Ruthless Leinster click into gear
Racing Metro 22
Nearing the half-hour mark the notion of Leinster leaving this game with a bonus point seemed fanciful and the prospect that they might end up with nothing entirely plausible.
The scores were locked at 3-3 and, for Leinster, securing quality ball and getting their dangerous backline moving was proving a grim struggle. It was time to wonder whether the promise shown against Munster the previous week was little more than a false dawn.
And then, in five minutes, the game and, with it, Leinster's season changed. Firm pressure on a Racing scrum enabled Isa Nacewa to kick them in front and, suddenly, Leinster were in gear. Sean O'Brien finished a beautiful move for a try moments later and, within two minutes, Rob Kearney was at the end of a classic training-ground manoeuvre in the left corner. Half-time arrived with a 15-point lead and a standing ovation. How grim it had all looked just minutes before.
The French side had come to the RDS as classic unknown quantities. Leaders of the Top 14 in France, bearers of the most envied chequebook in world rugby, but on their maiden European voyage. The intensity they would bring to a tournament that isn't their main objective was heavily questioned, but with a quarter of the game remaining, they were no more than a converted try in arrears and it was only late on that Leinster could begin to relax.
Ultimately, Racing committed too many mistakes and, against careless sides, Leinster are generally ruthless. And even though they created little for the first half hour they were solid defensively and it was palpable how much more comfortable they seemed with Jonathan Sexton dictating things at out-half. In the end they ran in five tries -- all wonders to behold -- and began one of the more daunting pools in the fashion they would have wished.
Before their class took over, though, they had to show that they were a match for the grunt and brawn Racing Metro brought to the table. In one of the early exchanges Sebastien Chabal upended Heaslip with the kind of challenge that sends a ripple of "oohs" around the ground, but Chabal was himself toppled by a crunching hit from Isa Nacewa a few moments later. By the 53rd minute, Chabal was replaced, the French totemic figure unable to exert any worthwhile influence on the game.
Against Leinster in Dublin, the French side needed to bring more to the game if they harboured ambitions of getting a result. "I felt we were good going forward," said their coach, Simon Mannix, afterwards. "We were able to put them under pressure. We scored a couple of good penalties and a nice try. But they're one of the top clubs in the competition. We needed more than that."
When Leinster got it right, they were devastating. They eased in front after their pack exerted good pressure on a Racing scrum and Chabal was subsequently penalised for not releasing. From the restart O'Brien gathered possession and set in train a mesmerising passage of play that ended with him crashing over from close range. A neat interchange between Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll carved out their second for Kearney two minutes later. Leinster had sprinted through the gears.
And yet although they enjoyed a cushion for most of the game, there wasn't a time when they could really take their foot off the pedal. In Frans Steyn and Jerome Fillol, Racing have kickers who are dangerous from most positions on the field and, between them, they kept their team lively and interested. Steyn kicked a beauty from the right touchline in the first-half and a monster from 60 metres on the right 10 minutes into the second. For a time they were beginning to look dangerous.
And then when Albert Vuli-vuli slalomed through the gap between O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy for their only try 15 minutes into the restart, Leinster hearts started beating heavily again. Worse for Leinster, and possibly Ireland, O'Driscoll immediately left the field feeling his thigh and the prognosis was no more than hopeful. "It looks like a hamstring," said Leinster coach, Joe Schmidt afterwards. "It could have serious consequences for next week. We'll know more tomorrow [Sunday] at midday."
The good news for Leinster, though, was that they made light of O'Driscoll's departure. Isaac Boss, who had come on in place of Eoin Reddan, put in an impressively lively 20 minutes and helped set up Jamie Heaslip for the try that effectively secured the tie and a winning bonus point for Leinster. Fillol reduced the deficit with a penalty but time was running out for the visitors. The result had long since been decided when Fergus McFadden ran half the length of the pitch to touch down in the corner.
What would have been pleasing for Schmidt was the nature of Leinster's scores. Two of their tries were scored by backs with the other three coming from forwards. But Kearney's try apart, they were all the product of good inter-play between the pack and the outside line, classic 15-man rugby. On the day Leinster simply clicked and showed what a thrilling side they can still be when they have fluency and the pack is on its game.
"I think we've been playing good games," said Heaslip, "but we just haven't been taking our opportunities. Today we did. That was the difference. We've had a drip-feed of players coming back and it's been hard building up our momentum and confidence. Today we boxed clever and took our opportunities. We wanted to set up good ball as a pack. We had a couple of words amongst ourselves about giving the backs the ball they deserve."
And so the prospect of the so-called Pool of Death isn't as frightening now as it seemed yesterday morning. Heaslip spoke about the need for their forwards to provide the platform for victory and, led by the superb O'Brien, that's what they did yesterday in more ways than one.
For they also provided a platform to travel hopefully for the much more daunting task of facing Saracens in the new Wembley Stadium.
Leinster: R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll (F McFadden 57), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (S Horgan 72), E Reddan (I Boss 59); H van der Merwe (C Healy 52), R Strauss (J Harris-Wright 72) , M Ross (S Shawe 72), N Hines, D Toner, S O'Brien, S Jennings (D Ryan 66), J Heaslip
Racing Metro: F Steyn; S Bobo, A Vulivuli, A Masi (M Bergamasco 51), J Saubade; J Fillol, N Durand (M Loree 64); A Lo Cicero (J Bruno 71), B Noirot (C Festuccia 57), J Orlandi (S Zimmermann 72), L Nallet, J Nailiko (S Delappe 57), J Leo'o (R Vaquiin 72), J Cronje, S Chabal (A Batut 52).