Michael Cheika: ready and able

And so the great day has dawned. The day that a considerable proportion of the population of the eastern province has for so long looked forward to, the day of a showpiece event in what for better and frequently for worse remains the undisputed national sport. Yes, Kildare and Offaly go head to head at O’Moore Park this afternoon in the first round of the Leinster football championship and it’s live on RTÉ Two. Don’t miss it unless you’ve got something better to be doing.

Oh. Right. Take Two. And so the great day has dawned, the day that a considerable proportion of the population of the eastern province etc. Yes, the national team of Dublin 4 are Holy Grail-chasing in Edinburgh and the Sky Sports panel – Paul Wallace among them, his Belgrano faux pas of three weeks ago forgiven if not forgotten – are there to pass comment. Now how any team calling itself Leinster could take the field without the services of Tommy, JJ, Cha and Henry, without Damien Fitzhenry in the number one jersey and without James Young of Laois on the long-range placed balls, is in the opinion of this column absolutely incomprehensible, but maybe that’s just us. Correction: that’s certainly just us.

Anyway. Dewi Morris lauds Leicester’s “dogged determination”; Will Greenwood nominates Rocky Elsom as the player of the tournament; and Michael Cheika, taking a leaf out of the Declan Kidney manual, offers nicely measured pre-match comments to the effect that the semi-final is history and that Leinster will have to be ready for everything Leicester throw at them. His interviewer, who’s either gone to a posh school or has watched Dead Poets Society once too often, asks Cheika if he’s told his players to carpe the diem. “I didn’t have to,” Cheika replies.

The thumbs-up from Greenwood soon takes on the proportions of the chairman’s vote of confidence: the first ball Elsom gets he contrives to knock on. Within moments, however, Elsom is rampaging forward like that orc in the closing stages of The Fellowship of the Ring and Brian O’Driscoll drops the first score of the game.

There’s more where that came from. Leinster dominate the opening half-hour with Johnny Sexton pulling the strings and weighing in for good measure with a monstrous drop-goal from somewhere near the Leith docks, yet somehow the interval sees Leicester retire 13-9 ahead. It would be a mystery, not to mention a travesty, were this any other team. It’s that “dogged determination” Morris mentioned, the “ruthless efficiency” cited by Greenwood. “Leicester know how to absorb things and they just grind it,” Morris explains. The history books do tell us that the Roundheads beat the Cavaliers, after all. Damn.

Just when it seems that Leinster are in danger of becoming detached early in the second half, Jamie Heaslip gets over for a try that Sexton converts. Sixteen points apiece and all to play for. There’s only one more score, a Sexton penalty on 70 minutes that appears to be going wide until it drifts back inside the far upright at the last moment. The Cavaliers spend the final 10 minutes closing it out. “You couldn’t argue that they were the better team on the day,” Stuart Barnes announces. As if to prove that Greenwood did indeed know whereof he spoke, Elsom is named man of the match. Irish rugby’s cup in 2009 runneth over and the Lions tour is still to come.

But first, Kildare and Offaly today. Shame it won’t have Rocky Elsom though.