herald

Saturday 3 December 2016

Blues have fear factor in Europe

Madigan boots Leinster past Bath and into Europe's last-four

Leinster's Fergus McFadden on the ball during the European Champions Cup, Quarter Final with Bath at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Leinster's Fergus McFadden on the ball during the European Champions Cup, Quarter Final with Bath at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin

THERE is a sneaking suspicion that Bath are now where Leinster were before the dawn of a new era in 2009.

The English club played the more attractive, exciting rugby in The Champions Cup quarter-final on Saturday.

Leinster know better than most this does not always translate into silverware.

The diminutive England out-half George Ford was exquisite in parts, loose in others, mirroring the West Country club's overall impact in a game they outscored Leinster two tries to none and still lost out in some of the fundamentals of the game, most notably the scrum.

"Fordy's probably as good as there is at identifying space," acknowledged Leinster coach Matt O'Connor.

"There's a load of good sides with ball in hand. They're a little bit unique. Mike (Ford) talks up how good they are.

"At the same time, they haven't won anything. You've got to weigh that up with wanting to play and the result."

There you have it.

The Leicester Tigers mindset Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings took home from the East Midlands in 2007 - to which O'Connor was a devoted servant for three years - is embedded in the Leinster hierarchy.

The three-time winners are hot on the hunt for their fourth European Cup and they will not waste a sleepless night on how they got to the semi-final.

"We're still alive in Europe," he offered up.

"We have got an opportunity to go away in a semi-final and you are 80 minutes away from a final."

On all recent evidence, this is not the Leinster of 2009, 2011 or 2012. They just haven't hit the high notes this season. This could work in their favour.

The shine has gone off their pre-eminent reputation as a European superpower. This is the price the club pays for great men having either left or retired.

There has to be a consideration that Leinster can come in under the radar as, probably, the outsiders of the four clubs still in the pot.

Has their fear factor gone on the wind? "No, I think that's a press opinion," replied O'Connor.

"I think if you ask anybody that we're playing against, there'd be a bit of fear in their changing room prior to the game.

"There's a fair bit of fear when you play Cian Healy and Seán O'Brien, Dev Toner and Jamie Heaslip, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Zane Kirchner. There's a fair bit of fear there."

The Australian still reserved a note of caution about Leinster's inefficiencies into the last quarter, wayward kicking inviting pressure back onto them, mainly through the jet-propelled speed of Anthony Watson.

"We probably didn't get the ball to the edges which exposed us and split our defence which made it hard to deal with the threats that they had.

"Watson was pretty fresh because he had done 10 minutes in the sin-bin, so that was tactically probably a bit of a mistake from our end.

"I thought the options to kick the ball were probably the right ones. I thought Eoin (Reddan) was very good for the back 25 minutes, but we probably didn't actually capitalise on executing our kick chase as well as we would have liked.

"I thought we scrambled really and worked really hard. That kept us in the game."

Mike Ford is at the beginning of his story as Bath coach.

He was able to be philosophical about the loss of a big game they could so easily have won.

"I think this will make us stronger," he said.

The once dominant English club are still third in The Premiership and in the process of launching an assault for that trophy.

"We will look back at the end of the season, at this game in particular, and we'll say this is where Bath Rugby became strong.

"We are a great side when we put it together. The boys have got to believe in that. I think they do.

"We must learn quickly because we're going to play more big games this season."

The passion emanating from Ford about the way he wants to play the game did not leave him blind to other ways.

"There's more than one way to win games. It is not just about scoring tries. They kicked their penalties," he reflected.

"The last 10-15 minutes I was convinced we would win the game. That last penalty was dead-set a penalty to us. It's small margins."

Leinster's O'Connor saw that final decision differently. So too did referee Jerome Garces.

And there it ended.

MAN OF THE MATCH: JAMIE HEASLIP

The details of the captain's game were intact from his control at the base, to his scramble defence and sound decision-making to support his topping of the tackle-count (8), carry-count (13) and lineout takes (4).

TURNING POINT

This one arrived right at the end as Bath pressed for a late equalising three or winning five, referee Jerome Garces seeing Matt Garvey's side-entry ahead of Richardt Strauss's flick on the floor.

Promoted articles

Entertainment News