Thursday 23 November 2017

'Ashamed' Saints pose real threat – O'Connor

Leinster coach wary of Aviva backlash following masterclass
Northampton 7 Leinster 40

Brian O'Driscoll, Leinster, kicks ahead of Dom Waldouck, Northampton Saints
Brian O'Driscoll, Leinster, kicks ahead of Dom Waldouck, Northampton Saints

Leinster's five-star performance may have left Northampton feeling "embarrassed and ashamed" but Matt O'Connor is not taking anything for granted ahead of next Saturday's return game at the Aviva Stadium.

Brian O'Driscoll described his man of the match award as "amusing" as hat-trick hero Luke Fitzgerald was overlooked but such awards matter little in the grand scheme of things.

Leinster's attacking display was at times irresistible as Saints struggled to get to grips with their ferocious line speeds. The bookies wasted little time in reinstalling Leinster as title favourites ahead of Toulon but O'Connor is keen for his players to remain focused on the task at hand.

"They know it is nowhere near done. There is a lot of work to do. We have given ourselves the opportunity to push forward and potentially look at a home quarter-final if we get out of the group which is a huge carrot for us.

"We've got to keep playing at that level. We've got to keep getting better, there are loads of things to work on."

HURTING

Northampton came into the game having lost only two games this season and, having spent three years coaching Leicester Tigers, O'Connor is only too aware of how badly they will be hurting after such a heavy defeat in front of their own fans.

"They are a proud team, a successful club. They will come to Dublin next week to put on a show.

"These guys love playing in the Heineken Cup. They've been to the top of the mountain and they want to get back up there as often as they can and that drives the whole group."

In Northampton's mitigation, they were floored by a Leinster side that were in imperious mood, personified by an evergreen display by O'Driscoll in front of Warren Gatland, the Lions coach who dropped him for the only time in his career last summer ahead of the Lions' third Test against Australia.

Gatland was in the TV studio at the ground as the 34 year-old created two of Leinster's six tries and scored one himself for good measure to inflict a record-equalling heaviest defeat in Europe for Northampton.

O'Driscoll played a key role in ruthlessly exploiting Northampton's misfortune to lose full-back James Wilson in the final minute of the warm-up to a calf injury. Ken Pisi was forced to switch from the wing as cover and his inexperience at full-back was a red rag to the blue hordes.

The tone was set when Pisi knocked on a hastily-taken mark and Leinster scored from the scrum, with O'Driscoll's grubber kick eluding the Northampton full-back as Fitzgerald crossed for the first of his three tries after just two minutes.

When O'Driscoll threw a sumptuous pass through his legs to enable Rob Kearney to put Fitzgerald over for his second try in the eighth minute, the Franklin's Gardens faithful already feared the worst and so it proved.

Further tries by Jamie Heaslip and Eoin Reddan – after Kearney had snatched a high ball from Pisi – ensured the bonus point was wrapped up for the Irish province four minutes before half-time.

But for some frantic and disjointed resistance led by Lee Dickson, who crossed for a second-half try after O'Driscoll had scored having picked off a loose pass by Dom Waldouck, the margin of Northampton's defeat could have been much worse.

Leinster were in no mood to let up, however, and Fitzgerald, who earlier had a try ruled out because of a forward pass following a superb break by Sean Cronin, underscored his hunger by tracking Zane Kirchner before finishing off another flowing attack.

It was a particularly satisfying night for Fitzgerald who at one point last year looked like he would be searching for a new club. After being hit by a third serious knee injury, he lost his IRFU contract but this blistering performance served as a timely reminder to the IRFU coffers of what the 26-year-old is still capable of.

"He has worked incredibly hard to come back from those injuries but he certainly hasn't lost anything in relation to his athleticism and threat with the ball. He's a really good player," said O'Connor.

"He got three tries, could've been four. He's been a class player for a number of years. He has come a long, long way for us."

It was left to Tom Wood to attempt to pick through the remnants of Northampton's humiliating defeat that all but ended the Premiership side's Heineken Cup hopes for another season. It was so overwhelming in its nature that it appeared to shake the club to its core.

Wood is one of the most eloquent and intelligent players in the English game, but even he was at a loss to explain the reasons for his side's utter capitulation to a Leinster side, who look well equipped to have a serious tilt at what would be a fourth European triumph in six years.

"There was no hairdryer treatment afterwards because we're all pretty ashamed of what happened," Wood conceded. "To have fans call you an embarrassment as you leave the field is about as bad as it gets.

"These are the occasions you live for in rugby. It is one thing to lose to a better side. If Leinster had really constructed something, built phases and put us under pressure and eventually broken us, then you would have to take your hats off to them.

WHISTLE

"But to go out there and lose having not even played a hand is soul-destroying. That is the longest 80 minutes I have ever played. It was worse than Ulster last year. I am ashamed to say it but I couldn't wait for the final whistle."

The concern for Northampton is there is little time to lick their wounds. On Saturday night, they must pitch up in front of an expected full house at the Aviva to face the boys in blue all over again.

Afterwards, O'Connor allayed fears that Sean O'Brien had suffered a serious injury. The flanker suffered nothing more than a dead leg and will be fit for next week, according to the coach.

O'Connor acknowledged that it was his sweetest win at Franklin's Gardens as he reflected on a job very well done.

"We started so well. It is always pleasing when you execute on stuff when there is a plan there and you get the result on the scoreboard. It makes the job that little bit worthwhile."

Leinster are already eight points clear of Northampton at the top of Pool One, so realistically there is only pride at stake for the English side now. Leinster on the other hand must ensure there isn't a repeat of last season's Aviva defeat at the hands of Clermont Auvergne as they look to take a big step towards a home quarter-final.

Northampton – K Pisi; J Elliott (T Collins 71), D Waldouck, L Burrell, G North; S Myler (G Dickson 67), L Dickson (R Glynn 67); A Waller (E Waller 58), D Hartley (M Haywood 58), T Mercey (G Denman 60); S Manoa, C Lawes; T Wood, P Dowson (C Clark 58), S Dickinson (C Day 41).

Leinster – R Kearney; D Kearney (Z Kirchner 54), B O'Driscoll (J Gopperth 72), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan (J Cooney 64); J McGrath (M Bent 64), S Cronin (A Dundon 56), M Ross (M Moore 56); D Toner, M McCarthy (L Cullen 60); R Ruddock, S O'Brien (S Jennings 32), J Heaslip.

Ref – N Owens (Wales)

Irish Independent

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