Ospreys rise to the occasion

 

MAGNERS LEAGUE FINAL/Ospreys 17 Leinster 12: THE FEAR always lurked that Leinster had played their final against Munster. That was the one caveat about that win, how to follow that? Such is the increasing rivalry between the domestic foes that a fortnight on, although the setting was the same and this time a trophy was at stake, neither team or crowd alike had anything like the same edge of that crackling semi-final night.

How else to explain such an unusually inaccurate and slip-shod performance, riddled with at least a dozen handling errors – eight of them in the first-half? In hindsight, the Munster performance was their peak finale to the season. In a team performance riddled with tired, weary-looking individual displays, this was a game too far.

That Leinster came within a score of the Ospreys after being outscored by two tries to nil and playing so far below the standards they’ve set for much of the season – all the more so after more injury woes saw them play the last 13 minutes with a hooker and a lock in the backrow – was actually a remarkable tribute to their character and desire.

Admittedly, they’ve never been particularly free-scoring – only Connacht scored less tries in the league – though they had raised their attacking game in Europe. Their fall back had been their defence and an ability to roll with the punches, often while defending a lead or at least being in touch on the scoreboard.

But here they were hit with two uppercuts and, a little stunned thereafter, were put in the unusual position for them of having to play catch-up.

At one point in rapid succession in the third quarter, Stanley Wright and Brian O’Driscoll (twice) attempted offloads off the deck which led to turnovers. Even before then Leinster players were forcing passes, the net effect being that they indulged in a slightly madcap, error-strewn shapeless game which suited their visitors more than themselves.

Leinster didn’t start building through the phases until around the hour mark – by which stage they were 17-6 down.

The Ospreys were superior in the backrow, halfbacks and in midfield. Marty Holah set the tone at the breakdown with a couple of typically muscular steals and – playing Chris White to the limit, which is looser than most referees these days – remained a constant pain in Leinster’s derriere.

Mike Phillips and Dan Biggar out-kicked their counterparts, taking a leaf of the away-book manual for success by never attempting anything risky in their own half and ensuring the Ospreys played as much as possible in the Leinster half. Such is Biggar’s all-round tactical nous, calm composure and skilful execution of all the outhalf’s arts that one feels compelled to check his age. The 20-year-old plays like a 30-year-old.

The midfield supremacy was the more surprising, with the Ospreys targeting Gordon D’Arcy’s inside shoulder for the opening score, and thereafter the unsung Claude Makelele of the Ospreys’ galacticos, Andrew Bishop (the non-tanned lad from the Valleys) repeatedly carried into the heart of the Leinster defence and over the gain line, while also tackling superbly.

Much the better side, in truth, the Ospreys should have been out of sight by half-time. They scored two skilfully worked and well -taken tries and frequently found space out wide, but butchered a couple more and, in about his only error of another astonishingly assured performance, Dan Biggar missed a routine penalty to open the scoring.

Undeterred, they set about attacking the Leinster midfield. Off slow ball from a lineout mall, they recycled for Bishop to take a late hard line onto Biggar’s deftly delayed little flat pass and inside D’Arcy’s left arm. It was reminiscent of the try Leinster conceded to David Skrela in the Euro semis and came after D’Arcy had treatment to his left arm early into the fray.

Biggar was creator-in-chief again for the second try, looping around Bishop and bypassing Isa Nacewa’s attempted intercept with a long floated pass to James Hook and he passed inside to fend off D’Arcy and elude the despairing Jamie Heaslip.

As this was their third meeting with Leinster this season, and they had lost the last six clashes in a row, the penny had to drop eventually with such a clever backroom staff and talented team. Leinster have been heavily reliant on the trademark loop by Jonathan Sexton around either of the centres, and James Hook and Andrew Bishop pushed up hard and tackled man and ball, often knocking the ball down one-handed and only once penalised. Often illegal then, but homework done and carried out.

D’Arcy responded brilliantly, by carrying hard into the Ospreys midfield and wreaking his own damage (Byrne ought to have been yellow-carded for ending one D’Arcy run with a high-armed tackle which enabled sexton to make it 12-17)).

D’Arcy and Heaslip particularly strained every sinew but the Ospreys, despite playing for the clock from 20 out (cue Byrne’s daft drop-goal attempt from inside half-way before the hour mark) scrambled and defended for their lives, and when Sexton missed a fifth penalty to take Leinster within another kick of a resourceful win, they never really looked as if they had one last rabbit to pull out of the hat.

There were even a few empty seats and, try though the core Leinster fans endeavoured to liven things up, especially in the second-half, there was always a sense that Leinster were attempting to drag a performance out of themselves.

The RDS, like elsewhere in Irish rugby, has been spoilt these last few season. These things are relative too, and after the comparatively desultory atmosphere which has pertained for most of the season at the soul-less Liberty Stadium, the Ospreys were inspired by what they saw as the occasion.

Scoring sequence: 19 mins: Bowe try, Biggar con 0-7; 22 mins: Sexton pen 3-7; 35 mins: Byrne try, Biggar con 3-14; (half-time 3-14); 45 mins: Sexton pen 6-14; 48 mins: Biggar pen 6-17; 62 mins: Sexton pen 9-17; 70 mins: Sexton pen 12-17.

LEINSTER: R Kearney; S Horgan, B ODriscoll, G DArcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; SWright, J Fogarty, CJ van der Linde, N Hines, M OKelly, K McLaughlin, S Jennings (capt), J Heaslip. Replacements: Stephen Keogh for McLaughlin (30 mins), T Hogan for Keogh (42 mins), C Healy for van der Linde (48 mins), R Strauss for Jennings (67 mins). Not used: P O’Donohoe, F McFadden, G Dempsey.

OSPREYS: L Byrne; T Bowe, A Bishop, J Hook, S Williams; D Biggar, M Phillips; P James, H Bennett, A Jones, A W Jones, J Thomas, J Collins, M Holah, R Jones (capt). Replacements: I Gough for Thomas (62 mins), F Tiatia for R Jones (67 mins), R Bevington for James (71 mins), N Walker for Wiliams (71 mins). Not used: E Shervington, J Nutbrown, G Owen.

Referee: C White (RFU).