Malcolm O'Kelly: Leinster control their fate with Sexton at the helm
Malcolm digests Magners League semi-final wins for Leinster and Munster to set up a grand final cracker and pinpoints Jonathan Sexton as the man to instigate a Heineken Cup final victory.
Control is the name of the game in top flight rugby. Leinster had it in abundance on Friday night and, if they repeat the trick, they’ll be Heineken Cup champions this time next week.
At the centre of the button-pushing is Jonathan Sexton. His game management has come on leaps and bounds and his ability to make the right choice at the right time has been pivotal to Leinster’s campaign on both fronts this season.
When it’s right to ping the corners he has done so but still you feel Leinster are prepared to attack from anywhere. Northampton next weekend will challenge him further as the game could very well hinge on his performance, so no pressure Johnny!
If we are to concentrate on where Northampton will look to attack and dominate Leinster it will be at scrumtime. They have dished up Ulster and Perpignan on their way to the final and will see this as their way to getting a foothold in the game.
This is the bedrock for Northampton to play at their optimum. They will look to disrupt Leinster in attack by working an aggressive defensive press with players like Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley looking to impose their physicality at the breakdown.
Leinster didn’t show the cutting edge they have delivered against them [Ulster] in their previous outings.
On Friday night, Ulster showed up at the RDS with a solid game plan. They forced Leinster into errors with a resilient defence and Leinster didn’t show the cutting edge they have delivered against them in their previous outings.
It has to be noted that the absence of several key players - Andrew Trimble and big Dan Touhy especially, would have affected the team’s confidence of pulling off an upset and it showed with the side lacking the physicality to consistently threaten and breach the gain line by consequently turning ball over.
Leinster may have played within themselves and won in what looked from the scoreboard a comfortable victory, but there was a heavy price to pay with a worrying number of key performers taking bangs. Brian O’Driscoll, Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Richard Strauss all hobbled off. It’s not an ideal scenario, as this week’s preparation will have to be more theoretical than practical but I have a feeling all will make the big day on Saturday.
It will take a lot more than a niggle to keep Drico out of the big one
At times during the game I thought Leinster looked slightly uncomfortable but there’s no doubting that they controlled the game, they dominated possession but looked a bit at sea at scrumtime. I was delighted to see Luke Fitzgerald looking more confident and getting the ball in his hands and taking players on, he showed all his ability to score the final try with a touch of class.
Luke can bring another dimension and headache to Northampton who already have a lot to contend with by dealing with the barrelling rampages of Sean O’Brien, the counter attacking of Isa Nacewa and the trickery in the centre. In fact, it will be very interesting to see how James Downey (ex-Leinster) fares against the two old heads.
Northampton will need to dominate the scrum and have parity at the lineout. Dylan Harley’s guidance control can be askew on occasion but they will also need to play clinically attacking rugby and force Leinster into multi-phase defence – if they try to rely on Myler's boot they will come up short.
They have the ability to do all of this but it will take a special performance to incorporate all components for a gruelling 80 minutes. It will be a draining experience for all, as the anxiety and pressure the teams will be under makes concentration for discipline all the greater while all around them is crazy.
While we’re on Northampton I have to mention the flurry of punches taken by Chris Ashton and dealt out by Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi in the Premiership play-off match with the final hit nearly beheading him.
I would expect Tuilagi to be cited, and most probably banned for a couple of weeks, which would mean he’d miss the Premiership final.
There is no place for GBH acts on a rugby pitch.
I remember being on the receiving end of something similar from Julian White against Leicester at Welford Road many moons ago. It’s not in the spirit of the game. I enjoy seeing displays of physicality but within the laws, there is no place for GBH acts on a rugby pitch. To show good example, Leicester should ban him internally.
The final pairing everyone wants
On Saturday night I watched an impressive Munster side seal the Magners League Grand Final spot that everybody was hoping for.
Munster played at a high tempo, their forwards and backs interplayed comfortably and varied the point of attack, they were composed and patient, looked supremely assured and dominated a spirited yet directionless Ospreys side. Munster looked eager and hungry, defying the lateness of the season. A display of that energy will be hard for Leinster to contend with down in Thomond Park for sure.
Like Ulster, the Ospreys were without the services of a few big names who have been important all season but that takes nothing away from Munster’s performance or result. They were powerful up front, not always clinical, but dominant in most areas to hold the upper hand at all times.
Felix Jones... one to watch out for
The transition seems to be already underway down south with the likes of Danny Barnes, Conor Murray and Felix Jones stepping up to the plate. Jones was instrumental throughout and showed excellent hands for Barnes’ first try at senior level. His second try was an example of a guy who is hungry, pressurising the opposition and on hand (literally) to take the opportunity. No doubt we will see much more from him.
It would mark an incredible season for the provincial teams if Munster were to host the Heineken Cup champions in Thomond on Saturday week for Magners League Grand Final day. What a phenomenal atmosphere there would be and final all-important bragging rights to the victor.