'Quality' Ian Madigan on the money as Leinster win ugly
Castres 16 Leinster 21
Winning in the south of France is always to be cherished but Leinster won't get too misty-eyed when they recall this slog of a victory.
Points are the only currency of value at this stage of the Champions Cup and eight from 10 is not a bad return for the three-time European champions, considering the combination of injuries and poor form that provided the backdrop for their campaign.
Matt O'Connor wasn't putting lipstick on it either. The coach has been criticised for the way his team play, but the Australian keeps winning matches and yesterday it was Ian Madigan who punished Castres' indiscipline and scored all of his team's points.
The Top 14 finalists might be out of form and enjoy a questionable relationship with Europe, but they turned up on an unseasonably hot afternoon and threw everything they had at their visitors, who creaked during the second half, but turned it around and claimed the win.
As their season goes on, Leinster will need more from games where they dominate possession and territory, but this will do for now.
Their lack of attacking intent seemed almost part of the game-plan as they wore Castres down and lived off their mistakes.
It appeared to have backfired during a taught second half as indiscipline crept in and Geoffrey Palis kicked his side into a seven-point lead with 24 minutes remaining.
Leinster's bench did its job, however, with Eoin Reddan instrumental in upping the tempo and Richardt Strauss and Mike McCarthy making an impact.
They were helped by referee Greg Garner, who was not popular with the locals after a couple of contentious decisions, but the Englishman refused to be intimidated by the vociferous crowd.
In the end, they got out of Dodge unscathed and probably ended Castres interest in Europe for 2014-15 in doing it. The overriding emotion for the coach was relief as he conceded it hadn't been pretty.
"We came with a definite plan to play for field position and take our points when they were on offer," O'Connor said. "Ian was outstanding, he took his goals brilliantly.
"He's a quality goal-kicker and he's playing very, very good footie for us in that No 12 shirt. He looks very comfortable in it.
"There was a little bit of a lack of shape, but it takes its toll when you're playing against humans that big.
"The win was the important thing. We probably didn't get enough dominance at set-piece, we didn't get the ball on our terms and from that end we were chasing the game. We probably didn't have enough momentum to construct anything."
Momentum might have been a problem, but the ball wasn't. Leinster enjoyed 63pc possession and spent 67pc of the game in the Castres half.
They lacked a cutting edge, but you couldn't fault their spirit as they twice came back from seven-point deficits and managed to correct a creaking scrum during the second half.
Starting games slowly is becoming an issue and the French side were 7-0 up before Leinster got going as Sean Cronin's crooked throw handed Castres early momentum, and clever play from Remi Tales and Max Evans forced Madigan into touch.
From the lineout, the hosts mauled and Simone Taumoepeau barrelled over. Palis converted from the touchline and the travelling fans got a sense of deja vu at a venue where Leinster fell 14 points behind in January.
They wouldn't let it get quite so messy this time.
"It encouraged us to play," O'Connor said of the fifth-minute try. "I thought after they scored we were very good for 15 minutes and it probably provided the impetus for us to keep working and not take our foot off the pedal."
Leinster took control of the ball during that period, but knock-ons from Kane Douglas and Michael Bent halted their progress.
Madigan got off the mark after strong work from Dominic Ryan and by half-time he had kicked two more penalties to give his side the lead as Castres struggled to get a hold of the ball.
The inside-centre missed one either side of half-time and it looked like he might regret it when the home side began to turn the screw on Leinster's scrum and Bent and Jack McGrath, who is carrying an arm injury, began to struggle badly.
Indiscipline compounded matters and within 17 minutes of the restart, Palis had turned a two-point deficit into a seven point lead and O'Connor sent on Reddan, McCarthy and Strauss in quick succession.
Strangely it was the scrum that turned the tide as Bent got the edge on Taumoepeau with an early shove on Castres ball, but got away with it as the ball went against the head and the navy defensive line strayed offside, allowing Madigan to close the gap.
The hosts were looking the more threatening with ball in hand, but McCarthy and Devin Toner executed a crucial choke tackle on Mathieu Bonello and Leinster marched up the field where Ibrahim Diarra went off his feet and Madigan made it a one-point game.
That was when Leinster's European nous kicked in and they closed it out well from there.
Jimmy Gopperth opted not to release an overlap, stepping inside and carrying hard before Ryan took it on and the inevitable penalty came when Piula Faasalele went high on Jamie Heaslip and Madigan sent it over.
With five minutes on the clock, there was still time for a Castres comeback but Reddan remained positive and his break led to Madigan's seventh penalty and, crucially, some more time being taken off the clock.
There would be no grandstand finish as the French side got a hand to restart, but Jack Conan bravely secured the ball on the deck.
Heaslip skipped out over the touchline in the least effective of his 42 carries for a combined 116m over the course of an industrious fortnight for the Ireland No 8 and the final whistle blew.
Eight points from two games, O'Connor was satisfied.
"There's a lot of growth (to come) in our game," he said.
"There are a lot of bodies to come back into that group.
"It's never going to be perfect. Given the injury situation and the strain on the group, I think we're doing alright."
He'll lose a large chunk to the Ireland camp this week, with Gordon D'Arcy hoping his "tight" groin won't limit his involvement, while Rob Kearney's hamstring remains a big concern.
When they return, the attention will turn to the back-to-back fixtures with Harlequins which will ultimately define the pool.
Carrying an eight-point haul in is a good start, but there's work to be done.
Castres: G Palis; M Evans, C Tuatara, R Cabannes, R Grosso; R Tales (capt), C Garcia (A Dupont 70); S Taumoepeau, B Mach (M Bonello 67), R Herrera (Y Montes 67); R Gray (C Samson 70), R Capo Ortega; M Babillot, (I Diarra 51) Y Caballero, P Faasalele.
Leinster: Z Kirchner; D Fanning, G D'Arcy (N Reid 61), I Madigan, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss (E Reddan 54); J McGrath, S Cronin (R Strauss 70), M Bent (T Furlong 70); D Toner, K Douglas (M McCarthy 58); R Ruddock (J Conan 73), D Ryan, J Heaslip (capt).
Referee: G Garner (England).