Leinster dust off cobwebs to take firm grip of pool
There was a rather comical image captured by the cameras in the RDS on Saturday night which typified an altogether surreal evening's entertainment. As Shane Horgan prepared to score what seemed an inevitable first-half try, a cloth-capped gentleman rose to his feet in raucous acclamation.
Unfortunately, Horgan was superbly manhandled by an Anglo-French reception and driven back from the try line, a point seemingly lost to everyone except the befuddled spectator, who continued his warm acclamation until the slow, dawning realisation that things weren't quite what they seemed.
It was that kind of night and many more were left scratching their heads in bemusement. To top it all off, Horgan, a microcosm of a team who fluttered with apparent ease between the proverbially sublime and ridiculous, would complete the 80 minutes of predominant torpor by creating arguably Leinster's try of the season thus far.
His outrageous flicked offload to the ghosting support runner, Brian O'Driscoll, finished a remarkable back-line move, including Shaun Berne's sweet midfield pass, that secured a rusty Leinster the bonus point their perspiration, if not inspiration, deserved.
Leinster's ultimate goal -- qualification for the quarter-final stage -- may have been made a whole lot easier after London Irish's shock loss against Scarlets yesterday but, in fairness to Brive, their honesty restored some respect to the often tarnished tradition of French travelling combos in this competition, especially considering they had also made the Exiles wait until the last play in Reading to secure their bonus.
"That time when they tackled Shane Horgan in the corner," said Cheika afterwards, "that exemplified their performance, they tried to tackle everything they could, had a lot of fire and played very well. Credit to their new coaches, they've changed them and brought them forward."
Ultimately, Leinster may have expressed gratitude for being able to dust off their cobwebs in public; at times, it barely seemed a burden worth even half the entrance fee, especially in a first-half when Leinster bumbled uncertainly from one calamity to the next. "Today might iron out a few flaws," said Nathan Hines. "You can train as much as you want but there's no substitute for matches. But we don't feel it's case of 'oh, we got that one out of the way'.
"We didn't play as well as we wanted but we still got the right result. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise. It will concentrate things more for the way we want to play against London Irish."
Cheika confronted a bemused and slightly forlorn bunch at half-time. "Yeah, I thought maybe it could be one of those nights. It can happen, it's about how you keep your nerve when it isn't going right. At half-time, the boys were pretty down and we spoke about the fact this is European Cup football and nothing comes easy. You have to earn everything you get. Things weren't going well for us, there's no picture we're painting.
"But we stuck to it and showed good belief. If you turn the clock back a year we played a little like that against Castres in Dublin and didn't get the bonus point. It's a good physical battle for us before next week, a good learning process."
Hines agreed to a point. "At half-time, we weren't really low, just frustrated things weren't going our way. Maybe we were rusty but it didn't feel like we got any rhythm into our game with our physicality, we weren't getting quick ball as we would have liked. But I think that picked up a little in the second-half which was good. Obviously that comes from not playing for three weeks. It's just frustrating."
Cheika, rather than lambasting his troops, instead had to lift their spirits a tad.
"I think they were down on themselves. You can't go out just expecting to win anything, you've got to earn it. The guys realised that at half time. Sometimes it doesn't go well for you and you have to keep plugging away. Maybe in the past we wouldn't have won, or got the bonus point. Obviously I would have liked to play a little better but we've a couple more training sessions to rectify that."
Certainly, when Leinster hit the line and brought more physicality to their game in the second-half, they looked in much finer fettle. But too often, the good was spliced with the bad and downright ugly.
Few escaped culpability; Gordon D'Arcy did score a nice try but one suspects he won't like to be reminded of his efforts to win his side's first three-pointer; the scrum started solidly but wilted towards the end.
Jonny Sexton's comeback was not without promise although he too succumbed to the tactical mess of the first half when Leinster avoided contact as they sought to immediately swing from the hip.
Shane Jennings, also on the comeback trail, did a decent shift on the ground but, given his travails against Steffon Armitage last time out, one wonders whether Sean O'Brien's direct physicality may be a better option.
Despite their healthy position, Cheika wasn't interested in admiring the buffer against elimination wrought by their fourth bonus point of the pool stages.
"If I close my eyes and think about it, I know I still haven't delivered a quarter-final to this club and our fans," said Cheika. "We're really committed to deliver that so we need to win next week. We want to pay back.
"Experience from the first year taught me a lot, when we lost to Bath in the opening Heineken Cup game. You have to stick with it and play your best and accrue the points.
"It's worked out alright for us, we've had a bit of luck. When I say alright, we've put ourselves in a position where we can qualify and maybe get a home quarter-final. Irish probably thought they were finished with us but it's going down to the wire now.
"We've been on red alert since round one because we've used our get-out-of-jail card. We can't think about second place."
Yesterday's result in Wales will have eased his mind a little more.
Leinster -- R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (S Berne 75), I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, J Fogarty, S Wright (CJ van der Linde 55), L Cullen (capt), N Hines, K McLaughlin, J Heaslip, S Jennings (S O'Brien 48).
Brive -- S Spedding; JJ Nicolas, J Noon (V Waqaseduadua 69), L Mackay, H Aguilla; L Orquera (R Bianco 57), JB Pejoine (S Perry h-t); P Henn, S Thompson, P Idiedeir (P Toderasc h-t), R Uys, D Browne, A Popham, A Claasen, F Domingo.
Ref -- A Small (England).