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Blues again in perfect place for Euro bid

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IMPRESSIVE: Ross Byrne. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

IMPRESSIVE: Ross Byrne. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

IMPRESSIVE: Ross Byrne. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

In this sort of form who would argue that Leinster are not, alongside the Canterbury Crusaders, the best provincial side in the world?

It was some weekend for Irish rugby. Ulster took a giant scalp in beating Racing 92, Munster destroyed Glouster away, and then Leinster delivered the cream. Joe Schmidt must be licking his lips at the thought of getting his players back for a Grand Slam defence in such form.

Toulouse arrived at the RDS as a team with serious form, unbeaten since September and leading Leinster's pool by two points. But like so many others, they found a Leinster team almost unbeatable on home soil.

Not only did Leinster win the match 29-13, but they gobbled up four tries for a whopping 20 points in their group, with a narrow loss to Toulouse back in October the only blemish.

It was not a perfect performance but Leinster were not far off it. They have a rare ability to attack but on Saturday it was their defence that stood out. Not many teams in the world defend as well as they attack, but Leinster can. It means that it is very hard to find any weakness.

Dangerous

Leinster shut down teams easily, and on Saturday they knew that Toulouse had plenty of dangerous attackers. But every time Toulouse tried to open the game up (and to their credit they tried) they were running into a sea of blue shirts.

Stuart Lancaster has brought a real defensive quality to this Leinster side and coupled with Leo Cullen's quiet management style, it's reaping dividends.

Leinster have again established themselves as the side to beat, and in this type of form it will take a mighty team to deny them at least another final berth.

The fact that they won comfortably without the world's best rugby player (Johnny Sexton) the world's tallest player (Devin Toner) and world-class operators like Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Dan Leavy and others is further testament to the fact that more than any team in Europe Leinster are able to fill in the gaps.

Sexton, this season's captain, was hardly missed. His replacement, Ross Byrne, delivered a Sexton-type performance, especially in his ability to manage Leinster around the park and his kicking out of hand, which was excellent.

A pinpoint cross-kick in the second half showed all his skills and sent winger Dave Kearney flying over for a vital try.

There was no sign of Toulouse fielding a weakened side, or not going at it with everything they had. They did come to play, they just seriously lost out in the battle of the collision areas.

Tolouse also made too many basic mistakes and turnovers against a side of Leinster's quality.

With the other teams in the pool, apart from possibly Toulouse, now concentrating on their domestic competitions, Leinster look odds on to at least make the semi-finals. The only slight problem is that whoever Leinster might draw in a quarter-final - and that could yet be a team like Racing, Saracans or even Toulouse - will know that in any knockout stage of any competition it just comes down to one match on one day.

There are still a few teams out there who would be capable of an upset. That's what keeps this tournament alive.

Of course, the Six Nations Championship intervenes before all that can happen, and the bulk of the Leinster squad will be involved in that Grand Slam defence.

But national coach Joe Schmidt, like Leo Cullen, has always been careful in managing his top players, even more so this year when he needs his key players fit and ready to go in August at the Rugby World Cup.

It will be up to the Leinster players not involved with Ireland to keep Leinster poised in both competitions for what could be another amazing year.


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