If there is a consolation for Ulster head coach Dan McFarland after his team’s 27-5 defeat to Leinster in the PRO14 final in Dublin at the weekend it is that he will soon be in position to apply any lessons that he and his players took from the experience.
The coronavirus interruption to the competition determined that this year the final was played a lot closer to the start of the next season than would normally be the case. The start to the next PRO14 season has not been announced yet, but it should be assumed it will happen in October sometime, which means that the teams that finished in the also-ran positions won’t have to wait long before starting their quest for redemption.
It’s not going to be easy though for the chasing teams to close the gap that has been opened up between them and the team that clinched its third successive PRO14 title in Saturday night’s closed venue decider at the Aviva Stadium. And McFarland probably spoke for many of the other coaches in the competition when he acknowledged what right now looks a reality.
“There are 14 teams in our league and there can only be one winner. At the moment there's a team that's outstanding and nobody's really touching them,” said McFarland when interviewed on television after the game.
That Leinster are outstanding is beyond debate, and perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to them is that they look like the northern rivals for the dominant team in the southern hemisphere, the Crusaders. Like the Canterbury team, who recently won the Aotearoa competition to follow on from a hattrick of Super Rugby titles, the Irish province just seem to have that indefinable something that enables them to engage a different gear when pressed.
And that indefinable something was never more in evidence than when Leinster were rocked by an early try to Ulster’s new centre James Hume. The construction of the try was done so easily that it must surely have sent waves of hope through the legions of Ulster fans watching on television. If Leinster were the type of team that could be rattled, they should have been rattled then.
But they are not a team that is easily rattled, and within eight minutes of that fourth minute try they were in the lead as a James Lowe try was converted to put Leinster 7-5 ahead. It was a lead that was never challenged, even though Ulster were only five points adrift at the break. Game after game there is just something so relentless and ruthless about Leinster when they get the bit between their teeth and when they sense an opportunity, and it was that ruthlessness that McFarland will probably try to work on emulating in the new season.
“We had opportunities in the first half. We were in their 22 on a number of occasions and we didn't make it count,” lamented the Ulster coach.
“We weren't good enough in that area and we needed to be more ruthless. Correspondingly, they were really good in that area. Our kick-offs, both kicking and receiving, we weren't accurate and gave away silly penalties. Once they got the intercept (try from Robbie Henshaw in the 47th minute) the game became a chasing game and extremely difficult.”
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen praised the strength-in-depth of his squad, something that became very evident in the build-up to the final when he opted to play British and Irish Lions star Johnny Sexton off the bench. It is hard to imagine any other provincial or club team in world rugby being able to afford to do that for a competition decider.
The Leinster management used a total of 53 players across their unbeaten 17-match PRO14 season, with that winning record across all competitions since their last defeat being stretched to 25 by the Aviva Stadium triumph.
“If you think back to when the season started, which was during the middle of the World Cup. We were already down a good chunk of players at that stage,” said Cullen.
“The World Cup season is notoriously tricky to manage. Huge credit to the wider squad, in terms of keeping the show on the road and winning those games during that period.”
Leinster will now be out to underline the quality of the PRO14 by trying to win the Champions Cup, with an important quarter-final against Saracens lying ahead of them this coming weekend. Saracens were the last team to beat them - in last year’s Champions Cup final.
- PRO14 media