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Leinster Rugby Season Review 2010-2011

So looking back at the end of the season, there's some disappointment that Leinster didn't win the Magners League Grand Final to do the double. In truth though, Munster deserved their win after being the better team on the day and the most consistent team in the league over the season. However if you must lose to Munster in Thomond Park, then it's advisable to have won a Heineken Cup the week before! Leinster fans were able to stay and graciously applaud Munster safe in the knowledge that their team had proven themselves the best in Europe. So a season that began with a defeat ended in defeat, but a hell of a lot of good stuff happened in between.

Leinster faced into this season with an air of uncertainty. The Michael Cheika era had ended after five successful years in charge and most of the existing coaching team had left with him. The new boss Joe Schmidt only had forwards coach Jonno Gibbes left from the previous regime, but he brought in scrum specialist Greg Feek and skills coach Richie Murphy was promoted to a more prominent role. There was no direct replacement named for defensive coach Kurt McQuilkin, with Schmidt himself assuming the role until a suitable candidate could be found (he never was).

The biggest concern over Schmidt was the fact that this was his first head coach job after only working as an assistant up to then. How would he cope with being the top man? Things weren't made easier for him by the fact that his internationals would be rested for large parts of the season for the upcoming World Cup. Then there was the Heineken Cup pool containing his old club Clermont Auvergne, Saracens and Racing Metro 92. It was as tough a pool as had ever been named and qualifying from it looked a big ask.

After two heavy defeats in pre-season matches against Wasps and Leicester, where admittedly the sides were pretty mismatched in terms of experience, Leinster began their Magners League campaign away to Glasgow. Things seemed to be going well as Leinster led 16-6 at half-time thanks to tries from Isaac Boss and Dominic Ryan. However, a dreadful second half performance allowed Glasgow to sneak a 22-19 win. In RTE's post-match analysis, host Tom McGuirk wondered if Leinster were in crisis as they'd lost "three matches in a row"! Counting the two meaningless pre-season games seemed over-the-top but it was only a taste of the hysterical reaction to come from some sections of the media to the start of Schmidt's tenure.

Schmidt's first home game in charge came the next week against Cardiff Blues. Once again Leinster got off to a great start with two tries in the first ten minutes and they had a comfortable 20-6 lead at half time. However there was another poor second-half showing and they conceded 17 unanswered points to let Cardiff take a 23-20 lead. Thankfully Leinster had enough time to rectify the situation and tries by Fergus McFadden and Ian Madigan saved the day. They won 34-23 in the end but once again the performance raised more questions than answers.

Leinster went on the road for their next two games to Treviso and Edinburgh. As it was Leinster's first competitive match in over five years in Italy, a large crowd of Leinster supporters made the trip over and they started well when Isa Nacewa ran in a first minute try. That was as good as it got though and Treviso hit back with two tries of their own on their way to a well-deserved 29-13 win in the pouring rain. It wasn't known at the time but sadly this game was John Fogarty's last appearance in a Leinster jersey as he had to retire due to repeated concussions. It was a poor Leinster performance and Schmidt was looking for an improvement in Edinburgh. Instead, Leinster produced their worst performance in years as they made a poor Edinburgh side look like the All Blacks. They simply ran through Leinster and had a four-try bonus point win secured with about twenty minutes to go. Late tries from Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney gave the 32-24 final scoreline some respectability but in truth Leinster had been hammered.

So now it was three defeats in four competitive games and the media was in full-blown crisis mode. According to George Hook, Schmidt had "lost the dressing room" and he should have been sacked immediately. There were some mitigating circumstances however such as injuries to the likes of Stan Wright and Shaun Berne plus the disruption caused by the IRFU player welfare programme. Initially Schmidt had planned to be without his internationals for the first few games, but at the last minute this was changed and some players were made available early. However they were only allowed to play a certain amount of time so Schmidt found himself having to withdraw the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Shane Horgan and Brian O'Driscoll at key points in the game. In the end, the early availability of certain internationals probably did more harm than good.

With Schmidt under pressure, next up was Munster in the new Aviva Stadium. In contrast to Leinster's struggles, Munster had won their first four games and were desperately looking to end a four game losing streak against Leinster. For the first time in the season, Schmidt had full access to all his players and he sent out his strongest available team. The game was a bit scrappy, with neither team really playing with any great style. Munster led 9-6 with twenty minutes to go, but the game changed with the introduction of Eoin Reddan and Jonny Sexton from the bench. They helped Leinster up the pace of the match and ten minutes from time a superb Sean O'Brien offload put Brian O'Driscoll in for the match-winning try. Leinster were delighted with the 13-9 win, but in the pubs afterwards neither set of fans were too confident of their team winning a trophy at the end of the season.

