Heineken Cup Final Reaction #1: M’Learned Friends Of The Bench

Cronin scoots in on eighty minutes for the fifth Leinster try. While it must have been hard to take for Ulster fans, Leinster fans will be happy that the team played for the whole match and kept scoring until the final whistle.

Leinster were always going to try and stretch the eighty minutes; one of their major advantages over Ulster lay in the fact that they had more talent on the bench, especially in the pack. The starting eights seemed quite equal on pre-match inspection, but it was obvious that there was a quality disparity in whom the respective coaches could call off the bench. 

The Mole was rightly generous in his praise of Heinke van der Merwe in the preview, describing him as a real challenger to Cian Healy as the best loosehead prop in Ireland. Healy produced a ferocious performance against All Black John Afoa for an hour, and van der Merwe didn’t let up in the slightest when he took the field with twenty minutes left on the clock. His repeated carrying into contact, the slick passing interplay with Richardt Strauss and his well-finished try all served to show that he’s more than just a heavyweight scrummager.  It’s incredible to think that CJ van der Linde has 73 Springbok caps [and was recently included in Heyneke Meyer’s training squad] and van der Merwe has just one! At 26 years old, he has a hell of a lot of rugby ahead of him, and it would be a travesty if he didn’t spend more time on test pitches.

Sean Cronin scored after coming off the bench at the end of Leinster’s first game of the competition against Montpellier, and he scored after coming off the bench at the end of their last game against Ulster. Having a player of his quality and explosive pace in the front row – and keeping him fresh and on the bench for the first hour – has caused a number of opposition teams big problems in the endgame.

At hooker, the story was the same with the characters’ names changed: Richardt Strauss put in his best performance of the season [the Mole would have had him as a contender for Man of the Match] against Rory Best, then was replaced for the final fifteen minutes by Best’s understudy in green, the pacy Sean Cronin. That both Cronin and van der Merwe scored late tries is indicative of the advantage that Leinster had in reserve; while the final score might have felt somewhat unreflective to Ulster fans, Leinster were always going to use their bench to stretch the game. If it had been a tight game, Leinster still would have sprung most of their bench; it was more open, and thus the effect was more immediately apparent.

How highly Nathan White is regarded is signalled by the fact that the IRFU have snapped him up with a long term contract for Connacht that will see him eligible to play for Ireland through residency in twenty-seven months. His impact off the bench was not as immediate as that of his front row colleagues, but he did manage to put in one enormous handoff on a charge in his own half, and bossed Paddy McAllister, Tom Court’s young replacement, in the scrum.

The thirty year old White is no spring chicken, but his intelligence and professionalism have often been overlooked by those in the media clamouring for Jamie Hagan to see more time on the pitch. White’s contribution was often sniffed at in the press because of the fact that he’s not Irish-qualified, and tighthead is an obvious position of need for Ireland at test level.

Declan Fitzpatrick is more a technician rather than an athlete – and that’s okay: so is Mike Ross. If you want to bring a prop off the bench who can run around but can’t scrummage, the opposition pack will have a go at you in the set-piece. However, the gap had widened by the time he came on, and set-piece solidity wasn’t going to make up two converted tries.

McAllister, Nigel Brady and tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick didn’t have anything like the same effect as their Leinster counterparts. It’s not because they’re bad players – indeed, Declan Fitzpatrick has just been called up for Ireland – it’s because they’re not set up to chase a game. Fitzpatrick and Brady are stolid, one-paced players who perform their set-piece jobs well, while McAllister is an undoubted talent but still some way from the finished article.

It’s obvious that with the clear exception of the Paddy Jackson/Iain Humphreys switch, Ulster had a bunch of players on their bench that they didn’t want to have to use. Nigel Brady coming on would mean that Irish captain Rory Best was off the pitch; Paul Marshall coming on would mean that goalkicker and general Ruan Pienaar was done. Declan Fitzpatrick is a solid scrummager, but one-dimensional compared to John Afoa; Willie Faloon struggled in the semi-final, and would be going head to head with a fresh Shane Jennings and Man of the Match Sean O’Brien; and Adam D’Arcy is a player who Ulster will be looking to replace from within next season: you can’t fit Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy into a starting back three.

Schmidt made a big call in bringing on Devin Toner for captain Leo Cullen on 57 minutes. Cullen’s stalling tactics at the breakdown had begun to get on referee Nigel Owens’ nerves, and The Mole suspects that Schmidt made the call based on the hunch that

  • getting caught by the ref meant that Cullen was tiring; and
  • it’s better to try and alleviate the threat of getting a yellow card and playing half the remainder of the game with fourteen men, rather than insisting that your captain stay on the pitch for the full eighty.

