Monday 17 June 2019

Brent Pope: 'Leinster prove they can play the game any way they want'

Adam Byrne of Leinster, centre, is congratulated by team-mates after scoring his side's fourth try against Bath
Adam Byrne of Leinster, centre, is congratulated by team-mates after scoring his side's fourth try against Bath

Brent Pope

Years ago, when I looked at the All Black sides of that particular era, I would always wonder how many of the Irish team at the time would make that New Zealand side.

To be honest, not too many. Much has changed and today, one can almost ask the opposite question – how many All Blacks would make the Irish side?

The same logic can now be applied to Leinster rugby. On Saturday, you may have asked just how many of the Bath players would replace their Leinster opponents. The answer is, again, hardly any.

In my opinion, only Bath flanker Sam Underhill, who was again Bath's best player, would potentially make a starting Leinster XV at this moment and even that would be a toss of a coin.

Despite the stormy conditions, that did fortunately ease a little, Leinster gave a  expansive rugby masterclass.

It seems that Leinster can play the game anyway they want. At half-time, their complete domination was reflected by the games statistics, nearly 70pc of possession and just as much territory.

It also showed that Leinster had worked on what needed to be worked on from last weekend.

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The inclusion of a specialist No 8 in Jack Conan not only allowed flanker Dan Leavy to do what he does best over the ball, but also allowed the impressive Conan plenty of galloping space, which he took on with both hands, scoring a brilliant opening try for his team.

But the extra space was due again to an impressive display in Leinster's engine room, where the Leinster front row schooled a less experienced Bath cockpit on the dark arts of the game, and second row James Ryan always pushed his body over the gain line.

With such go-forward ball, Leinster were a different team than Bath had faced a week earlier. In reality, Bath did not have the ball-carriers which Leinster possess.

Their one-off runners were gobbled up by a home defence that came up fast and in a line. Time after time, Bath tried to find a way through, but were just met by a sea of blue, and ended up simply kicking the ball away.

Leinster's dominance allowed the puppet-master, Johnny Sexton, to pull all the strings and show that he is the best rugby player in the world at the moment.

Sexton was sublime, his kick-pass game allowed him to hoist beautifully weighted Garryowen's for the athletic Adam Byrne or Jordan Larmour to go after, which Byrne did brilliantly.

Or Sexton was using his well-versed wrap around plays from set-piece ball to carve holes everywhere in Baths defence.

It looked so simple at times. It was not perfect from the home side but not far from it, given the rain and the wind.

Handling was good, defence and attack excellent. The only slight criticism was that on just a few occasions Leinster over-cooked a couple of kicks when the ball should have really stayed in the hand.

Bath never gave up, but were simply outclassed by a team that, on its day, will be very hard to beat.

Of course, Leinster do not top their group – that accolade goes to the equally impressive Toulouse, another team that seems to leave its best for Europe.

And while they have been reasonably poor for the last few years, they seem to have more bite about their play this year.

That game between the two European giants in January will decide who goes through and, more importantly, who stays at home for a quarter-final.

No one wants to come to the Aviva but the way that Leinster are playing, they may just have to.

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