Next up was Racing Metro 92 in the first pool match of the Heineken Cup. Racing arrived with a big pack and an expensively assembled set of backs. It was their first time in the competition but they very much fancied their chances of doing a number on the Leinster scrum. However Mike Ross and the Leinster front five held firm giving a perfect platform to their backrow to run rampant. Sean O'Brien led the charge with another all-action display and tries from him and Rob Kearney changed the game on the half-hour mark. Richardt Strauss scored another try early in the second half and though Racing briefly rallied with a try of their own, two more five-pointers from Jamie Heaslip and Fergus McFadden completed a thumping 38-22 win that sent the RDS crowd home very happy.

The only downside to the win was the hamstring injury that Brian O'Driscoll picked up which meant he missed the match the following week away to Saracens at Wembley Stadium. Saracens got a good start with an early try but Leinster fought their way back into the match through the excellent place-kicking of Jonny Sexton. Then they scored a superb try, started and finished by Sexton with great contributions from Isa Nacewa and Fergus McFadden. However some poor discipline let Sarries close the gap to two points and with the referee penalising them constantly, Leinster knew they had to be on their best behaviour as Saracens launched a prolonged attack with four minutes to go. In one of the great defensive stands in their history, Leinster stood tall and defended relentlessly through a scarcely believable 30 phases. Finally, Saracens knocked on and Leinster celebrated a 25-23 win that left them in a very good position in the pool. After witnessing such a dramatic finish, their fans in the stands started to believe that this season might, just might, be a little bit special.

Leinster parked their Heineken Cup campaign and set about improving their position in the Magners League in the five games played in and around Ireland's autumn Internationals. First up was a win in Galway against Connacht, in which a late Dominic Ryan intercept try gave the 18-6 scoreline a somewhat flattering look. They followed this up with home wins over Edinburgh and the Dragons. The 19-18 win over the Scots was marked by Andrew Conway's first Leinster try, surely the first of many. The 27-6 win over the Dragons was a far more comfortable affair. Shane Horgan bagged two tries in a bonus point win in what was sadly Trevor Hogan's last appearance for Leinster as he later had to announce his retirement due to a knee injury. Their six game winning run came to an end in the next match away to the Ospreys, when they went down to a 19-15 defeat in which they were the victim of some strange refereeing decisions. With snow everywhere, their next match away to the Scarlets was one of the few games to go ahead but Leinster scored three great tries and would have won but for a rare off-night with the boot from Jonny Sexton. In the end they had to settle for a 17-all draw.

The autumn internationals had been costly for Leinster though with Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Brian O'Driscoll picking up injuries that put them out of the next match away to Clermont Auvergne. The absentees made an already tough trip even harder and there was extra spice in the fact that Joe Schmidt was taking on his old team. Schmidt trusted in his young players and selected Eoin O'Malley at outside centre and gave Fergus McFadden only his second ever start on the wing. They both had superb games as did Dominic Ryan when he had to come on for Jamie Heaslip when he injured his ankle. In an enthralling game played in a red-hot atmosphere, Leinster seemed to surprise Clermont by attacking them from the start with some sublime rugby. Shane Horgan scored an early try but Clermont hit back with two of their own to win the game 20-13. Leinster had the chances to win it, or at least snag a draw, but Schmidt was quite happy to have earned a bonus point and to have denied Clermont one.

That bonus point would only matter though if Leinster did the business in the second half of the double-header. A 45,000 crowd attended the Aviva stadium on a bitterly cold Saturday evening. To attract that sort of attendance on the last shopping Saturday before Christmas was a testament to the work of the Leinster marketing department. This time when Leinster got close to their line, they were determined to get over and Cian Healy forced his way over the line twice for tries at the start of each half. When Sean O'Brien scored an opportunistic try on 51 minutes, the game was effectively won with half an hour still on the clock. They could have got a four try bonus point but their effort wilted somewhat in the last twenty and Clermont scored a consolation try to make the final score 24-8. However it was a minor quibble on the night as Leinster had put in a fantastic performance that left them in full control of the pool.

