Sexton scare fails to derail Leinster
Cardiff 19 Leinster 23
LEINSTER are confident that Jonathan Sexton and Gordon D'Arcy will be fit for Heineken Cup action next weekend after both Ireland internationals limped out of the Pro12 win in Cardiff on Saturday night.
A Leinster spokesman revealed yesterday that out-half Sexton had picked up cramp before his second-half exit, while D'Arcy, who was replaced by Isa Nacewa just before half-time, had hurt his ribs.
Updates on their medical condition are due today, but both are expected to be available for Sunday's Heineken Cup encounter in Glasgow.
The European champions added some more substance to the maxim that the very best teams can play well within themselves and still find a way to chisel out a victory against durable opponents.
They could have lost this match against Cardiff, but you somehow knew that they wouldn't.
Gavin Henson was a late withdrawal for the Blues with a calf strain, spoiling his chances of impressing Wales coach Warren Gatland ahead of the Six Nations, with Leigh Halfpenny switching to full-back and Robbie Mustoe coming onto the right wing.
Had Halfpenny converted a late second-half penalty that would have put his team ahead, the result might have been different, but the probability is that Leinster still would have found a way to claim their 10th successive Pro12 win.
There is such a deep-rooted sense of self-confidence in this team that they are utterly convinced of their ability to prevail.
"We don't care where we go or where we play," said Jamie Heaslip after Saturday's victory. "If we bring our own intensity and just worry about the job we have to do rather than the team that we're playing, I don't think it really matters where we go to or what the circumstances are."
Heaslip was team captain on Saturday and filled the brief admirably. He has been accused by some of letting his standards drop in the last 18 months, but the good news for Leinster and Ireland fans is that the big Naas man looks like he's close to his very best form again.
He made a series of eye-catching carries, hit every ruck with a manic intensity and in a furiously physical final 10 minutes, he threw his body into every collision with utter disregard for his own wellbeing.
Heaslip wasn't the only one to catch the eye. Sean Cronin was his usual dervish self in the loose and it looks like his set-piece play has progressed significantly since joining Leinster, while Mark Flanagan, a late inclusion after Damian Browne withdrew because of illness, was a revelation in his first start for the province.
Flanagan is not quite as tall as his cousin and second-row partner on Saturday night, Devin Toner, but he's still a serious lump of a man and at the age of just 22 has the potential to really develop into something special.
"A lot of lads put their hands up tonight and I thought Mark in particular had an awesome game," said Heaslip.
"I'm happy with the way the match went for myself and as a squad we're all going well. I think we can be a lot more clinical, though. We turned over the ball too easily and threw one or two passes we shouldn't have."
The 15 who played on Saturday couldn't have started the match any more clinically as they scored two tries in the first 10 minutes through Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney.
Sexton landed both conversions and, trailing 14-0 after just 20 minutes, Cardiff were staring down the barrel of a gun.
They weren't about to put their hands up and meekly surrender, though. Two penalties from Halfpenny and a Dan Parks drop-goal brought them back into the contest, and, although Sexton slotted another penalty just before the break, it was clear Leinster were now in a real match.
The teams exchanged penalties after the break and then Cardiff really came roaring into the contest when burly prop Gethin Jenkins tunnelled his way over for a try that Halfpenny converted to close the gap to just one point.
Ten minutes later he had a chance to put the home team ahead, but his penalty from the half-way line fell just short to a chorus of groans from the animated home fans, who then gasped with disbelief a couple of minutes later when he fluffed a much easier chance.
Insult was added to injury when Leinster went straight down the field and won a penalty of their own that Fergus McFadden slotted straight and true between the posts to give his team a winning buffer they just about deserved.
It was hardly a vintage performance, though, and Leinster manager Guy Easterby didn't mind admitting afterwards that they'll have to seriously up the ante when they visit Scotland on Sunday for the Heineken Cup clash against an in-form Glasgow Warriors.
"No one is pretending that we're playing 10-out-of-10 rugby," said Easterby. "We're winning games and showing a hell of a lot of character, but our game isn't bang on at the moment.
"There's still stuff to work on, which is a positive in a way because we're winning games regardless. In the big European matches, though, and certainly with the way Glasgow are playing, we know that nothing but our best will be good enough next weekend."
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; D Kearney, F McFadden, G D'Arcy (I Nacewa 39), A Conway; J Sexton (F Carr 59), E Reddan; C Healy (H van der Merwe 70) S Cronin, M Ross; M Flanagan (L Auva'a 75), D Toner; K McLaughlin (J Murphy h-t), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
CARDIFF -- L Halfpenny; R Mustoe (H Robinson 73), C Laulala, G Evans, T James; D Parks, L Williams (R Rees 49); G Jenkins, M Breeze (R Williams 42), S Andrews (S Hobbs 75); B Davies, M Paterson; M Molitika (J Navidi 49), S Warburton, X Rush.
REF -- M Mitrea (Italy)