Leinster find response
Published 12/12/2011 | 05:00
THE question for Leinster, and their opponents, after this dogged victory over Bath is how good could the European champions be if they really got their act together?
Ultimately, this was a useful four points away from home and sets Leinster up nicely to remain in charge of Pool Three ahead of Bath's visit to Lansdowne Road next weekend. However, if execution had matched intent, this could have been a bonus-point win over a game but limited Bath outfit who were allowed a brief dream of an upset due to the try chances that Leinster squandered.
Bath is a wonderful old city and a real rugby town, with The Rec beautifully nestled at its centre. They turned out in force yesterday, hopeful of a performance to revive memories of the club's glory days in the 1980s and '90s when Stuart Barnes, John Hall and Jeremy Guscott were calling the shots.
Their 2011 successors are not of the same quality, but the supporters could not fault their team's ambition or endeavour as they tore into their opponents with reputation-shattering zeal in what was a thoroughly enjoyable, old-school encounter.
Leinster appeared to be motoring smoothly towards victory until Bath's Matt Banahan crossed for a try following superb hands from captain Francis Louw and good interplay with Banahan's doppelganger Jack Cuthbert. Olly Barkley knocked over the conversion to push the home side into a 13-12 lead and, with 15 minutes to go and Bath carrying the momentum, The Rec was buzzing in expectation of a famous result.
Louw had enjoyed an industrious afternoon, but the South African then played into Leinster hands by first diving over the top to give Jonathan Sexton an easy three points and following it up with a yellow card which allowed Leinster to see out the game in relative comfort -- Sexton adding another penalty for the five-point margin.
Coach Joe Schmidt will be pleased with Sexton's composure off the tee (six kicks from seven attempts) and in general play, but if his side had lost this one, you would imagine the good-humoured New Zealander would have been seething due to the scores left behind.
Sean O'Brien had a big game in the back-row, but his second-half decision to ignore three men outside and plough for the line was the most blatant act of profligacy. Likewise, Rob Kearney had looked assured at full-back, but was also guilty of taking the wrong decision with the try-line begging to be crossed in the first half when he passed back inside to O'Brien rather than out to Isa Nacewa, who had a clear run in.
Throw in Luke Fitzgerald surging 60 metres early on and then opting to feed Jamie Heaslip inside rather than take on the frantically back-pedalling flanker Guy Mercer on the outside and that was three tries botched, which would be fatal against a side like Toulouse later in the competition.
However, the fact that Leinster were able to find the right response away from home is testament to the belief in the side, and they have six days to work on scoring drills before properly emphasising their superiority over Ian McGeechan's men.
The veteran coach seemed genuinely pleased that his side had even managed to make a game of it and their combative scrum, willingness to play at a high tempo and resolute defending were encouraging for a Bath team that has fallen well below standard this season.
Stephen Donald arrived in the West Country surrounded by lofty expectations but his was a mixed-bag performance.
He had some nice touches and tackled well to prevent O'Brien from scoring but his tendency to drift cut down the space for the men outside him and allowed Leinster to use the touchline as an extra defender. The fact that it is Barkley and not the World Cup-winning hero Donald taking the placed kicks tells its own story.
By contrast, Sexton looked very sharp, and provided a moment of pure genius with a cross-field kick for Nacewa when Bath were dozily expecting a kick to touch from the penalty deep in Leinster's half.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney will have been happy with Sexton, O'Brien, Kearney and Fitzgerald, who looked extremely sharp on the ball and had one superb kick-off claim, while Fergus McFadden also put in a good shift in the centre. Cian Healy and Shane Jennings packed a punch off the bench and both scrum-halves, Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan, had decent games opposite the excellent Michael Claassens.
Defensively, it was a decent showing and after experiencing their first-half problems with referee Jerome Garces, there was a notable improvement in Leinster's discipline in the second.
Based on past form, Schmidt will rotate his team for next weekend, with Healy, Reddan, Eoin O'Malley and Devin Toner all good bets to start and Ian Madigan likely to get a run off the bench if things go to plan. That is the luxury of having such a deep squad, which was a significant factor in the result as McGeechan had nothing like the same ammunition to call on in reserve.
It was a far-from-perfect display by the champions, but now is the time to be ironing out creases, and winning without playing well keeps the bandwagon rolling along, while simultaneously preventing any sense of complacency setting in.
Only one team has won back-to-back Heineken Cup titles -- that was Bath's great rivals Leicester back in 2001 and 2002.
And, while opponents could look at Leinster's opportunities lost here and think they might not be at the same pitch as last season, they should also be wary of what they have yet to produce. We should have a better indication of that next weekend.
BATH -- N Abendanon; J Cuthbert, D Hipkiss (S Vesty 63), O Barkley, M Banahan; S Donald, M Claassens (C Cook 66); D Flatman (N Catt 74) , C Biller, D Wilson (A Perenise 74); D Attwood, R Caldwell; F Louw (capt), G Mercer, S Taylor.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D'Arcy (E O'Malley 70), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss (E Reddan 63); H van der Merwe (C Healy 40), R Strauss (S Cronin 63), M Ross (N White 63); L Cullen (capt), D Browne (D Toner 52); K McLaughlin (S Jennings 52), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
REF -- J Garces (France)