Leinster 24 -v- Ulster 18
Leinster, the dominant force in Europe for the last five years, have landed a domestic title that has eluded them for three seasons and in doing so completed a famous double. For this extraordinary group of players no less would have done.
For the last two years Heineken Cup hangovers and primed opposition have tainted what was meant to be Leinster’s European champions’ party. This year was different. After bowing out in the group stages of the Heineken Cup, because of two defeats at the hands of the majestic Clermont, Leinster’s focus switched to the domestic title that had escaped their greedy grasp. Last week’s European victory in the Amlin Cup took on a secondary importance. They enjoyed Friday night’s celebrations but didn’t allow it become a weekend long session as they licked their Parisse induced bruises and returned to training on Monday setting their sights firmly on Ulster and the difficult task ahead. This was unfinished business.
Their opponents for the final had completed a home and away double against them during the regular season. In order to win the game they would have to bring the high standards that have epitomised Joe Schmidt ‘s time at Leinster. This technically away final in the RDS was Schimdt’s 99th and last game in charge of the province. However, the Ulster defeats earlier in the season were not the main motivating factor for Leinster; instead it was the fact that they have been runners-up for the last three seasons in this competition. For this uber successful bunch those defeats lingered through the summer months. All talk this week was about completing the job and finishing the season off to their lofty standards. Victory would be the only fitting send off for departing Leinster greats Johnathon Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Joe Schmidt.
Preparation was a big talking point prior to kick-off. It was believed that Ulster’s freshness would give them a distinct advantage in the opening passages as they had two full weeks to prepare for this final. But that was not the case as Leinster got off to the perfect start. They were awarded a penalty which Johnathon Sexton kicked deep into the Ulster half. From the ensuing line-out their rolling maul walked unopposed over the Ulster line. Jennings dotted down with ease. He’d have to fight for everything else he got in the rest of the match, but this try was soft. A number of penalties were given away by the Northerners which allowed Leinster to race to a 10-0 lead.
Then the table topping Ulster turned up and began to build some momentum. They went through a number of phases with carries from their big back row which stretched the Leinster defence. The raucous Ulster fans in the north stand were roused. Their industrious young centre combination also punched holes in mid-field which manufactured an over-lap on the right wing for South African Robbie Diack. But, with the line beckoning, he mistakenly elected to step in and take on the cover defenders. This Leinster team have a phenomenal scramble defence and this time Sexton managed to hold Diack up over the line. Ulster fans watching the TMO replay were irate that referee John Lacey blew it up early as it seemed Diack had got the ball down after the whistle had gone. Leinster, as they so often do, survived. It was a missed opportunity.
Sexton & Ruan Pienaar exchanged penalties and Leinster went in 16-6 ahead at half-time.
After the second half resumed Leinster were on the attack. Referee Lacey played a penalty advantage for hands in the ruck and when no advantage arose he pulled the play back. After the whistle was gone, Diack showed some petulance by kicking the ball away and it was unclear whether the yellow card was for this or the penalty offence. (He was not the only one showing a referee petulance on the day in the rugby world. In the English Premiership final between Leicester and Northampton Dylan Hartley was red carded for abusing referee Wayne Barnes. Today he received an eleven week ban which means he’ll miss the Lions Tour. Rory Best, whose misfiring throws during the Six Nations saw him go from being the potential Lions Test hooker to harshly off the tour entirely, was called up as Hartley’s replacement. Best will now get the chance to fight for the Lions number 2 jersey: justice for a player who has epitomised Ulster’s rise in the last two seasons.)
The one man advantage would not last long. An inside dart by Paddy Jackson saw him race into open field and Isa Nacewa came scampering across to cover but he could only corral Jackson by the collar. The vociferous Ulster crowd whipped themselves into a frenzy. They were baying for yellow and they got their wish as the retiring Nacewa was sent to the bin for the high tackle. Since Michael Cheika signed him in 08/09 Nacewa has been an ever present in blue playing almost every minute for the club and making himself integral to Leinster’s success. These 10 minutes off the pitch were an exception in what has been an exceptional journey for Isa Nacewa. This yellow evened up the numbers.
The momentum switched. Possession and pressure mounted from the massive Ulster pack. Leinster found themselves on the ropes and they leaked penalties. Pienaar, the imperious South African, kicked Ulster to within one score with two penalties from long-range. 19-15 and the game was well and truly on.
Leinster were leading going into the final ten minutes against Ospreys in last year’s final and they let it slip, to do so again would’ve been criminal and Joe Schmidt admitted as much after the game. But his team responded like champions, awarded a penalty just inside the Ulster half Sexton elected to go for the corner and drilled another precision kick down the line. The line-out drive was halted but they probed for gaps and after a few phases Jamie Heaslip – whose form will make him favourite for the Lions number 8 spot – carried over with support on his shoulder from Devon Toner. This was a team try, a try that got them over the line.
Ulster had one last chance and they kicked to touch in search of a try that had eluded them all game but the Leinster defence were not for giving way and the pressure they exerted lead to a turnover by the self-less Shane Jennings, who was man-of-the-match on the day. There was unquestionable endeavour from the men in white, as has been the case all season, but this was a final and that remains the domain of the still dominant Leinster.
For the last two minutes Leinster held onto the ball and let the clock tick down on the match. They’d rode out the storm . As the 80 minutes elapsed a ferret like O’Driscoll, the man with “one more year”, emerged from the bottom of a ruck and booted the ball to touch letting the celebrations commence. This was a joyous affair, but many in this crowd know that this bunch of players and repeat success will be hard to replicate, especially without Isa, Sexton and Schmidt, who’ve been so integral.
As they paraded around the RDS pitch with the trophy in hand “I just can’t get enough” rang out on the PA system. It was perfect because this team just couldn’t get enough of winning.