Blues not ready to give up limelight
Leinster 44 Biarritz 16
IF THE Amlin Challenge Cup is where old teams go to die, Leinster took one look around and decided it wasn't their time yet.
The second tier of European competition wasn't where they planned to be on the last weekend in April, but they are making the best of things and it doesn't look like they'll be hanging around for long. In contrast, Biarritz looked a shadow of their former selves and every bit a team languishing 11th in the Top 14.
The Basques' day was summed up by Imanol Harinordoquy kicking a sideline flag high into the RDS stand towards the end. It was the once-great No 8's most telling contribution.
On the opposite touchline Brian O'Driscoll, at 34 a year older than the former France star, was all smiles as the crowd chanted 'One more year! One more year!'
His retirement date remains unknown, but with the sun shining and things going his way, the great man might just have been tempted to take the fans' advice. Joe Schmidt certainly hopes so.
"I'd be delighted if the crowd can keep that pressure on," the coach said.
If the legendary centre does remain on, the New Zealander is likely to benefit from O'Driscoll's talents at international level rather than club after his team cemented his credentials as the outstanding candidate to take the Ireland job.
Leinster's first try came from a piece of innovation that was pure-Schmidt, while his team's positive approach endured throughout.
The blazers can't have been anything but impressed.
Another sub-plot is the looming Lions team announcement tomorrow morning and, in front of Warren Gatland's assistants Rob Howley, Graham Rowntree and Neil Jenkins, those in contention did much to confirm their places.
Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Mike Ross and O'Driscoll all impressed, but primarily it was Jamie Heaslip who would have caught their eye, rolling back the years in an all-conquering display of No 8 play.
The Naas man scored two tries and carried for 114 metres in Sean O'Brien's absence. Having endured a difficult winter at the helm of the Irish ship, he looks like he's enjoying being back in blue in spring.
"He was immense. He was really deserving of the player of the game award," Schmidt acknowledged.
"All week there's been an edge to him – when we don't have Sean the plays are set-up for him to carry a bit more and, maybe he struggled.
"A lot of people talk about him not carrying enough ball, but I think he does a massive amount of unseen work, he's great on the poach, on the ball, and he and Richardt Strauss put a lot of pressure on Biarritz ball today.
"They did it very directly, on their feet, on the ball. Today, he carried really, really strongly."
It was the No 8 who got the ball rolling after just three minutes, running a fine support line from a set-play move that saw Devin Toner roll off the back of the line-out to collect Strauss' overthrow and pop the ball for the onrushing Isa Nacewa, who drew Marcelo Bosch and fed Heaslip to score.
Sexton added the conversion, but as the floodgates threatened to open when O'Driscoll broke and fed the fly-half only for Taku Ngwenya to hold him up over the line, the blue wave was halted by relentless Biarritz possession.
The Basques owned the ball for most of the half, they just couldn't do anything with it but win penalties and Dimitri Yachvili knocked over three to Sexton's one to narrow the gap to a solitary point as half-time approached.
After their early endeavour, Leinster were being frustrated and the line-out and scrum were creaking, but two tries in three minutes at the end of the half effectively put the game to bed.
First, Strauss got his radar back and found Leo Cullen and off clean ball the home backs stepped it up a gear as Kearney evaded a flailing Damien Traille attempted tackle and fed Sexton, who crossed for the try.
The fly-half converted and that seemed to be that for the first half, but Heaslip had other ideas, brilliantly forcing a turnover and penalty on half-way that Isaac Boss tapped and Ian Madigan – who struggled at times in the unfamiliar No 12 jersey – found Nacewa with a beautiful flat pass as the winger tip-toed his way up the line. He found O'Driscoll, who went infield for support.
Eventually Ross was hit hard in midfield, but Madigan recovered the loose ball which popped out to Heaslip, who held off Ngwenya's tackle strongly to score.
Sexton converted and suddenly a one-point game was effectively over at the break.
Biarritz had to score first if they were to get back into it, but Yachvili sent a kickable effort wide before Ben Broster's dropped pass fell to Madigan, who raced the length of the field, only to be stopped short by the chasing Ngwenya, who was subsequently sin-binned for not rolling away. Sexton made no mistake to make the gap 18 points.
Leinster then got lucky when Kearney misjudged a bouncing ball, but it evaded three visiting chasers and instead it was the three-time Heineken Cup winners who were celebrating at the other end as O'Driscoll's big hit on Aled Brew led to a turnover and a wonderful Healy cut-out pass sent Sexton away and he executed a brilliant exchange of passes with Nacewa for the former Fiji international to score.
From there on, it was party time as Fergus McFadden pulled off a wondrous double chip, chase and collect before another Heaslip rampage was followed by a scorching break from replacement Sean Cronin, who popped the ball to Nacewa and he found O'Driscoll for a fitting finale.
There was still almost 20 minutes to play and hooker Arnaud Heguy pulled a try back for the visitors, but the holders knew the game was well up at that stage and looked like they couldn't wait to get out of south Dublin.
A win next week against the Ospreys would mean Leinster won't have to leave the comfortable surrounds of Dublin for the rest of the season. A Pro12 and Challenge Cup double looks a real possibility.
"That would be nice, yeah," Healy said. "It would be lovely, but it hasn't been what we have been focusing on. It has been more a case of game by game for us.
"We always said if we look forward that is where we would fall. It has always been match by match and Joe has been driving it like that for us."
They definitely have one final lined up in Ballsbridge, against Stade Francais and their old friends Stan Wright and Felipe Contepomi on May 17.
It may not be the big top, but Leinster aren't ready to give up the limelight.
LEINSTER – R Kearney; F McFadden (A Conway 65), B O'Driscoll, I Madigan, I Nacewa; J Sexton (A Goodman 50), I Boss (J Cooney 61); C Healy (J McGrath 61), R Strauss (S Cronin 61), M Ross (J Hagan 61); L Cullen (Q Roux 61), D Toner; K McLaughlin (R Ruddock 65), S Jennings, J Heaslip (McLaughlin 78)
BIARRITZ – M Bosch; T Ngwenya, B Baby (Y Lesgourrgues 40), D Traille (S Burotu 56), A Brew (T Thomas 61); JP Barraque, D Yachvili; T Synaeghel (E van Staden 48), A Heguy (B August 70), B Broster (FG Kodela); E Lund, P Taele-Pavihi (M Marie 74); T Dubarry, R Lakafia (W Lauret 58), I Harinordoquy.
Ref – W Barnes (RFU).