David Flatman: No 'machine', no chance against perfect Leinster

From the Front Row: Balshaw described Gerhard Vosloo as 'a machine'. In rugby, this translates as a compliment

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The Independent Online

Prop forwards often finish matches with little or no idea how things have really gone. The score is simple enough to find out but as for the ebb and flow of the contest, we regularly end up clueless. This isn't, believe it or not, down to ignorance or apathy, but more about spending so much time with one's head under the armpits of others or chewing the cud when sustenance is needed.

This can be where various websites and newspapers become extremely useful. It is nice to know what was happening while we were grafting, of course, but in truth we just don't want to look silly if the postman asks us about the game the next morning.

My best gauge, however, is the wording of the inevitable text message from my father. And the one I received after Bath played Leinster at the Aviva Stadium a few months ago, while very short, said it all: "Scrums looked solid, mate." That was it. And he was right – they were solid. Unfortunately, for the other 75 minutes I, along with my colleagues, did little more than chase shadows. The old man was obviously keen to focus on the positives; there just weren't many.

It saddens me, in a way, that I can report this but Leinster are, by some margin, the best team I have ever played against. I have been lucky enough to face the likes of Toulouse, Munster and Stade Français, but Leinster are better. Their scrum is proficient, their lineout simple and accurate. Their defence is relentless and their attack, well, it is All Black good.

In Luke Fitzgerald they have a supreme athlete capable of making any player on the planet look like an oil tanker on the turn. In Brad Thorne and Gordon D'Arcy they have brutish, intelligent power. In Jonathan Sexton they have a young man who controls the club game like he has been there forever. And in Brian O'Driscoll they have the best player of a generation.

Clermont, too, are an intimidatingly complete team. They have size and aggression all over the park and have two cultured, experienced fly-halves ready to steer the ship. But, as of last weekend, Les Jaunards are one very important cog short. Gerhard Vosloo is an openside flanker who only arrived this season. When I asked my old mate, the Biarritz full-back Iain Balshaw, his thoughts on the man, he described him simply as "a machine". In rugby speak, this translates as a compliment.

To watch him play is to witness perpetual motion but, more than that, it is to witness a level of combative effectiveness that goes a mile beyond the norm. In attack he is probably not as threatening as a Tom Croft, nor is he particularly useful come lineout time. His hands are functional rather than silky, but this matches his manner around the field. His technique at the breakdown is every bit as impressive as his fellow South African Heinrich Brussow's and this means he pilfers an awful lot of ball.

It also means that he is, week after week, targeted by team after team. They know that the key to gaining invaluable quick ball from the ruck is removing Vosloo from the equation, and in the Top 14 this is attempted by any means necessary. But, invariably, he remains immovable. One need only watch him for five minutes to see why Balshaw labelled him so; he just will not stop.

But the machine has malfunctioned and is out of action. He tried last weekend to prove his fitness against Montpellier and limped off before he ever really got going. It is unusual at this level to identify one individual as irreplaceable; Leinster have often survived without O'Driscoll, for example.

But Vosloo's absence is, in my view, so catastrophic for Clermont that it will leave them unable to win. If fed only slow ball, Leinster are excellent, but with regular quick ball they are close to perfect. Vosloo would have given his team's defensive line that extra second to set themselves by being a beastly nuisance on the floor. Now the men in yellow will have to scramble. Yes, Julien Bonnaire is a world-beater, but not on the floor; his value is mostly found in the air and in the open spaces.

On a monumental day, on a field covered in prime athletes, The Machine will be missed.