Off the boil Leinster still do enough

 

MAGNERS LEAGUE:LEINSTER WERE horribly disjointed at times here and they know it but they have developed the valuable gift of winning these type of games.

“We didn’t get any shape about our attack. We were undisciplined in our defence, we gave away penalties when we didn’t need to. We could have just sat there and defended the line and worked hard at our defence. I thought our physicality was there, it was just the work-rate wasn’t there to create the conditions for the game that we wanted to play. That’s not the standard we want to have and we know that.”

Cheika didn’t need to rant and rave as senior players, probably man-of-the-match Leo Cullen, laid down the law for him in the post-match dressingroom discussion.

That said, even the hardened professionals in the group will have struggled with motivation for this fixture: a weakened Ulster, a day after Christmas and on the heals of some of their most consistently brilliant European displays.

“We would have taken our foot off in terms of the mental preparation,” Cheika continued. “You can’t stay at that level all the time. Obviously, we’re trying to peak the games within each block. Still, there’s standards we want to keep within that. We’re our worst critics and we were lucky to get away with that tonight. They spilled a lot of opportunities and it was only because of that we didn’t get beaten.”

Ulster were forced by the IRFU to rest their internationals and despite creating plenty of opportunities they have yet to master the art of winning poorly, perfected by the European champions.

Their management seem to have them on the right track but Ulster are not yet a clinical team. When they broke through some uncharacteristically loose Leinster defence they lacked the calmness and familiarity of the scenario to do damage on the scoreboard.

Two moments of waste spring to mind. Ian Whitten was provided another opportunity at inside centre with Paddy Wallace at home due to the IRFU player management programme (Wallace must have been fuming as he witnessed his chief rival for the Irish jersey Gordon D’Arcy continue to improve his distribution – something’s not right about that).

Anyway, Whitten has buckets of potential and combined cleverly with the in-form Ian Humphreys down the left tramline only for Simon Danielli to kick the ball into Jamie Heaslip’s face.

Then, closer to the death but with a bonus point still on the table, Jonny Shiels made a pacy break only to fling the ball wildly over Danielli’s head when all that was required was to complete a basic three on two situation.

Leinster were 15-3 up from Heaslip’s towering 45th-minute try, trademark finger wag included, with the Leinster intensity either side of half-time – when all great teams go through the gears – providing the platform for victory.

Shaun Berne may not be anywhere near the required standard for a goal kicker but the Australian can certainly run a backline. He regularly loops the second receiver, taking back possession, before transforming into rugby’s version of a quarter back, opening wide gaps for others from a protected environment.

Rob Kearney was up to the usual – launching nicely-weighted garryowen’s and putting serious pressure on the Ulster back three. The Lions fullback eventually crossed for the opening try after taking a decent line off a powerful D’Arcy burst and offload. It all emanated from clean, off-the-top Kevin McLaughlin lineout ball.

Kearney, again, played a significant role in the Heaslip try when he punished Chris Henry’s inability to gather another skyscraper.

He pounced on the bouncing ball before gathering and offloading in one rapid motion to put the Lions number eight bearing down on debutant fullback Jamie Smith. The hand-off was right in the kisser. Berne missed an easy enough conversion.

Humphreys had come on for Niall O’Connor, who was nailed by a big Isa Nacewa hit in the first half, but struggled to orchestrate much as the opposing forwards made a mess of each others possession.

TJ Anderson’s early sin-binning pretty much saved the scrapping Mal O’Kelly and Bryan Young from a similar fate moments later, while Brian O’Driscoll’s main contribution was a few rib ticklers for Smith after the fullback grabbed him in a headlock at a ruck.

O’Driscoll was hauled ashore just after the hour mark to put a neat full stop on his most productive year since bursting on the world scene in 1999. Fairly muted in this meeting (he only played outside centre), the man deserved a break before the next batch of herculean performances are required in blue and green.

Seán O’Brien was another who stood out as much for his power as some errors but he has laid down a genuine marker these past few weeks and been deservedly rewarded with international honours. The spectre of Shane Jennings was visible however as a water carrier. The Leinster vice-captain returns from suspension for the Glasgow game on January 8th. Jonny Sexton is also back next week while Stan Wright’s early departure was put down to sickness.

Some 18,140 braved the cold on St Stephen’s evening. Just a pity that interprovincial meetings have become a sideline now when it comes to the main priorities of Irish rugby. These are the games guys want to play in.

Scoring sequence– 10 mins: S Berne pen, 3-0; 35 mins: N O’Connor pen, 3-3; 37 mins: R Kearney try, 8-3; S Berne conv, 10-3. Half-time. 44 mins: J Heaslip try, 15-3.

LEINSTER:R Kearney; S Horgan, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, I Nacewa; S Berne, E Reddan; C Healy, J Fogarty, S Wright; L Cullen (capt), M O’Kelly; K McLaughlin, S O’Brien, J Heaslip. Replacements: M Ross for S Wright (32 mins), B Jackman for J Fogarty (50 mins), F McFadden for B O’Driscoll (66 mins), D Toner for M O’Kelly (79 mins).

ULSTER:J Smith; N Timoci, D Cave, I Whitten, S Danielli; N O’Connor, I Boss; B Young, N Brady, BJ Botha; E O’Donoghue, D Tuohy; TJ Anderson, W Faloon, C Henry (capt). Replacements: J Shiels for D Cave (28 mins), I Humphreys for N O’Connor (half-time), D Fitzpatrick for B Young (57 mins), R Caldwell for C Henry (67 mins), A Kyriaou for N Brady (70 mins).

Referee:G Clancy (IRFU).