There’s plenty of coverage in today’s media of Leinster’s incredible win over Ulster in the Heineken Cup final on Saturday. There’s really no need for me to cover the game in a general sense, because it’s all been said by now. Instead, I’m going to focus on one of the key individual battles which Leinster won. They came out on top of most of these positional match-ups across the field, although Paddy Wallace, Dan Tuohy, John Afoa and Craig Gilroy all impressed.
Having played in the centre myself, the midfield area usually draws much of my attention. Saturday’s game saw a really interesting battle of the master versus the apprentice at outside centre. Brian O’Driscoll is a legend of the game, a once in a lifetime player. Opposite him was Darren Cave, of whom I’m a big fan and had previously suggested worthy of a place on Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand. Cave’s performance on Saturday was excellent, but O’Driscoll proved far more decisive.
Ulster had a strong start to the game, flying out of the blocks and looking more up for it than Leinster in the first five minutes. Cave made a scything break after just 3 minutes (11.50 mark on the video below) as he dummied to an inside runner, completely bamboozling Leo Cullen. Cave almost got around Rob Kearney for the opening score of the game, but the fullback just held on to him. Cullen recovered well to illegally steal the ball and Leinster got away with their early lack of concentration.
It was a clear indicator that Ulster’s outside centre was up for this game. In the piece linked above, I wrote that Cave needed some standout displays on the big stage to win over the doubters and the 25-year-old was definitely intent on leaving his mark. He continued to pose a threat to Leinster’s defence for the remainder of the game, with his 11 runs leaving him behind only Ferris and Afoa in Ulster’s carrying stakes. Cave topped the charts for his side in terms of metres gained while in possession, with 41.
Defensively, the main highlight for Cave was his try-saving tackle on Eoin Reddan in the 22nd minute ( starting at 33.20 on the video below) when he came from a long, long way back to grab the scrumhalf after Gilroy had missed his own tackle. Cave has been defensively excellent all season long, with missed tackles a rarity. He reads the game well and more often than not, puts himself in a good position to make his hits. But shackling O’Driscoll was a far greater task than what he had faced previously.
O’Driscoll again proved himself a medical freak to be playing at all. Once again, massive kudos to Leinster’s backroom staff for enabling him to take to the field. The effort was hugely worthwhile, as BOD was a class above almost everyone else on the pitch. There were only two occasions when he got one on one with Cave, but both times he got around his opposite number. O’Driscoll doesn’t possess the same top-end pace as he once did, but his footwork was enough to show Cave that he has a distance to go if he is to challenge for Ireland’s number 13 jersey.
Both times, O’Driscoll shifted his feet, forced Cave to sit back on his heels, then got outside him with a little burst of acceleration. As I said above, Cave’s defensive positioning is a strength and against any other opponent he would have completed the tackles. But O’Driscoll just slipped past him twice. It’s exactly the level that Cave would want to be tested at, and the experience will have been of great benefit to him. (The best example is at 37.36 in the vid below).
O’Driscoll added some world-class touches throughout the game to really stamp his mark. That offload in the build-up to Cian Healy’s try showed exactly how much intelligence and vision Drico possesses. Watch it again from 43.20 in the video and you can see that the Leinster centre knows exactly what he’s going to do even before the ball is in his hands. Genuinely talented players go through the game with their heads up, scanning the defence and immediately recognising what’s on. It’s yet another example of O’Driscoll’s genius.
Cave appeared to be inspired by the master’s demonstration of skill and even threw in his own little flick pass in the second half, when he ran a switch with Trimble. The flick wasn’t really necessary, but it was encouraging to see that Cave had the confidence to bring it off. And this inspiration is exactly what Cave should be looking to get from the tour to New Zealand now that he has been selected.
He has certainly earned his place on the plane, after what has really been his breakthrough season for Ulster. This is an incredible opportunity for the twice-capped midfielder to take his game to the next level. Training against and learning from O’Driscoll every day will almost certainly show him exactly what he needs to do to push through at international level. Just as playing opposite O’Driscoll on Saturday brought Cave to new heights, touring alongside him is the next step in his learning curve.
Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane.