Leinster overcome Sexton setback to ease worries
Published 12/09/2010 | 05:00
Under pressure after squandering the game in Glasgow last weekend, the last thing Leinster needed -- against a team who hadn't lost away in this competition since last January -- was to see Jonny Sexton pull out in the warm-up, with a strained thigh. He will have a scan today.
This was the same Sexton who looked in great nick and was itching to get his season under way. Defeat is often what you get when your night starts like this. For Leinster it was no more than a speed bump however. They motored on and survived a tight finish to pick up a win that will ease their concerns about what lies ahead.
And for 21-year-old Academy player Ian Madigan his second start in just over three seasons was a handy run out that finished with a try in the last minute to make the game safe. Man-of-the-match Isa Nacewa's conversion completed for him what was a flawless night.
In the circumstances of Sexton's late withdrawal a decent start was top of Joe Schmidt's wish list, and 14 points inside 10 minutes fits that category, but after the break the game changed into one where his team needed to survive. They did well, and that was as satisfying as avoiding the grief of zero from two for the new coach.
His main men -- Jamie Heaslip and Nathan Hines -- delivered in spades, and Nacewa had a terrific game, but for most of the last quarter Leinster's back line comprised Madigan, Fergus McFadden and Eoin O'Malley, and they held it together well.
"It wasn't ideal -- it wasn't what we planned but we knew at some stage we'd need to those guys off the bench," Schmidt said afterwards. "But I would have liked it if we had a little bit more security before they had to come on. But they really teamed up together well and we held them out."
They didn't just hold them out, they overhauled them: by 64 minutes Cardiff had turned a 6-20 half-time deficit into a 23-20 lead. Fergus McFadden scored with 10 minutes left to regain the lead and then Madigan added the insurance just before the final bell.
Perhaps the biggest winner, though, was the man who spent most of last season wondering why he had come back to Ireland. Mike Ross forced three penalties in the first half against Tom Davies -- who was replaced before the break with a binning looking on the cards -- and he looked like he was enjoying providing stability in an area where it is always welcome. Now Ross needs games. Lots of them.
There was other stuff, too, early on to ease the worries of Leinster's new coach: Cardiff's handling was consistently poor, and they looked like they expected to lose.
As for those early 14 points, the first try highlighted the cleverness of Isaac Boss, who used referee Andy Macpherson as a screen to open a gap for Shane Jennings. The flanker held off Chris Czekaj to score by the posts. A player like Boss can do real damage in a team going forward, which was a rare occurrence for him at Ulster. We'll see how it unfolds for him in Dublin.
The second try came on nine minutes and good use of the short side allowed Luke Fitzgerald to step in to let Nacewa score and convert. By the end of 40 minutes Nacewa had racked up 15 points in Lenister's 20-6 lead, including two penalties to wipe out a pair from Parks.
The Cardiff changing room can't have been a great place at half-time. Whether it was a wondrous speech by Dai Young or the simple reduction in their error count, they managed to work their way level by the hour mark, and into the lead on 64 minutes. The powerful and straight running by full-back Czekaj had a bit to do with it, and the class of Casey Laulala in midfield also helped. The centre did really well for Richie Rees's try soon after Bradley Davies had got over from close in.
A Parks penalty had Cardiff in front before replacement Cian Healy provided the opening for McFadden to score on 70 minutes. By that stage the kids were running the midfield for Leinster and Madigan's finish illustrated how well they were coping. Good to get the points, almost as good again to expose those in waiting to more first-class rugby.
Scorers -- Leinster: I Nacewa try, 4 cons, 2 pens; S Jennings, F McFadden, I Madigan try each; Cardiff: B Davies, R Rees try each; D Parks 3 pens, 2 cons.
Leinster: L Fitzgerald; S Horgan (D Kearney 50), B O'Driscoll (capt) (E O'Malley 62), F McFadden (B O'Driscoll 74), I Nacewa; I Madigan, I Boss (E Reddan 54); H van der Merwe (C Healy 62), R Strauss (J Fogarty 56), M Ross; N Hines, E O'Donoghue (M Galarza 79); S O'Brien, J Heaslip, S Jennings (D Ryan 62).
Cardiff: C Czekaj; R Mustoe, C Laulala (G Evans 73), D Hewitt, T James; D Parks, R Rees; T Davies (F Filise 35), T Rhys-Thomas, S Andrews (J Yapp 50); B Davies, D Jones (J Down 58); M Paterson, X Rush (capt), S Warburton (B White 72).
Referee: A Macpherson (Scotland).