Vir: Howard Johnson
Leinster’s third Heineken Cup victory in four years is a remarkable achievement, but Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson argues that a final featuring two teams from the same country can never be a good thing…
So a large ‘hats off’ to Leinster, who turned Twickenham blue on Saturday to claim a record points Heineken Cup Final victory over their fellow Irishmen of Ulster. I say ‘Irishmen’, but of course the Ulster flavour is as much biltong as blarney with so many South Africans wearing red and white. No matter. Rugby is a global profession these days and no-one could accuse a single player on the turf of England’s finest rugby stadium of having mercenary tendencies. Every ounce of energy was expended and every sinew stretched on both sides as Ireland’s two best sides duked it out for European glory.
In the end Leinster romped home by a huge 42-14 margin and to be honest the result was never in doubt. At least not after the first seven minutes, when Ulster had ratcheted up a staggering 82% of the possession. Yet from thereon in it was Leinster’s day all the way. They were simply better than their opponents in every department: more clinical, more energetic, more solid, more inventive. They quite rightly secured a third win in four years, which in itself is a hell of an achievement. But once referee Nigel Owens had blown the final whistle it was hard to make much of a case for this being a final to remember.
To be honest, though, even before kick off the likelihood was that this wouldn’t be a classic for the neutral. European competition thrives on throwing opponents together who rarely catch sight of each other. When two clubs share the same territory and play in the same domestic league there’s never quite the same frisson. Finals are made to bring two different nations together, both on the pitch and in the stands. That’s what gives an important game that all-important extra bite. It was never going to be possible for Leinster and Ulster to conjure up the same magic as we’d seen in last season’s finale, when Leinster took on English outfit Northampton. Englishmen against Irishmen made for a thrilling combination. Mind you, Leinster and Ulster would also have had to be going some to match the insanely-brilliant ding-dong do that those two teams served up last time around. And in truth they didn’t. Great sport hinges on drama, tension and two evenly-matched sides feeling they both have a chance of taking the honours. Yesterday’s match felt like a one-sided affair with something like 70 minutes remaining. Not good for the neutral.
And so for all of Leinster’s excellent individual performances – and make no mistake, Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll and Cian Healey were majestic – the game never really engaged the non-partisan observer in an ‘edge of the seat’ kind of manner. It was entertaining and it was energetic, but it was never absolutely enthralling. This wasn’t the end to an exciting European season that everyone had hoped for and I suspect the TV viewing figures will back me up on that point. Of course, all of those wonderful Irish supporters who made a weekend of it in London will disagree with me. How so many people can afford what is always a costly trip in these tough financial times is frankly beyond me. But I’m glad they made the effort, because they certainly contributed to the occasion with their endless flag-waving and their ‘win or lose, let’s have a booze’ mentality. This game was for them, the hardcore. And I suspect there were more than a few sore heads the following morning in both camps. But the truth is that for the rest of us the Heineken Cup Final 2012 vintage won’t live long in the memory. Like the Amlin Challenge Cup Final that preceded it in London on Friday night when Biarritz beat Toulon, the edge was taken off it simply by the fact that it involved two teams from the same country.
Not that this will bother victorious Leinster coach Joe Schmidt any. Nor should it. He has presided over a magnificent outfit that fully deserves its status as European top dogs. Make no mistake, this Leinster team is a hell of a good outfit, the only unit that I suspect could make a decent fist of it in the Super 15s. Any team that features the phenomenon that is Brian O’Driscoll in its ranks is worthy of respect, but Leinster have genius running all through their side. My lack of enthusiasm for the final shouldn’t be confused with a lack of respect for the victors. That would be plain daft. But let’s keep our fingers crossed that if they make it to the final in 2013 – and who would bet against them right now? – that they come up against a team from outside the Irish borders, so we truly end up with a spectacle that will live long in the memory.
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