In the two Magners League games over Christmas and New Years away to Ulster and at home to Connacht, Schmidt rotated his squad but it didn't affect the performance levels. First Ulster were demolished 30-13, which is no mean feat up in Ravenhill. The game was effectively over by half-time as Sean O'Brien helped himself to two barnstorming tries. Then on New Years day, after a scrappy first half, Leinster eased to a 30-8 win over Connacht with Dave Kearney helping himself to a brace of tries as part of a four-try bonus point win. Most of the top team returned for the game against the Ospreys the following week, but put in a strangely flat performance as they struggled to a patchy 15-10 win. All the points came from Jonny Sexton's boot as they were held tryless for the first time in the season.

The players knew they would need a better performance the following week as they looked to secure qualification for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. They took on Saracens at the RDS, knowing a bonus point win would put them through. It was a wet and windy day but Leinster got off to a great start regardless with tries from Sean O'Brien and Dominic Ryan in the first ten minutes. Some sloppy play let Sarries in for two tries to bring the score back to 15-12 but once threatened Leinster upped their intensity again and a second Ryan try saw them lead 22-12 at half-time. On fifty minutes Fergus McFadden finished off a superb, length of the field team effort that secured the win and the four-try bonus point. Leinster were able to relax and turn on the style with further tries from Isa Nacewa and Eoin O'Malley for a comprehensive 43-22 win.

So Leinster were in the quarter-finals but they wanted to secure a home draw so there was no let-up as they travelled to Paris for the rematch with Racing Metro. With Racing's chances of qualification gone, they put out an under-strength but game team who didn't roll over and die. Leinster's performance was up and down but first half tries from Isa Nacewa, Sean O'Brien and Jonny Sexton set them on their way. A second Sexton try on the hour mark secured the win and the bonus point and Brian O'Driscoll was able to celebrate his birthday with his first European try of the season to make the final score 36-11. Leinster had qualified from a brute of a pool in some style and they had a quarter-final against Leicester Tigers at the Aviva stadium to look forward to.

That match wasn't until April though and in the mean time they had six Magners League games to play, most of which they'd have to do without their Irish internationals who were busy with the Six Nations Championship. First up was Aironi at home and they proved more difficult opponents than expected and in the end, Leinster were relieved to get away with a 21-16 win. That was seven wins on the trot, but the run came to an end away to Cardiff as they once again failed to win in Wales, going down 11-3. They bounced back with a 30-5 win over Treviso, a performance made memorable by Ian McKinley's excellent display from out-half, which included a fine try. They followed that up with a comfortable home win over the Scarlets, a result that would ultimately cost the entertaining Welsh side a place in the play-offs. With the Six Nations over, they finally won over in Wales against the Dragons in a tight, scrappy game that finished 26-16 to Leinster.

They were back to full strength in the next game against Munster down in Thomond Park and they were looking to extend their winning streak to six games over their biggest rivals. Things were looking good when they led 20-9 at half-time. However, with the quarter-final against Leicester the following week in their minds, Leinster allowed their intensity to drop in the second half and Munster upped their effort. They clawed their way back into the match through brute force and Ronan O'Gara kept kicking penalties to edge them to a 24-23 win. Leinster were rightly annoyed with themselves for letting such a big lead slip away, however as preparation for the Leicester match it probably was the kick in the arse they needed.

Leicester fancied their chances of winning a quarter-final in Dublin, as they had done so comprehensively in 2005. However in front of a sell-out crowd in the Aviva stadium, Leinster tore into them with some cracking, fast paced rugby. Unfortunately, they butchered at least two gilt-edged try chances in the first half and led only 9-3 at half time through three Jonny Sexton penalties. The game turned on two moments early in the second half. First Alesana Tuilagi was denied a try by the narrowest of margins by a last ditch Sean O'Brien tackle. Then six minutes later, Isa Nacewa scored a superb individual try when he dummied his way past five Leicester tacklers. That plus another Sexton penalty sealed the result and although Leicester made the home fans sweat with a late try, Leinster were worthy 17-10 winners.

