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.
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.
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 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.
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.