Ospreys created space and then exploited it

 

There’s no shame in losing to the Ospreys but Leinster will be sore at their performance, writes LIAM TOLAND

THERE ARE many differences between Leinster and the Ospreys, most of which are off the field but on Saturday we witnessed some very subtle on-field ones. Just why the bookies had a six-point differential was intriguing. Home advantage was the clear difference and the home team was ably supported in what was an excellent end-of-season fixture, full of running.

I had hoped for a kick fest from both outhalves to allow Rob Kearney and Lee Byrne to flex their muscles, which they did with abandon. But we always knew the outcome of the contact zone was going to be telling in this grand final.

Over the months rugby has had its trials, tribulations and law variations. It has its debates over tightheads, tight defences and tight refereeing calls but as the GAA championship takes hold, the Ospreys reminded us field sport is about creating space and then exploiting that space.

On a good day that might occur 10 times but generally not that often. I’m not sure how many line breaks Gordon D’Arcy has managed in his career but on Saturday he had four cracking ones. As the seasons roll on defences are slowly gaining the upper hand, where line breaks have been harder and harder to find. With both Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings off the park there was an understandable lack of link play, keeping the ball off the deck, but when the opportunities arose for the Ospreys their diamond-shaped support runners maximised the advantage.

The Ospreys’ first try could not be appreciated on playback because the big screen in the RDS couldn’t highlight the outrageous line, timing and technique taken by outside centre Andrew Bishop. Sitting in the lofty heights of the committee box I just about spotted Bishop running parallel to the Leinster try line as the ball arrived into Dan Biggar’s hands. The subsequent flight of ball and line by Bishop hoodwinked the Leinster midfield which allowed Tommy Bowe in. That try was a pre-ordained creation from the video and playbook. Their second was, however, an instinctive team try. Clearly the damage was done long before Jamie Heaslip arrived on to Byrne’s path.

On 31 minutes Leinster had a lineout just inside their own half. Malcolm O’Kelly, who had a towering performance, provided an off-the-top ball to allow Kearney a run at the Ospreys defence. But Lee Byrne and Shane Williams had swapped positions prior to the lineout. Why? Did the Ospreys’ video nerd anticipate an open-field attack followed by a rewind through Shane Horgan? If so was Byrne a better bet to stop him? Either way the ball never came back due to a crucial turnover that allowed James Hook space out wide on the right. Byrne had trailed all the way from his temporary left-wing defensive position to come out from the blind to again hoodwink the Leinster defence. Pace, power and hard selfless work off the ball allowed Byrne to expose the best defence around.

While the Ospreys were able to create limited scoring opportunities based on eking out space around the ball carrier they were equally adept at cutting down Leinster space. Leinster’s lineout gave Eoin Reddan off-the-top ball for midfield strike running but time and again D’Arcy was crowded out.

Jennings’ injury was affecting his running and Marty Holah was getting outside him at the tail into the already crowded midfield. The modern scrum laws were a negative to the Leinster attack. Five metres either side of the scrum affords the defence an opportunity to communicate and line up not just the ball carrier but his support runners. This was compounded by very deep alignment of the Leinster backs. With CJ van der Linde dominating an excellent Ospreys scrum opportunities were missed. He has received precious little favourable press but he will be sorely missed.

There’s no shame in losing to the Ospreys but Leinster will be sore at their own performance. Lee Byrne won the man-of-the-match award in being very positive, counter-attacking and scoring a try. Others shone brightly, D’Arcy for his breaks and Kearney for his enthusiasm, ditto Bowe.

O’Kelly, though, was immense. As it was his last 80 minutes of rugby I watched him specifically and his work-rate has not diminished. When Brian ODriscoll blocked a clearance kick it was O’Kelly on his shoulder. When Holah dropped the ball deep in Leinster’s 22 it was O’Kelly who picked up the loose ball. When Huw Bennett’s throw was errant it was O’Kelly who grabbed it. When Leinster wanted quick ball in the midfield it was O’Kelly who provided it. When tackles were required it was O’Kelly who made them, as he did on Mike Phillips. When Sexton kicked long it was O’Kelly who chased it. Players like him are unique and irreplaceable. He and the others will be missed.

There are many challenges facing Irish rugby in the coming years. For Leinster and its players it is to maintain the juggernaut that Michael Cheika and Leo Cullen have created. The first win by the Ospreys in their last seven attempts over Leinster should provide an adjustment of thought from the Irish rugby fan. The Welsh regions have found their mojo and are very hungry. The Irish provinces have achieved enormously and the hungry supporter expects success but there is real strength in Wales. The crowds haven’t bought into the regions but then they’re only seven years old; they will.

There’s no doubt Cheika has educated his players on how to win. Next season will be their toughest.

PS. If the season’s end scares you check out the Heinz Pig ’N Porter Tag Rugby Festival this July in Limerick, the world’s biggest tag rugby festival. http://www.pignporter.com