So Leinster would face Toulouse in the semi-final again at the Aviva stadium. Before that match, they had to concentrate on getting a home semi-final in the Magners League. They faced the team in that second placed spot, Ulster, who were in confident mood after a brave losing performance in their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton. However Leinster simply blew them away in an almost chillingly efficient manner and they had the bonus point secured and the game won by the half hour mark. Shane Horgan was rampant, grabbing two tries, and though Ulster scored two late tries to give the 34-26 score a more respectable look, Leinster were easing up at that point. They followed this up with a 20-8 win in Aironi, a match where all their scoring was done in the first half giving them a chance to rest players in the second half.

So next up was the defending champions Toulouse, who had beaten Leinster in the semi-final in the previous year's competition. In that match, Toulouse had destroyed Leinster's scrum and the big question was whether it would happen again. Leinster got off to a terrible start when they conceded a freak try when a penalty kick rebounded off a post and Florian Fritz was the sharpest in following up. Leinster's lineout was struggling and they were off their normal game but they showed they had the stomach for a fight when Jamie Heaslip somehow forced his way over for a try. Jonny Sexton's boot was working well too and he helped them to a 16-13 half-time lead, despite Brian O'Driscoll getting a yellow card five minutes before the interval. Toulouse reclaimed the lead with a Louise Picamoles try off a scrum, but once again Leinster rallied and following an explosive Cian Healy run, Heinke van der Merwe came on for him for the game's key moment. He destroyed Census Johnston in the scrum and forced the penalty through which Sexton kicked Leinster into the lead. Then, after more sustained pressure, Brian O'Driscoll got over the line for the crucial score to put Leinster 29-20 ahead. Toulouse kicked a penalty to make it a six point game and it was another tense finish but Leinster's defence was superb and in the final act Sexton kicked his eighth kick from eight to make the final score 32-23 to Leinster. Toulouse showed their class by being gracious to a fault in defeat but Leinster were now in their second final in three years against Northampton in Cardiff.

They were still fighting on two fronts though as they very much wanted to become the first Irish side to do the league and cup double. They confirmed their second place finish in the table with a workmanlike 38-3 win over Glasgow. Then it was their third match of the season against Ulster in the Magners League semi-final in the RDS. The men from the North showed they had learned from the two previous comprehensive beatings by providing much tougher opposition. It was a hard-fought physical game and at times it was like a battlefield as Mike Ross, Richardt Strauss and Brian O'Driscoll all had to leave the pitch with injuries. Leinster eventually won 18-3 thanks to tries from Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald. So they were now in two finals but faced a worrying week wondering if their walking wounded would make the big match in Cardiff.

As it happened, the injury fears proved unfounded as Schmidt was able to name a team that was unchanged from the one that had started the Leicester and Toulouse matches. Leinster were favourites with practically everyone tipping them to win. However Northampton made the better start and on the back on their dominant scrum they got an early try through Phil Dowson. Even aside from their scrum problems Leinster weren't playing well, missing several tackles and blowing the few chances they created. Even losing Brian Mujati to the sin bin didn't slow the Saints down as while he was off Ben Foden scored a second try for them. Jonny Sexton tried to stem the flow with two penalties but another Saints try from their skipper Dylan Hartley made the half-time score 22-6 to Northampton. Leinster's dream looked to be in ruins and surely there was no coming back from this?

In a half time team talk that has already gained mythical status, the Leinster scrum was fixed and inspiring words about comebacks were spoken. As they re-emerged from the dressing room to a thunderous reception from their fans, Leinster simply looked a different team. They unleashed 25 minutes of irresistible rugby on Northampton, who only touched the ball twice in that time. Two Jonny Sexton tries cut Northampton's lead to two points and following another monumental scrum, Leinster won a penalty for Sexton to put Leinster ahead. It had taken them just 16 minutes to wipe out Northampton's 16-point lead. Ten minutes later, when Nathan Hines scored his first, and only, Leinster try they led 33-22 and the bewildered Saints players knew the game was up. Leinster even had the luxury of seeing out the rest of the time in relative comfort. Jonny Sexton's 28-point haul saw him win the man of the match award deservedly but Sean O'Brien's incredible second half must have run him close.

So, Leinster had won the Heineken Cup for the second time in three years and had taken their place among an elite group of clubs to have won the trophy more than once. They did it in real style too scoring 27 tries in nine games and beating the best teams in the competition including the current French, English and Heineken Cup champions. After the celebrations it was always going to be tough to go down to Limerick and win and though Leinster gave it a good rattle in the Magners League final, Munster deserved their 19-9 win.

