Last Friday night at the RDS Leinster had every excuse in the book to meekly register a first defeat of the season.
With their starting XV and a few more on the sidelines, many thought that this match would not be a true reflection of Leinster’s strength and power.
The Stormers had a string of high-quality Springbok players returning to their squad and the right to host home playoff games in Cape Town as a reward for victory. They arrived in Dublin in the unusual position of favourites.
How wrong we all were to doubt Leinster, a club with such a long history of doing what the rest of us thought was impossible.
With a few minutes to go in the first half, the Stormers were cruising, leading 17 points to zip, with the home team in deep trouble. I would suggest that what happened next is why this match may be the only draw of Leo Cullen’s coaching career that would bring a broad smile to the big man’s face.
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The great Premiership-winning AFL coach, David Parkin, had a term he called “sacrificial acts”. These are acts of physical effort that require no skill, but the drive and determination to outwork your opponent. He even had a section on his statistical team sheet to document them.
American NFL coaches use the ‘hard yards’, describing the unglamorous dirty work that the fans miss but team-mates see. The acts of physical courage that have huge impacts on outcomes. Actions that if taken in isolation mean very little. Yet, when repeated by teammates and added to the collective effort, they begin to build a momentum that provides the energy that powers success and wins championships.
The pivotal play of the match that saved Leinster from defeat and ensured they host their URC playoff games was a classic example of why they remain close to the pinnacle of European rugby.
From a lineout in a powerful attacking position, 20 metres from the Stormers try line, they employed a low throw in to the front only to have the Stormers captain, Steven Kitshoff, read the low throw and intercept the ball. He took flight, then quickly fed his flying number eight, Hacjivah Dayimani, who looked certain to run 75 metres and score a match-winning try.
The sacrificial acts from both teams that took place over the next few seconds could yet determine the eventual winner of URC title.
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Rhys Ruddock had another massive match for the club he has served so magnificently for so many seasons. He led a pack of brave Leinster chasers in what looked like a purely symbolic pursuit. The Stormers players must have thought this as well because a wide shot of the replay showed six Leinster chases and only the solitary Stormers winger, Suleiman Hartzenberg, in support.
At that moment it seemed irrelevant as Dayimani looked set to run in the try as he had outpaced Ruddock, who refused to quit, while Ciarán Frawley and Rob Russell were so far back that it seemed impossible that they could influence the play. Yet they all keep sprinting to stay in the fight.
The leap of faith required by the Leinster chasers can be measured in the fact that when the outside centre, Liam Turner, crossed the halfway line, Dayimani was at least seven metres in front of him.
Somehow Turner overcame this gap and metres from the Leinster try line, after a truly unbelievable chase, he delivered a devastating diving low tackle that cut Dayimani to the ground.
But not before this excellent number eight delivered a perfectly floated offload to the only supporting Stormer, the speedster Hartzenberg. Astonishingly, almost instantaneously, Frawley then demolished the Stormers winger.
As Hartzenberg placed the ball close to Leinster’s line it was clear that if the Stormers recycled the ball they would score and win the match. The fourth Leinster sacrificial act came with the arrival of Russell who instinctively put his body on the line and jackaled on the ball.
That night, Leinster sent out a clear message. If any opponent think this team’s performance hinges purely on Johnny Sexton, they are deeply misguided and heading for defeat
This was followed by Ruddock desperately reaching the tackle zone a split second before the Stormers calvary arrived. The Leinster captain placed his body in the firing line alongside Russell and latched his supporting arm across his back. Both knew that the cleanout that was coming from the Stormers would be vicious. The video shows Russell stealing a glance at the charging Stormers, then bravely hunkering down to endure the hit.
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The Leinster winger showed the heart of a Lion as he fastened his hands onto the ball with his captain’s arm around him.
Even with Ruddocks support, Russell took a massive hit. Somehow he held on and Leinster won a penalty that in all probability avoided defeat.
If Cullen had clips of all the sacrificial acts performed by his players last week, all the hard yards of unglamorous work that when combined displayed how Leinster avoided defeat, it would be a long but inspirational piece of footage.
That night, Leinster sent out a clear message. If any opponent think this team’s performance hinges purely on Johnny Sexton, they are deeply misguided and heading for defeat.
For Ulster to compete with Leinster they will have to dig deep into their emotional motivation and find the determination to do make more hard yards than the men in blue.
An easy thing to say but a far tougher mission to perform.