Saturday was a day of finals on British TV. The last football Premier League spot for next season was won by West Ham United at Wembley with a goal in the 86th minute.
Chelsea became the first London side to win the Champions League trophy winning a penalty shoot-out against Bayern Munich in their own backyard.
Finally, in the Rugby Union equivalent, Leinster once again were crowned champions of Europe with their victory over Ulster in the Heineken Cup Final at Twickenham. They have now won three of the last four finals and few, in this part of the world would bet against them being in the running again next season.
Despite having a family interest in Ulster (my wife works for the company that provides their playing/leisure kit) it was fitting and important that the side who were consistently prepared to play the most varied and challenging rugby throughout the tournament triumphed.
It is rare indeed, in any professional sport, that the man in charge of proceedings gets many bouquets thrown his way but Nigel Owens, the referee on Saturday, helped a spectacle evolve. He allowed an intelligent contest in the tackle area and Irish back rows know how to take advantage of that! Any player who unthinkingly allowed himself to be isolated was immediately in trouble from the opposition or the man with the whistle – as it should be!
Owens also played the advantage as well as any referee I have seen this season in this part of the world. Players were encouraged to make quick and clear decisions and actions and had only themselves to blame if these subsequently went awry. No extended 5/6 phases of opportunity and I expect any self respecting professional player welcomed this approach. He also encouraged both sides to take quick tap and go free kicks and penalties, not slowing the game down whilst he lectured the offending players. This meant their was a flow and pace on the game that allowed the quick thinking to take advantage. His approach took the robotic element out of the contest.
Despite the final scoreline Ulster made the early running and surprised many by literally doing just that! It had been expected that their preferred way of taking on the Leinster defence would be in a confrontational physical manner. It has been a trademark over the years and with a sprinkling of ex Springboks in the side there was little reason to think this would change. But no! They moved the ball from side to side, exploring the width of the Twickenham pitch to immediately test the ability and patience of the Leinster defenders to keep their shape. Unfortunately the lateral element of their attack dominated the go forward so the threat for the most part was minimal. Only rarely did the forwards decide to put together some off loading/short passing attacks which troubled the men from Dublin. In addition when Ulster kicked in the early stages it was invariably too long allowing a willing Leinster back three the space and time in which to counter. Ulster may have dominated field position and possession but could not threaten.
Contrast this with the clinical execution of Leinster when the chances arose. Two turnovers led to two tries through accuracy of execution, good decisions of where to attack and being very direct. Leinster also dictated the pace of the game through their players ability to perform more than one positional role. So, instead of waiting for Reddan and Sexton to arrive to play half back in phase play, others were willing and capable to execute the simplicities of these functions. I felt that this encouraged the Ulster forwards to think that there were more potential turn over opportunities that actually existed so they committed more defenders to the tackle areas than necessary and left holes elsewhere. It was instructive to watch the contrast in the approach of Brad Thorne to this issue. I watched him specifically for a five minute spell when Ulster had the majority of the possession and his intelligent work rate, decision making and communication was a lesson to any front five defender.
He also became the go to line-out forward in the second half. Ball to Thorne, off the top, Reddan to D’Arcy into midfield and then a return play towards the touch line revolving around the scrum half and Strauss the hooker. Intelligently done, very effective and preserved space in the wider channels when Leinster decided to play there through their backs.
As the game developed the trademark handling game which Leinster have developed this year became more and more apparent. They are adept at running a group of players down narrow channels, constantly switching the focus of the ball and looking to put in that extra pass that the defenders are not expecting. This keeps movements alive in the tightest of circumstances and makes defenders think and communicate and not just settle into their comfort zone system.
The final score slightly flattered Leinster as they ran in a couple of late tries when Ulster were down to fourteen men, Terreblanche being sin binned for a lazy tip tackle. But this should not take any of the gloss from the victory. It was a victory of attacking intent over defensive mindset, not one that we see practiced or put into operation very often in our area of the world, especially in the biggest of games.
The question on everyone’s lips now is “Can the Irish players translate this into their performances when they pull on the National jerseys?”