Rampant Leinster put Saracens to the sword
Leinster 43 Saracens 20
IN the end it was as easy as the scoreline suggested. Not perfect by any means. Not perhaps as fluent as they would have liked. But it was more than enough. A six-try demolition of Mark McCall's Saracens' side that helpfully came to play expansive rugby and allowed Leinster to, more or less, win as they liked.
Leinster now face Racing-Metro on Friday in the happy position of knowing that, whatever happens, nothing can stop them advancing to the quarter-finals as pool winners.
They are the side most will fear now. After the game, coach Joe Schmidt cast his mind back six months and reminded us of the scenario that faced them when the groups were drawn. "I was asked how many points I thought we'd need to win the group and I said 15," he said.
They cling to the summit now with 19 and the promise of more to come. How sunny the outlook seems.
In truth yesterday was nothing more than routine business. When they look back they'll think of the reverse fixture in Wembley in October when they ground out a victory against the odds. Or the huge victory over Munster at Lansdowne Road two weeks previously. Season-changing performances as it happened. Before then Leinster had seemed like a busted flush. Schmidt, it was said, didn't understand his players. Couldn't adapt to the Leinster way.
How quickly they set about nailing that lie. Approaching yesterday it was being said that, although Leinster were winning games, they weren't winning them well. That wouldn't bother many teams, but Leinster have a reputation for winning with style; Schmidt would have impressed upon his players the need to deliver a performance as well as a result. They responded not just with a glut of tries, but with a master-class in kicking and controlling a game from Jonathan Sexton and a towering display up front from Sean O'Brien.
They made their share of mistakes but with a fierce, swirling wind, most of the lapses were forgiveable. At times the precision of their passing and their off-loading was a joy. The switch of Isa Nacewa to full-back was an unqualified success and the late withdrawal of Gordon D'Arcy with a calf injury at least gave a rusty Luke Fitzgerald the chance for a full 80 minutes. D'Arcy is expected to be available against Racing. Win-win on every front.
They had the wind on their backs from the start yesterday and a vicious intent to kill their opponents early. Within six minutes O'Brien had crossed the line. The key break had been made by Nacewa, who linked up with Richardt Strauss before O'Brien was put away to score in the corner. Sexton missed the kick but it was his only failure from seven efforts.
Four minutes later Leinster had breached the Saracens line for a second time. This time it was Nacewa and O'Brien who did the leg-work, creating the space for Dominic Ryan to touch down for the first of his two tries. Leinster had sauntered 12 points clear without breaking sweat. With little discernible opposition, it didn't seem unreasonable to think that they might have the bonus point secured by half-time.
And maybe those were dangerous thoughts. Looking so comfortable, Schmidt's side began to take needless chances, eschewing the percentages for the showy manoeuvre.
Mistakes began to creep in. Sexton was particularly guilty when, under pressure inside his 22, he tried an audacious side-step which nearly came off but landed his side in trouble. Only a fine relieving kick from Fergus McFadden spared his outhalf's blushes.
It was around that time that Saracens finally began to carry some menace, signalling their intent that they had not come to Dublin to roll over. They were helped when Fitzgerald, showing signs of his lengthy lay-off, fluffed his attempted pass wide to Nacewa and Saracens winger James Short was on hand to pick up the loose ball and dash from the half-way line to score under the posts.
McCall's side picked up the pace thereafter and, for a time, the game was both entertaining and a contest. Sexton kicked a penalty, for which Leinster were grateful, to push the gap to eight, but by then Saracens were getting a grip on the game. Seven minutes from the interval they executed the best move of the game through David Strettle and it was finished by Kelly Brown in the corner. Game well and truly on.
Dismal tackling did for them, though. A three-point margin would have made Leinster nervous at half-time, but somehow O'Brien was allowed to squirm through two feeble tackles and push his way towards the Saracens posts. From there it was pushed wide where Saracens had no cover and Ryan leapt over for his second score. Leinster went in feeling good about themselves again.
And from there it was plain sailing. Saracens had a spell of dominance early in the second half but had nothing but an Owen Farrell penalty to show for it. With the threat dissipating rapidly, Leinster began to enjoy themselves and cut loose. Three more tries sent a warm glow around the ground, the best of them from Nacewa with 20 minutes remaining, when after more Trojan work from O'Brien, the full-back expertly grabbed a neat off-load from Brian O'Driscoll and charged over with the line gaping.
Not perfect by any means. But enough to send a warning to those who still maintain an interest in the competition who, whatever happens, will hope to avoid them as long as possible.
Scorers -- Leinster: Sexton 5 cons, pen; Ryan 2 tries; McFadden, O'Brien, Nacewa, O'Malley tries. Saracens: Short, Brown, Mordt tries; Farrell pen, con.
Leinster: I Nacewa; S Horgan (E O'Malley 60), B O'Driscoll, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 69), E Reddan (I Boss 66); C Healy (H van der Merwe 66), R Strauss, M Ross (C Newland 66); L Cullen, N Hines (D Toner 60); D Ryan, S Jennings (K McLaughlin 66), S O'Brien.
Saracens: N Mordt; D Strettle (N Cato 64), M Tagicakibau (G Henson 33), B Barritt, J Short; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 52); R Gill, S Brits (J George 66), C Nieto (P du Plessis 61); S Borthwick (J Saunders 78), H Wyvan (H Smith 40); K Brown, A Saull (J Melck 52), E Joubert.
Referee: R Poite (Fra).
Sunday Indo Sport