Leinster secure bonus point as Leo Cullen's men kick off Champions Cup campaign with win
LEINSTER 33 CASTRES 15
All eyes were on new boy Joey Carbery at the RDS but it was the big men who decided Leinster’s opening Champions Cup game of the season.
The youngster played well on his European debut as Leo Cullen’s side put last year’s poor pool performance behind them with a bonus point win based on a strong rolling maul and a dominant scrum that between them contributed four of their five tries.
The three-time champions face a step up in class and intensity next weekend as they travel to Montpellier, but after getting off to a woeful start in their opening fixture last season they’ll take this win.
They’ll hope Johnny Sexton, who did some light running at UCD this morning before attending the game, will be fit for that trip and are sweating on the fitness of Tadhg Furlong who limped off during the first-half.
Their losses weren’t felt too badly against a limited Castres side as they got the ball rolling early through Sean Cronin’s try from a sixth minute maul.
Isa Nacewa took over the kicking from Sexton and missed the conversion, as well as an early penalty, but Leinster kept the pressure on with a sensational Ringrose break from Carbery’s deft pass, his pass found Rob Kearney who was stopped short and the Castres defence survived almost 20 phases before Jack McGrath knocked on.
The French side overcame their slow start to gain some decent possession in Leinster territory without ever truly threatening Stuart Lancaster’s defence.
And when Leinster got the chance to drive, they did so with relish and Cronin peeled off the back of the maul and showed brilliant feet to fool Benjamin Urdapilleta and power through Victor Moreaux’s tackle to score.
Nacewa made no mistake with his third attempt and, although Urdapilleta pulled a penalty back, the hosts kept emphasising their superiority at maul time, turning down another kick at goal to attack through their drive.
This time, Luke McGrath peeled left and was stopped short but the Castres defence couldn’t stop his larger namesake Jack powering over to mark his 100th Leinster appearance with a try.
Again, Nacewa converted and Leinster looked comfortable heading in at the break.
But the Top 14 side, for whom Urdapilleta missed a kickable effort at goal, opted to take the Irish side on at their own game and kicked their next penalty to the corner.
This time it was the Blues who couldn’t cope with the drive and Luke McGrath stepped in from the side to try and prevent the try. All he got for his troubles was a penalty try and a yellow card and Urdapilleta converted to leave it at 19-10 at half-time.
That meant Nacewa had to deputise at scrum-half for the first 10 minutes of the second-half and he made the most of the role, winning a loose high ball to put his side on the front-foot and then, a few phases later, picking the ball up at a ruck, side-stepping Antoine Dupont and racing to the line from 25m to score the bonus point try.
He converted before moving back out to the wing as McGrath returned with the result effectively beyond doubt.
Yet the hosts found themselves frustrated as they looked to ram their obvious advantage home despite a dominant scrum, a rampant lineout drive as their good work too often came undone by cheaply coughing up possession.
Replacement Thibault Lassalle was sin-binned for coming in from the side of another forward-marching maul. Nacewa opted for the scrum and, after testing referee Matthew Carley’s patience one too many times, and the English official awarded a penalty try.
Castres pulled a try back through Anthony Jelonch but the contest was decided long before his close-range effort.
Leinster could, and should, have added to their total as James Tracy was denied by the video referee and Robbie Henshaw’s final pass to Ringrose went forward after a cracking Carbery break.
The missed chances won’t give Cullen sleepless nights, just plenty to work on this week as they prepare to build on a decent start.
Leinster - R Kearney (C Marsh 71); Z Kirchner, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt) (N Reid 68); J Carbery, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 59); J McGrath (C Healy 53), S Cronin (J Tracy 53), T Furlong (M Ross 37); D Toner, I Nagle (R Molony 59); R Ruddock (D Leavy 50), J van der Flier, J Heaslip.
Castres - G Palis; R Grosso, T Combezou, R Ebersohn (F Vialelle 61), D Smith; B Urdapilleta (M Javaux 71), A Dupont (R Kockott 54); A Tichit (M Lazar 53), J Jenneker (B Mach 20-26, 38), D Kotze (D Tussac 59); V Moreaux (A Jelonch 60), R Capo Ortega (capt) (T Lassalle 54); M Babillot, S Mafi, A Tulou.
Refere: M Carley (England)