However it was still a fantastic season, especially considering the way it had started. Schmidt had been true to his word of improving Leinster's scrum and also improving their style of play. Leinster scored 79 tries in 33 games, a big improvement on the 50 tries in 28 games they scored in the previous system. He did this without losing the hard edge in defence that they had previously as they conceded only 43 tries in 33 games, which was slightly better than the 42 tries conceded in 28 games the previous season. Schmidt will be hoping to improve on both fronts next season as the players get more used to his system.

They'll have to do it without a number of this year's squad including Paul O'Donohue, Niall Morris, Paul Ryan, Shaun Berne and Stephen Keogh. The two players who'll be missed the most though are Nathan Hines and Stan Wright. Hines was a major part of Leinster's success this season, giving the team a real hard edge but also playing with skill and intelligence. He wanted to stay, and Leinster wanted him to, but the IRFU forced him out and you'd hope that Clermont's gain isn't Leinster's loss. Injury meant Wright only played a relatively minor role in this campaign but Leinster won't forget his fantastic contribution in his four and half seasons with the province. His wholehearted playing style combined with his irreverent off field manner made him a firm favourite with the fans. Good luck to him and all the departing players.

So it's been a great season and next term Joe Schmidt will be looking for every more success and with the talent in this squad and the new signings and young talent coming through, you wouldn't bet against them.

Season Statistics 2010-11

Appearances


Total

Total



Starts

Sub





Nacewa

Isa

31

1

Strauss

Richardt

29

1

Horgan

Shane

24

2

Ross

Mike

22

5

Cullen

Leo

21

2

O'Brien

Sean

21

1

McFadden

Fergus

20

8

Jennings

Shane

20

4

Hines

Nathan

19

7

Fitzgerald

Luke

19


van der Merwe

Heinke

18

13

Sexton

Jonathan

18

1

Boss

Isaac

17

12

Toner

Devin

17

5

O'Malley

Eoin

17

3

Heaslip

Jamie

17

2

D'Arcy

Gordon

16

1

O'Driscoll

Brian

16


Ryan

Dominic

15

8

Healy

Cian

14

7

Reddan

Eoin

13

9

McLaughlin

Kevin

12

3

Ruddock

Rhys

10

7

Madigan

Ian

7

11

Kearney

David

7

6

Keogh

Stephen

6

4

Conway

Andrew

6

2

O'Donoghue

Ed

6

2

Kearney

Rob

6


Newland

Clint

5

7

Wright

Stan

5

6

Harris-Wright

Jason

3

12

O'Donohue

Paul

3

5

Morris

Niall

3

3

Berne

Shaun

3

1

McKinley

Ian

2

2

Sheridan

Eamonn

2

1

Shawe

Simon

1

10

McGrath

Jack

1

4

Fogarty

John

1

2

Hogan

Trevor

1


Macken

Brendan

1


Dundon

Aaron


4

Galarza

Mariano


4

Ryan

Paul


2

Keating

Michael


1

Marshall

Ben


1

Prescott

Ben


1

Riordan

Danny


1

Sexton

Tom


1

Try Scorers






Horgan

Shane

9

Nacewa

Isa

7

O'Brien

Sean

7

McFadden

Fergus

6

Ryan

Dominic

5

Sexton

Jonathan

5

Boss

Isaac

4

Kearney

David

4

Conway

Andrew

3

Healy

Cian

3

Heaslip

Jamie

3

Morris

Niall

3

O'Driscoll

Brian

3

Fitzgerald

Luke

2

Kearney

Rob

2

O'Malley

Eoin

2

Strauss

Richardt

2

Berne

Shaun

1

D'Arcy

Gordon

1

Hines

Nathan

1

Jennings

Shane

1

Madigan

Ian

1

McKinley

Ian

1

McLaughlin

Kevin

1

van der Merve

Heinke

1

Penalty

Try

1



79

Kickers








Con

Pen

Points

%

Sexton

Jonathan

28

52

212

0.83

Nacewa

Isa

21

31

135

0.69

McFadden

Fergus

7

8

38

0.68

Kearney

Rob


1

3

0.50

Discipline


Total



Yellow

O'Driscoll

Brian

2

Cullen

Leo

1

Fogarty

John

1

Madigan

Ian

1

O'Brien

Sean

1

O'Donoghue

Ed

1

Ruddock

Rhys

1

Ryan

Dominic

1

Strauss

Richardt

1

Toner

Devin

1



11

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-07-01

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