Matt Cassidy is here to discuss the main talking points following Leinster’s victory over Ulster at the RDS on Saturday night.
The second Pro12 semi –final was an all Irish affair as Leinster welcomed Ulster to the RDS. Glasgow were awaiting the victors of the tie courtesy of deposing Munster by one point the evening before. Leinster were looking to preserve their perfect record of reaching every final since the playoff system was introduced whereas Ulster were fired up to not allow a season that promised so much to end with a whimper.
Reporting live for Pundit Arena from the RDS, the ground was a wonderful cacophony of colour and noise as the thousands of hopeful Ulster supporters who had travelled to the Pale mingled with blue clad locals. And both teams give both sets of fans plenty to get their teeth into as they went toe-to-toe with each other in a match that produced plenty of heart, effort and commitment.
1. Leinster lacking full eighty-minute performance
Credit must be given to the Ulstermen who tore into their more illustrious opponents from the kick-off. Leinster were outplayed in the first half as they opened with a sluggish twenty minutes where they barely touched the ball. Ulster retained possession at will and were able to build phase after phase of attack which the home side’s defence just about managed to neutralise. In the post-match press conference Captain Jamie Heaslip admitted that they “didn’t open up the game well” and “that they seemed to be defending a whole lot during the first half.”
Leinster gradually grew into the game but were unable to register any points until Jimmy Gopperth slotted a 57th minute penalty. It has become a hallmark of Matt O’ Connor’s tenure that the Blues have not produced a performance of intensity and accuracy that lasts the full game leaving them to depend on their excellent defence. To give Leinster their due, they got the job done but as Heaslip remarked, “We have a lot to work on especially against a side like Glasgow.” When the Blues manage to produce a full eighty, the results can be spectacular. Just ask Northampton Saints! But another sloppy lull by O’Connor’s charges and they will not be so lucky against Glasgow.
2. Ulster’s tighthead emergency
Ulster had inexperienced Ricky Lutton packing down at No. 3 and the Belfast man was given a torrid time by Ireland international Cian Healy. The scrum provided Leinster with a foothold into the game as Ulster were superior in nearly every other aspect on the paddock. John Afoa will be plying his trade at Gloucester next season and the Northern Province it seems do not have a credible replacement for the bearded Kiwi. Declan Fitzpatrick is very much injury prone and their new recruit, Dave Ryan, struggled to start for Zebre. The scrum may not win you a game of rugby but having an unstable set piece is not a recipe for success.
3. Gopperth and Madigan combination
As Brian O’ Driscoll was dragged off the field for a head injury Leinster fans could have been forgiven for thinking that it may not have been their day. Ian Madigan replaced the great man and it was clear that the Blues had a more attacking threat in the midfield with the young Blackrock man on the pitch. Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll’s effectiveness in defence can never be questioned but their ability to create space and attacking opportunities are most definitely on the wane. When asked about the possibility of starting Gopperth and Madigan in the final in two weeks’ time O’Connor noted that, “they could but he (Madigan) starts on the bench due to his versatility that he offers.” O’Connor went on to praise the replacement’s match winning score as a “special break that changes the game.” The Blues’ supremo will have a selection headache come the final day as Gopperth and Madigan seemed to offer more going forward that the two old faithfuls.
4. Ulster coming up short too often.
After missing out in 2012 and 2013 in the Heineken Cup and Pro 12 finals respectively, 2014 was the year that Ulster would bring home something tangible for their efforts be it at home or abroad. But the cruel hand of Jérôme Garçes ended their European quest at Ravenhill despite a heroic performance against the marauding Saracens. And on Saturday night the side that has brought Ulster so much pain over the past three seasons were twisting the knife in Northern hearts once again. Mark Anscombe bemoaned the bounce of a ball (Ruan Pienaar’s charge down) and a couple of refereeing decisions at the breakdown but failure is becoming a regular tale of woe for Ulster that it cannot all be down to luck.
Anscombe pointed out that “Leinster had one or two (try) scoring chances and took one and Ulster had three or four and finished off none.” That statement from the Ulster top dog tells us all we need to know. Ulster have character, grit and determination in abundance but when it comes to winning the big knock out ties, the Red Hands seem to find a road to despair rather than the path to victory.
5. Iain Henderson – The next Paul O’Connell?
A big statement for the young Craigavon man but Henderson’s showing at lock was one of the standout performances from the game. He carried strongly and always made yards. He was solid in his duty at the set piece and really put himself about with a number of crucial tackles. Anscombe highlighted Henderson’s performance saying that “he was superb and that he can go on and achieve great things in this game.” With talismanic O’Connell’s Ireland career probably coming to an end after next year’s World Cup, it looks like Ulster have a ready-made replacement in Henderson.
Matt Cassidy, Pundit Arena.