By Kieran Rooney
LEINSTER remain on line for a RaboDirect/Pro12 League and Amlin Cup double following Saturday’s 17-15 victory over Glasgow Warriors at the RDS. But only just. It was, in fact, a much relieved and somewhat battered Leinster side which finished the RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final.
Glasgow, probably the most improved side in Europe, really put it up to Leinster. They outscored them by two tries to one and could have drawn level with Stuart Hogg’s late conversion attempt.
Fortunately for Leinster it drifted wide in the difficult windy conditions. The last thing that Leinster needed was extra-time prior to Friday’s Amlin Cup decider against Stade Francais at the same venue.
Coach Joe Schmidt has enough problems as things stand. Both Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy had to retire against Glasgow with the latter looking likely to miss the game against Stade Francais and the RaboDirect decider against Ulster the following weekend.
D’Arcy had to be helped off in the second half with a severe looking calf injury. O’Driscoll, for his part, only lasted 12 minutes before leaving the field because of a back spasm.
Fortunately though Schmidt is much more optimistic that he will recover in time for the Amlin Cup decider against Stade Francais. The coach is also hopeful international flanker Sean O’Brien will be able to feature after missing the narrow victory over Glasgow because of a calf strain.
But Richardt Strauss and Fergus McFadden are also nursing knocks, so it’s clearly going to take a terrific effort from Leinster if they are to pull off the double. Ulster, their RaboDirect final opponents, recorded a comfortable 28-17 semi-final victory over the Scarlets at Ravenhill last Friday night and will not be lacking in confidence when they travel to Dublin for the decider.
“We know exactly how tough it’s going to be.” admitted Schmidt. “We have a lot of injuries to deal with but hopefully we can piece together a team for the next two weekends.”
Schmidt described the game against Glasgow as “really frustrating”. That was mainly to do with the injuries and the fact that Leinster wasted a number of great positions at vital times.
Consequently, they could never shake off a fiercely determined and very skilful Glasgow side. The match was played at a huge level of intensity, hence the amount of injuries.
If Leinster had any doubt about what Glasgow were about, they found out pretty quickly. With the wind behind them they tore into Leinster from the start.
O’Driscoll sustained his injury bravely denying them a try and it took another great piece of defending from full-back Rob Kearney to stop them getting another score.
Predictably, it was the visitors lively Fijian scrum-half Niko Matawalu who did eventually make the breakthough. Matawalu, the outstanding performer on the field, darted over for a try which Hogg converted.
Hogg also landed a penalty but a try from the impressive Jamie Heaslip and a penalty by Jonathan Sexton kept Leinster in touch. Crucially, with the score 10-8 in Glasgow’s favour, Matawalu was then sin-binned.
That enabled Leinster move 11-10 in front at half time with a second Sexton penalty. Surely, with the strong wind behind them in the second half, Leinster would have an easier time?
Not a bit of it. Another couple of Sexton penalties did give them some breathing space but Glasgow kept coming back and were eventually rewarded when their young centre Mark Bennett got over for a try in the final 10 minutes.
Hogg’s conversion could have put them level but the Scottish international full-back saw his effort go wide. Leinster could not have been more relieved.
They were somewhat fortunate to have survived but they have developed the habit of winning tight games. That attribute may well be tested when they face Ulster in the RaboDirect final.
Ulster look in very good shape just now. They seem to have put their disappointing Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat by Saracens well behind them to finish top of the RaboDirect table.
They were also impressive in putting the Scarlets away in the first semi-final, although they did ease off and allow their opponents in for some late consolation scores. Most of the work had been done in the opening half.
Tommy Bowe, Robbie Diack and Tom Court all scored tries with the remainder of Ulster points coming from the boot of Ruan Pienaar. Rory Best again produced a big performance in his effort to show the Lions selectors were wrong to ignore him.
So did Ulster No 8 Nick Williams. Named Player of the Year by the Irish Players Association, Williams did a huge amount of damage with his ball carrying and fierce tackling.
It was a good overall effort from Ulster, even if they did let Scarlets produce a late rally. “The job was done in the opening 50 minutes,” said coach Mark Anscombe.
“Some of the rugby we produced in that period was superb. We did lose our way a bit after that but then hopefully that will act as a reminder that we cannot afford to relax.”
Certainly, Ulster won’t be able to relax at any stage if they are to beat Leinster in the final which will be at the RDS because of redevelopment work at Ravenhill which started this week.