainly be favourites, but every team will be gunning for them.  Succession is being managed well, and the eventual replacements for Generation Totes Ledge (Dorce, Drico etc.) have already amassed plenty of experience.  This year they evolved from an offloading team to more of a passing team, and chances are they’ll have to look for more innovations next year while the chasing pack analyse how to trouble them.  Ospreys certainly seem to have found a means of containing them, perhaps there’s a model to be followed there.  Of course, as Munster know all too well, bad luck with injuries can slash a season to pieces, and for all Leinster’s depth they’d be vulnerable if they lost Sexton, Ross or O’Brien to name but three.

The main issue is the second row, and it has been looming since Nathan Hines left.  Brad Thorn bids farewell, and leaves a huge hole to fill.  Leo Cullen was withdrawn from both finals before the 60 minute mark – can he deliver another season as a first pick?  It seems unlikely.  Devin Toner’s performance yesterday was hugely encouraging and he should force himself into the role of regular starter in the big games next year, on the loosehead side of the scrum.  A tighthead lock appears to be on the shopping list (suggestions welcome).  We will watch new arrival Tom Denton (signed from Leeds Carnegie, and seemingly with a good reputation) and academy graduate Mark Flanagan’s progress with interest.

Leinster won’t always be this good, so best enjoy the moment and try not to dwell too much on the one that got away.

Season to remember: Kevin McLoughlin.  Abrasive blindside and terrific lineout forward.  Doesn’t catch the eye but something of a workaholic and textbook tackler. 

Season to forget: we had high hopes for Fionn Carr’s return to the provine, but broken field line breaks could be counted on one hand.

Best match: Clermont 15-19 Leinster.  A titanic battle between the two best teams inEuropethat came right down to the wire.

Best performance: Leinster 42-14 Ulster.  Sucked up everything Ulster could throw at them and racked up the tries with cold ruthlessness.

Worst performance: Ospreys 27-3 Leinster.  Take your pick from three defeats to the Ospreys; this mauling was pretty nasty.

Thanks for the memories: Big Bad Brad may only have played a handful of games, but his contribution was massive.  From listening to the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, so great is his charisma that meeting the man is like that brilliant passage in The Great Gatsby where Nick Carraway describes the titular Gatsby’s smile.

See you next season: Dom Ryan’s campaign was obliterated by injury.  We have high hopes for him.  Lets hope he can make the long awaited breakthrough next year.

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