Leinster's 'double' vision comes into sharp focus
LEINSTER'S second string ran out against London Welsh in the British and Irish Cup at Donnybrook yesterday in front of a fraction of the 46,000 crowd that celebrated the senior side's Heineken Cup demolition of Bath the day before.
The back three on that 'A' team featured Dave Kearney at full-back, Andrew Conway on the right wing and Fionn Carr on the left, with Jamie Hagan at tight-head prop and Leo Auva'a at No 8. Scary stuff -- unless you are a Leinster supporter.
The depth of talent at the province is intimidating for opponents -- that back three would saunter into most European sides (certainly into Bath's) and coach Joe Schmidt has more front-line talent on his hands than he has spaces to accommodate it.
The New Zealander is making a fair attempt nonetheless, rotating his side between their home and away European fixtures while working around the Ireland Player Management scheme to spread game-time in the Pro12 also.
With results flowing in tandem and the province's off-pitch, commercial and marketing activities generating revenue and interest (the supporters were treated to an enthusiastically received Christmas show, headlined by a blue Santa), this is definitely a boom period for Leinster rugby.
Only Leicester, in their Martin Johnson/Neil Back heyday, have managed to win back-to-back Heineken Cup titles in 2001 and '02 but, 10 years on, this Leinster squad and management team look ready to launch an assault on the Heineken Cup's Hall Of Fame.
When they were good on Saturday, they were sensational. Every time the ball was moved wide, the atmosphere crackled with excitement and possibility due to the home side's speed of thought and action.
As a result, seven tries were scored and, once again, we are in a position where Leinster's attacking play is setting a template for the national side to follow. Jonathan Sexton was at the heart of it, picking up 20 points with six conversions, a wonderful 45-metre drop goal and the rounding off of a breath-taking team try.
It was a gauntlet-throwing performance by the out-half, a significant statement in his fascinating duel with Munster's Ronan O'Gara for the Ireland No 10 jersey. He will be frustrated by missing a couple of placed kicks but it was a superb all-round display of running, kicking and passing by Sexton and, after a disappointing World Cup, the hero of last season's Heineken Cup final is fizzing once again.
He was not alone. Eoin Reddan has his own selection contests to fight -- with Isaac Boss at Leinster and Conor Murray with Ireland -- and he was massively influential, setting the tempo at scrum-half, pouncing for his own try in the second half.
Fergus McFadden gave way early for Gordon D'Arcy but not before delivering a proclamatory performance at inside-centre, full of pace, power and precision. The quality of Leinster's passing was one of the stand-out features and McFadden provided the best of the lot -- long, flat and accurate to Rob Kearney, who set up Luke Fitzgerald for his stunning, bonus point-earning, swerve-and-surge effort just after half-time.
Fitzgerald is back on top of his game, a constant threat in possession and his only frustration would be a missed tackle at the end (Schmidt told how Fitzgerald apologised afterwards and swore it would not happen again) and not being able to secure the hat-trick his display deserved.
At full-back, Kearney set about disabusing doubters who question his counter-attacking abilities and, as well as striking for the opening score after four minutes, ran intelligent, punishing lines all evening.
Isa Nacewa was not as involved as he has been in the past but oozed quality when he did get in on the action, while Eoin O'Malley went well outside McFadden (although being brushed off by Stephen Donald for the New Zealander's try demonstrated the distance to travel before he can reach the standards set by the injured Brian O'Driscoll).
But it was not just about the strike capacity of the backs -- the forwards provided the launch codes and contributed handsomely attack-wise in their own right. Seeing tight-head Mike Ross executing inside pops and Devin Toner off-loading out the back of his hand to Kearney for Fitzgerald's first touchdown was evidence of the 15-man nature of Leinster's attack, and won the admiration of their opponents.
"They are the best team our guys have come across in a few years," said Bath coach Brad Davis. "We have been on the end of a hiding, you have got to be right on top of your game if you are going to get anything here. They were outstanding, their back three had a field day. Leinster are pretty much the complete package and they will be hard to stop."
Indeed, while the likes of Munster, Clermont and Leicester would always present a formidable challenge, only Toulouse look like they could live with Leinster in this form.
A raft of changes upset Leinster's rhythm (although two of the replacements, Rhys Ruddock and Ian Madigan, ran well for tries) and contributed to a completely outgunned Bath managing to lift spirits with three touchdowns that will be a source of considerable annoyance for the champions, given they standards they set themselves in defence.
"We were a small bit frustrated in the last 20, the way we slided off a couple of tackles," said McFadden. "It was great to put 50 points on Bath, they're a quality team but letting them back into the game at that stage was the disappointing thing.
"The good teams, the very good teams, the top teams and the teams that really want to contend for this competition really don't do that. We have to be more ruthless. We are pretty hard on ourselves and Joe said it afterwards."
Lansdowne Road is obviously a venue very much to Leinster's liking and it is hard to see anyone ruining their 100pc record there this season, including Toulouse. The final two pool games in January, away to Glasgow at home to Montpellier, should ensure another home quarter-final and then Operation Retention really kicks in.
"The Aviva's been a bit of a fortress for us," said McFadden. "We haven't lost here yet and I think we will get confidence from this. In fairness to Joe, he lets us go out there and play -- he's very much of the opinion that, if it's on, then go."
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, E O'Malley, F McFadden (G D'Arcy 54), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 59), E Reddan; H van der Merwe (C Healy h-t; H ven der Merwe 72), R Strauss (S Cronin 54), M Ross (N White 65); L Cullen (K McLaughlin 59), D Toner; S O'Brien (R Ruddock 54), S Jennings (I Boss 72), J Heaslip.
BATH -- S Vesty; J Cuthbert, M Banahan (B Williams 56), O Barkley, N Abendanon; S Donald, M Claasens (C Cook 56); D Flatman (N Catt 66), C Biller (yc 55-65), D Wilson (A Perenise 66); D Attwood, R Caldwell; F Louw, G Mercer (W Spencer 76), S Taylor.
REF -- R Poite (France).