As it was, Dan Tuohy got over for his try within a couple of minutes. However, Leinster scored eighteen points with Toner on the park; it was 24-9 when he came on, and 42-14 at the final whistle. While he didn’t get his hands on the ball, the scrums didn’t suffer and he worked hard to clear people out of the breakdown and continue to generate quick ball. Leinster weren’t looking to work out of touch, because they wanted to keep the pace up and keep stoppages to a minimum, so the game played away from Toner’s established strengths; still, he held up his end and it was a fitting finish to a good campaign for him.

In contrast to Toner’s early entry, Lewis Stevenson only got a minute off the bench. Dan Tuohy’s game is based on physical impact and hard work, and it would have seemed a better optimisation of resources to let Stevenson have ten minutes, if not more. While Tuohy is obviously the better player of the two, there’s not that much between them when the starter has already put in an hour of final-pace graft in mid-May.

Ian Madigan came off the bench with seven minutes to go and the game more or less in the bag, but he was instrumental in the last two tries. He has improved a huge amount  this year, and fully deserved his IRUPA Young Player of the Year nomination. While he’s not the finished article quite yet, The Mole thinks he’s a more mature and more rounded player than some would give him credit for.  It’s a pity that he’s not part of the Irish touring party to New Zealand, if only  because the potential match-up against Aaron Cruden would have been bloody enjoyable to watch!

Ian Madigan and Dave Kearney have been bigger contributors to Leinster’s success in the Pro12 than in the Heineken Cup this season, but both of them have really emerged as credible starters over the 2011-12 campaign after bright cameos last season. In terms of gametime, Kearney is fifth on the list at Leinster [behind Nacewa, Toner, Strauss and van der Merwe] and Madigan is joint sixth with Luke Fitzgerald. Both players have come on in leaps and bounds in two seasons under Joe Schmidt; with due credit to their obvious talent, it’s difficult to imagine them progressing anywhere near as much under one of the other provincial regimes.

Dave Kearney was selected on the bench for Ireland against Wales in the first game of the championship, when Keith Earls’ late withdrawal meant that Fergus McFadden was called into the starting lineup. However, neither himself nor Madigan have as yet been capped by Kidney, and neither are selected in the touring party to New Zealand. Both are borderline international quality players, and a different coach might already have capped them at test level; they’d certainly make the starting XVs of a number of other clubs in the competition.

The one position where Leinster looked to be lacking was scrum-half. Isaac Boss failed a very late fitness test, which saw John Cooney promoted to the substitutes line-up an hour or so before the game. Boss had been a major worry for a couple of days, and naming him in the squad was an exercise in hope rather than expectation. Cooney had only recently returned from a fractured jaw sustained while playing for Lansdowne – an injury that forced him to miss the British & Irish Cup semi-final against Munster, where his back-up, nineteen year old Luke McGrath, put in an excellent performance – and was short of gametime.

John Cooney made the debut from hell against the Ospreys in the first game of the season, but those few minutes off the bench in the Heineken Cup final must have done a hell of a lot to rescue his season.

He had had a torrid introduction to first grade professional rugby in the first game of the season, when the Justin Tipuric-led Ospreys swarmed all over him in the Liberty Stadium. Afforded neither decent protection nor go-forward ball, the scrum-half’s game went to absolute pieces and he was substituted at halftime for Cillian Willis. It looked to have really shaken the confidence of the coaches in his mindset and abilities: he saw less than an hour of Pro12 rugby for the rest of the season, and wasn’t even on the radar for European games.

However, he was promoted to the bench for the biggest game of the season and, with a sixteen-point margin established and seven minutes to go, Joe Schmidt brought him on in tandem with Ian Madigan against a tiring Ulster pack. Cooney seamlessly picked up where Eoin Reddan had left off. Those seven minutes of rugby will have gone a long, long way to repairing his confidence.

Some coaches get nervy and hold on too tight at the end of games: Schmidt didn’t. It might have seemed unnecessary to bring on Cooney, but those seven minutes must be like an injection of pure self-belief: I can play at this level.

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6 thoughts on “Heineken Cup Final Reaction #1: M’Learned Friends Of The Bench

  1. Lovely stuf Mole. Actually Dev got on the ball to reasonable effect. I can recall one good hard carry over the gainline and a couple of minutes later one nice bit of handling that created space for … somebody (can’t remember who).

