Rivals will have to rewrite rules to stop the record Leinster men
Leinster 42 Ulster 14
Rugby has a long and dishonourable tradition of fixing the unbroken while failing to mend the bits that are patently falling apart, so it comes as no great surprise that certain elements of the Heineken Cup fraternity – the English and the French, basically – should be pressing hard for a mutually beneficial restructuring of the sport's most captivating tournament. There is no current agreement on the precise way forward, but this much is obvious: if the clubs from Europe's two biggest union nations are serious about restoring their joint domination of the competition, they will have to find a way of stopping Leinster from playing in it.
The Dubliners broke all kinds of records in putting Ulster to the sword in front of almost 82,000 spectators at Twickenham: in securing the title for the third time in four years, an unprecedented feat in itself, they accumulated the most points, scored the most tries and established the biggest winning margin in the 17-year history of Heineken Cup finals. Having stared straight into the eyeballs of the most dangerous members of the opposition, and decided that if they posed a threat it was not of the "real and present" variety, they proceeded to have themselves a ball. It was, without doubt, the best showpiece performance since Brive ran rings round Leicester a decade and a half ago.
By excelling in the parts of the game that were not thought to be among their strengths – for instance, the loose-head prop Cian Healy completed a first-half try after setting the move in motion by helping to wheel the Ulstermen off their own scrum ball – Leinster announced themselves as a complete team. Their opponents knew in advance that they could not hope to achieve parity in Twickenham's broader acres. When it dawned on them, well before the end of the first half, that they could not match the holders in the darkened recesses either, they must have felt sick to the pits of their stomachs.
So what does the rest of Europe do about Leinster, who might lose some important individuals to retirement – the majestic Brian O'Driscoll, the inspirational Leo Cullen – over the next couple of seasons, but have put excellent youth development structures in place while somehow retaining the Eurozone-defying financial capacity to buy big from abroad? Both the English Premiership clubs and the French Top 14 sides are keen to see tougher qualification rules placed on those teams playing in the four-nation RaboDirect Pro12, but that will hurt the Italians and the Scots, both of whom have only two professional teams and are granted automatic Heineken Cup entry, a lot more than it hurts the Dubliners. In the end, there is no easy way of countering someone else's brilliance.
"Our current participation agreement is up for discussion from the start of June and we do anticipate people raising some serious questions over the tournament format," said Derek McGrath, the chief executive of the Heineken Cup's administrative body. "There has been enough chat about it so we're expecting discussions. We are of course open to ideas that would make the tournament better, but we also have to decide whether the things we talked about when putting the current system in place back in 2008 continue to be valid. I still think we need to make sure we don't stick the knife into the Scottish and Italian rugby."
Most of the knife-wielding on Saturday was done by Sean O'Brien. Time and again the Leinster flanker sliced Ulster into little pieces with ball in hand: he scored the opening try from close range after his opponents became entangled in their own knicker elastic while clearing their lines from their own 22, and contributed handsomely to Healy's score by taking a sublime oblique-angled, back-handed flick from O'Driscoll and rampaging to within five metres. He also won the hands-in-the-ruck contest, hands down. He may sail close to the wind seeking turnover treasure, but then so does Richie McCaw.
If there were odd moments when Ulster felt they might just find a fingerhold – when Ruan Pienaar sank the mother of all Twickenham penalties with the last kick of the first half; when the hard-working Paddy Wallace manufactured a try for Dan Tuohy on the hour to reduce the deficit to 10 points – it was O'Brien who did most to disabuse them of the notion. It was only fitting that after Leinster had moved clear again through the boot of Jonny Sexton and an impressive trundle to the line from Heinke van der Merwe, the man from County Carlow should have had one last say, in the shape of a scoring pass to the hooker Sean Cronin.
Cullen, the captain, had been off the field for some 20 minutes by then, resting his 34-year-old legs after another hard shift at the coalface. For the lock from Wicklow, the late rush of points was sweet indeed.
"There were times when I was almost embarrassed playing for Leinster, when I felt a lot of guilt," he said. "Times when I couldn't see how the team was going to be successful because things had become so disjointed. In 2005, we didn't even have a coach. I joined Leicester because I wanted to be at a club with a winning mentality. Now, I look around me and I feel blessed. We're breeding good quality, very competitive players and the future is bright. It's very satisfying."
Leinster have lost just five of their last 35 games at this exalted level and are the first team since the 1997ers from Brive to emerge unbeaten from a Heineken Cup campaign. It is some record, as the defeated and departing Ulster coach, Brian McLaughlin, generously acknowledged. The Belfast-based side have a deep yearning to challenge the southerners on their own terms over the next few seasons, but on this evidence there is no immediate sign of achievement keeping pace with ambition. A case of "Brits Out...Classed", you might say.
Leinster: Tries: O'Brien, Healy, penalty try, Van der Merwe, Cronin. Conversions: Sexton 3, McFadden. Penalties: Sexton 3.Ulster: Try: Tuohy. Penalties: Pienaar 3.
Leinster: R Kearney; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (D Kearney, 67-72), G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton (I Madigan, 73), E Reddan (J Cooney, 73); C Healy (H van der Merwe, 61), R Strauss (S Cronin, 67), M Ross (N White, 69), L Cullen (capt; D Toner, 57), B Thorn, K McLaughlin (S Jennings, 61), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Ulster: S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave (A D'Arcy, 77), P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson (I Humphreys, 45; P Marshall, 69), R Pienaar; T Court (P McAllister, 74), R Best (N Brady, 77), J Afoa (D Fitzpatrick, 73), J Muller (capt), D Tuohy (L Stevenson ,77), S Ferris, C Henry (W Faloon, 67), P Wannenburg.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
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