Malcolm O'Kelly: Battle-hardened Leinster one step closer to glory
Malcolm reflects on Leinster’s epic semi-final win and suggests that Munster will be asking a lot of questions of themselves following their Challenge Cup exit.
I was at the Leinster v Toulouse game at the weekend, sitting there basking in the sunshine, but I was incredibly nervous beforehand. There were certainly a few butterflies flying around in the stomach and it was just an incredibly tense game from the word go.
The atmosphere was electric, it was great to see 50,000 fans at the game and they were getting behind the team at every opportunity, you could hear shouts of ‘Leinster, Leinster’ on plenty of occasions. Unfortunately for them and for Leinster, they got off to the worst possible start with Toulouse getting a try early on and it forced Leinster’s hand and made them take the game to Toulouse.
Leinster looked pretty nervous at the start, they were putting a few balls down, but that was as much due to the intense pressure they were under as it was down to any mistakes on Leinster’s behalf.
They eventually managed to get going, however, and although they weren’t at their most incisive, I think it was their work rate that was the key to them coming out on top. As well as that, their discipline was excellent, they dealt well with the Toulouse attack and their effort in terms of making tackles and covering each other around the pitch was magnificent.
In fairness, Munster probably showed a lack of creativity; you were hoping there would have been a Plan B, but it never materialised.
In that regard, Jamie Heaslip was inspirational, he was the epitome of all that was good about Leinster and really led the way. It was important that players like Jamie had that sort of influence on the game because although I was hopeful that Leinster might be able to play the way they did in the pool stages, watching the game, I just don’t think it was possible against a team like Toulouse. Toulouse brought such desire to the game and kept knocking Leinster down time after time.
Credit to Leinster though, their continuity was exceptional, they kept knocking over three points here and three points there to keep the scoreboard ticking over. It’s worth mentioning the role of Brian O’Driscoll as well. Okay, he was sin-binned in the first half, but yet again he was in the right place at the right time to get the winning try in the second half, as he has done so often down the years.
Leinster’s bench also had a massive impact. Heinke van der Merwe got on a lot of ball when he came on and he did particularly well. He didn’t make huge yards, but he was always there and that was needed to go through the phases and allow the backs to reset. It was great to see Shane Jennings back as well. He’s such a key player, I’d say we’ll see more of him between now and the final and it will be interesting to see what impact he can bring, because he’s such an important player in the Leinster set-up.
Isaac Boss coming in is part of the game plan at this stage for Joe Schmidt; he came on for half an hour and I thought he had a good influence on proceedings. Fergus McFadden didn’t get a lot of time on the pitch, but when he was there, he was picking and going and driving forward on a constant basis and for me, he has been unbelievable this season for a man who has had such limited opportunities.
He has only had a small window of opportunity and he’s taken hold of it. I know he’s been playing in the Magners League, but I hope that we get to see more of him in the big games between now and the end of the season.
Saints will provide a big test
Having beaten Toulouse in the semi-final and Leicester in the quarter-final, Leinster have certainly been tested on the road to the final. They’ve been lucky that they were on home territory against both sides and now they have another massive challenge against Northampton in the final in Cardiff.
Watching Northampton in the other semi-final, they gave a powerful performance and easily dismissed Perpignan. Perpignan certainly didn’t help themselves, particularly in the first half when they were on the wrong side of the referee’s whistle and gave too many penalties.
It’s hard to say how much of a test Northampton have had when you compare their route to the final to Leinster’s, but you have to beat what’s in front of you, they deserve to be there and the final should be another mouthwatering encounter.
Lack of Plan B cost Munster
Unfortunately, Munster couldn’t make it two Irish teams in European finals and watching their game against Harlequins, it looked to me as if Harlequins knew how to play against Munster. They stuck to their guns and dealt with Munster’s power play and knocked them back every time.
Paul O'Connell comes to terms with Munster's Challenge Cup exit
In fairness, Munster probably showed a lack of creativity; you were hoping there would have been a Plan B, but it never materialised. Harlequins took their opportunities and closed out the game comfortably enough in the end.
Tony McGahan brought on Paul O’Connell, John Hayes and Peter Stringer in an attempt to make an impact. I would have thought that if Paul O’Connell was match fit, he would have been involved from the start, but maybe McGahan felt that because of his injury, he wasn’t quite there.
As for John Hayes, I don’t know whether he has an 80-minute performance in him these days and I don’t mean to criticise him at all, but in terms of him being used as an impact player, I’m not sure how much of an impact a tighthead prop can have in a game, normally they’re just brought in to tighten up the scrum.
You have to hand it to Harlequins though; very few teams go to Thomond Park and come away with a win. They showed that if you can put a stop to Munster’s Plan A that you can really ask a lot of questions of them. It’s the first time Munster have come up short in a while, but it’s another big game that’s gone against them and they will probably be asking a few questions of themselves and now might be the time to answer them. They still have the Magners League play-offs to come though and it will be another big test to see if they can come through.
Finally, it was great to hear that I am to be inducted into the IRUPA (Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association) Hall of Fame next week. Niall Woods (IRUPA CEO) was on to me recently to tell me the news and I obviously I was delighted. Some really great players have been inducted before me and to join them in the Hall Of Fame is a massive honour. When you finish playing, it’s nice to get a bit of recognition now and then and I’m really looking forward to the awards night this week.