Tony Ward: Mission improbable still on – now Leinster need another statement of intent at Exeter
Published 14/01/2013 | 05:00
Rob Kearney said all the right things in midweek but he knew, and we knew, that all the talk about Leinster only concentrating on winning against Scarlets – and not focusing on the bonus point – was vacuous.
The reigning European champions' battle for survival in this year's tournament may not quite be mission impossible – perhaps mission improbable would be closer to the mark – but they've at least picked up five of the minimum 10 points required; though even then qualification is beyond their control.
Their success over Scarlets was far from flawless, but given the circumstances – not least the absence of Sean O'Brien and Brian O'Driscoll – it was a solid response to the bind they are in.
The Scarlets, with nothing to play for but pride, were game.
Leinster, by contrast, announced their try-scoring intent courtesy of a Jonny Sexton kick to the corner just seven minutes in, with the three points, had he opted for the penalty, all but guaranteed.
Twice more he repeated the dose in the first 23 minutes, spurning nine probable points in the process.
Doing that was the right call, and Leinster struck for five tries in their 33-14 triumph – collecting the five points they'd targeted.
It sets up Leo Cullen and Co perfectly for Saturday's do-or-die trip to Exeter, where another five-point haul is an absolute must.
All the talk in the build-up will be about Leinster bagging the bonus point. Given what transpired at the RDS back in October, when Leinster edged it 9-6, the task ahead is daunting.
However, the landscape has changed dramatically since that collision, with the plucky Chiefs now well out of the qualifying equation.
Certainly there was enough on Saturday to suggest Leinster are a squad on their way back to where they need to be should they manage to achieve qualification from the pool.
They were good without being great, but they really impressed with their work ethic, increased intensity and hunger.
Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip, Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald and Kearney were all to the fore with Fitzgerald popping up here, there and everywhere.
The sight of a rare attacking talent back firing on all cylinders was a huge boost for both province and country. I'm sure Declan Kidney has already taken note.
The replacements too – specifically Ian Madigan, Aaron Dundon and O'Driscoll – made an impact in the final quarter, with Madigan crossing for yet another well-crafted individual try.
He is lethal when close to the try line, having developed a remarkably sharp sidestep which was not particularly discernible in his underage career.
Joe Schmidt will have been encouraged too by the response of his team following the Scarlets' try four minutes into first-half injury-time. Having run in three tries for a 19-6 lead by the 33rd minute, it seemed that the job was all but done.
The visitors fought back with a Liam Williams try which certainly rocked the Leinster dressing-room going into the break, but the response in the minutes after the interval was just what Schmidt would have had ordered.
Their step up in intensity and power led to the match-sealing, bonus-point-winning try next to the sticks by Kearney.
When Leinster are in that mood, attacking in waves, they really are irresistible. Yes they may have lulled before Madigan's final try, but with the job done and the side looking injury-free, all attention can now focus on Sandy Park.
They are hanging in there and, for now, that will do as they've given themselves a fighting chance and one hell of an incentive going to Exeter.
The odds are still stacked against Schmidt's troops, but should they make it – and it could be Munster edging them out of that final place – I'm not too sure the top seed (most likely one from Harlequins, Clermont or Toulon) would fancy drawing the three-time champions, even with the Irishmen playing away from home.
But all that's for another day. Leinster have taken the first five points required, and now they must collect the second five in Exeter.
Even if they manage that there is still no guarantee they'll march on, but anything less and it's curtains. It's as simple as that.
So please may we be spared the midweek spin – just give us instead another statement of intent from the off on Saturday.