  2. Mole, a question.
    You seem to be really down on CJ and what he did at Leinster. This article isnt the first time you have mentioned him in less than glowing terms.
    Prop has always been my weak position, but after a game I was talking to an old tight head how assued me that CJ’s biggest infulence was finally teaching Stan Wright how to scrummage. It seems a long time ago now but I dont remember Stan been ever particulearly devastating until CJ came along.
    Would be delighted to hear your views on this.

  3. CJ was just disappointing, Don. I had seen him play for the Lions in Super Rugby and outside of being an aggressive scrummager he had unbelievable pace: he used to break tackles and run away from the cover at 120kg+. It really was something to see.

    He had real problems with a tendon in his foot when he was here, but even when he was fit he never looked like he was really pushing himself, or that his heart was totally in it. Nobody warms to a guy who has loads of ability but doesn’t work hard. van der Merwe plays thirty games per season, keeps himself in tip-top shape and always puts in a good stint for Leinster. He’s an exceptional tackler and his work-rate is right up there with any forward in the squad.

    For my money, Ollie le Roux was a far, far greater influence on the Leinster front row [including Stan Wright and Cian Healy] in the one season he spent in the RDS than CJ van der Linde was in his two seasons.

    • Much appreciated Mole, thank you. Keep up the good work, there are few finer more un-biased articles on Irish rugby out there than your goodself

  4. I would like to ask the mole’s views on Toner’s season. Having seen Toner in previous seasons he is a player, as a fan, that I have rooted for. However there were issues with his carrying capabilities and break down techniques. However this season these areas have improved significantly. He hits the contact at a steeper angle and with more pace and rarely gets shunted back. His break down clearing has also improved and handling as well, as can be seen with the somewhat audacious side step and offload for a try in the group stages of the Heineken Cup. However I would like to know is it possible for him to improve further, and possibly contribute more to his international caps tally as seen as it is an area that we maybe be found wanting in, in the not so distant future?.
    Recently discovered this site and thoroughly enjoying un-biased articles and mature, intelligent observations from fellow readers. A nice alternative to the hate filled drivel spewed from keyboard warriors on other sites.

    • Thanks for the compliments, Martin.

      I definitely see Toner as having an international future, but it’s difficult to know just how consistent it will be. Ireland have turned over two long-term locks in the last year in Mick O’Driscoll [retired] and Leo Cullen [out of favour] and have belatedly turned to Donnacha Ryan and Dan Tuohy for this tour. In my opinion, Ryan should have started every Six Nations match ahead of O’Callaghan, and Tuohy should have been called into the matchday squad for that tournament ahead of Mike McCarthy – it’s not that McCarthy’s a bad player, but Tuohy has an extra bit of size on him and is crucially four years younger.

      If you saw the second test between Wales and Australia, you’ll have seen Wales’ lineout failing dramatically. Supporters take set-piece solidity for granted until it disappears. Toner is a guy that dominates any lineout he’s in, and he has performed very well at provincial level against internationals like Richie Gray, Ali Kellock [both Glasgow and Scotland] and Ian Evans [Ospreys and Wales]. He’s 25 years old, which would indicate that his best years as a second row are ahead of him. I’d expect Paul O’Connell to still be in harness for RWC15, especially if he adjusts his style a little bit and concentrates more on hitting rucks and less on carrying the pill, and the size and physical abilities of outstanding U20 Iain Henderson mark him out as an exceptional talent. He’s a long way ahead of the mark set by any Irish second row in the last decade at the same age. I’d be looking for Ireland to build a second row corps around O’Connell [32] with Ryan [28], Tuohy [27], Toner [25] and Henderson [20].

      A guy like Ryan Caldwell [27] is relatively out of sight and out of mind at Bath, but he had a massive season over there, playing in 29 games [17 Premiership starts and 6 HEC starts] before shipping a knee injury at the end of the season. He’s a great athlete with ideal size at 201cm [6’7″] and 112kg [17st 11lbs] – and he’s got a mean streak a mile wide. Discipline and application were a big issue at Ulster, but he seems to have turned it around at Bath. I’d expect one of the Munster pairing of Dave Foley [24] or Ian Nagle [23] to make a big step up this season or move elsewhere to get gametime. Both are still underpowered, but they’ve the potential to be good players. Andrew Browne [25] will make his return to Connacht after missing last season with a serious injury – he’ll be worth keeping an eye on in the Pro12.

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