Iain Henderson v James Ryan proves an unfair contest
Leinster possess at least three dominant big men in Ryan, Scott Fardy, and Caelan Doris
Leinster’s Caelan Doris stole the show once more in Leinster’s Pro14 final victory. Photograph: Inpho
Ulster have two Goliaths in Marcell Coetzee and Iain Henderson, but the gap in quality between the beta, delta and omegas in either squads is why they found themselves so far adrift in a Pro 14 final that fully reflected the current balance of power.
“Leinster have not peaked,” said Henderson. “They get better and better year on year. We need to get better and better quicker than they do.”
There is plenty to marvel about the Ireland secondrows reappearing following surgical procedures that would leave a normal human in an immovable state. Rugby players, these days, go under the knife every other season, if they are lucky, to mend dislocations and ripped ligaments.
Henderson’s hip and James Ryan’s shoulder recoveries showcased the miracle of modern medicine. And they will be back in the trenches this weekend as English and French heavyweights pummel them into the dirt.
That’s guaranteed. That’s the life they have chosen. To reach the ultimate aim of touring South Africa with the Lions our locking heroes must somehow postpone a date with the anaesthesiologist until August 2021. Wishful thinking, but Henderson and Ryan are made of a hardness that only becomes understandable in an empty gladiatorial arena.
The silence of the Aviva allows reporters to almost feel, and certainly hear, each wincing collision.
Henderson, fuelled by leading his boyhood team into a final, looked nothing like someone just back on their feet following a hip operation. Ryan was blowing hard yet still managed 10 tackles in the opening 40 minutes and kept growing into the game after Robbie Henshaw’s intercept try secured the fourth trophy of the Leo Cullen era.
In short, Ireland’s locking partnership were busy doing secondrow things. You know, slicing bodies off ruck ball and pounding themselves into gang tackles.
Henderson won the first half on bravery alone. This was more to do with Ronán Kelleher’s increasingly dodgy lineout throwing which is not Ryan’s direct department when Devin Toner is on deck. Nor will it be when Ryan Baird eventually settles into the starting XV.
This is a very real problem for Leinster. Kelleher failed to find his intended target four times from seven first half floaters. A repeat of such inaccuracy will see their 2020 season nosedive spectacularly against Saracens on Saturday. The Ireland hooker in waiting needs a cure for the yips.
“It’s mainly our own undoing, some of those throws,” said Cullen. “Sometimes the lift is a little bit off, it’s not down to any one person. Saracens’ set-pieces are going to be huge.”
Kelleher, it should be noted, brings a physical presence that was second only to Doris. With Ryan needing a few more days to rediscover his mojo, and before Maro Itoje comes after him, somebody else needed to become the alpha in Leinster’s pack.
Josh van der Flier is never included in this discussion but he earned the man of match award in his first final, even though the best player on view was so obviously the other Leinster flanker.
But the way things are going the next wave of Leinster players will be wearing red or white jerseys.
Doris plunged the last dagger into Ulster on 71 minutes (by then Ryan and Henderson were cling filmed in ice packs). The Sarries wolf pack won’t allow him to bully them in the way he carried Jordi Murphy and Ian Madigan over the line. But it will be fun to watch him try.
First among equals discussion aside, the 2020 Pro14 final was cooked by the 47th minute after Billy Burns was picked off by Henshaw when attempting to sling shot Coetzee over the gainline. That their primary ball carrier covered 14 metres off 15 carries adequately sums up Ulster’s inability to hurt Leinster.
“The phases that we put Leinster through the majority of teams in the league would have cracked and a gap would have opened for somebody to slip through and score a try,” said Henderson. “Leinster didn’t. They’re incredibly difficult to break down.”
Saracens are sure to disagree. Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola will hardly be quaking in their boots but a line has been drawn in the sand as everyone loops back to the most compelling rivalry northern hemisphere rugby has served up these past three seasons.
Ulster limp down to France - with a very real danger of their wounds being reopened - but it is Leinster that compels our full attention as they go in search of their lost European crown.