Leinster victory comes with regrets
SO IT was that an Irish side required four games to deliver their most complete performance of the competition. And so it was that another gifted if brittle French side snatched an away defeat from the jaws of a quarter-final place by contributing to their own downfall with characteristic ill-discipline. "Eet eez soo teepeecal," bemoaned the man from L'Equipe. Indeed, on both sides, plus ca changed.
The symmetry of it all was almost cast in stone. Leinster stuck at it for 40 minutes against Llanelli, 60 minutes against Leicester and, if just about, for 80 against Pau. When Pau broke out of defence with a break from behind their own line by scrum-half Passicos, the last four forwards to the next breakdown 70 metres away all wore Leinster shirts.
But they regrouped, and broke out themselves when Niall Hogan turned defence into attack and an impressively fired up Mark McDermott, fittingly, scampered into the Pau half before being stiff-armed into touch. Leinster were duly rewarded with a last-minute victory courtesy of Alan McGowan's seventh kick out of nine: a bar-scraping penalty from almost 50 metres.
McGowan's ratio at Donnybrook on Saturday contrasted sharply with one out of nine against Leicester. Ciaran Callan remains convinced that had McGowan even upped that ratio to around the 50 per cent mark against Leicester, "We'd be in the quarter-finals now.
Reflecting on the wins that got away, Llanelli, Leicester, even Munster, Callan observed: "Everything went for us last season but didn't go for us this year." Perhaps then, a more moderate assessment is called for.
Leinster got the breaks last year and, given the player drain to England. then this year's campaign perhaps wasn't all that bad disregarding the abysmal second-half collapse against Llanelli.
The campaign finished on a high and overall there have been several plus points. In accordance with his status as Leinster's player of the season, Kurt McQuilkin was arguably the man of the match. The lack of pace which was exposed in Paris last year has seemingly dirtied his bib forever in the eyes of the Big Five, though Callan couldn't help but to comment: "The two centres in the `A' team must be very good.
The midfield defence was often excellent and it had to be, for David Dantiacq and the excellent Christophe Paille were of the classic, old school of French centres, all sleight of hand and angles of running.
The young outside three of Denis Hickie, Peter McKenna and Darragh O'Mahony all came through a demanding test with some aplomb. Up front Malcolm O'Kelly, Paul Wallace and Mark McDermott were often like additional back-row players. It's a shame that the talented Victor Costello still needs an occasional kick up the derriere, be it from Clive Woodward or the Big Five, but then we probably shouldn't be so surprised. More encouraging was his positive response.
The turnovers were still a tad too high, Callan pointing to an over-willingness to look for support in the tackle rather than set up the ruck, for the rucking was often first-rate. Overall, it supported Callan's contention that "We're close enough to being a good side.
"The performances of the provinces in the European Cup should lift the doom and gloom, and the feeling of playing second fiddle to the English sides. I think we're well able to take them on and will have more confidence in the future."
To bridge the gap, Callan concluded: "The ideal situation for us would be to get into a position where we are a professional side and start bringing players back (from England). We certainly can't afford to continue losing players. I think it's something the IRFU will have to address and put us in a position where we can compete with the likes of Leicester, who have 22 or 23 players in contract."