Brent Pope: 'Once again this season, it was Leinster's colossus that drove them forward'
Last Friday I predicted that Leinster’s battle with Bath, despite the home team languishing in the bottom half of the English Premiership, would be tight but that Leinster would prevail by about 10 points.
That is close to how this Champions Cup game unfolded, but to be honest, it was much more competitive than I had expected it would be as Bath threw everything at last season’s champions.
Sometimes champion teams have to dig out a win, get their hands dirty, and on a wet and windy afternoon in front of a bumper house at the Recreation Ground, Leinster certainly had to dig deep to keep their chances of a home draw in the quarter-finals alive.
It looks like the home game against Toulouse in January will be the defining one in this group, as Toulouse managed to grab their second win on the road in defeating Wasps.
The French former champions head the group, just two points clear of Leinster.
Bath, in some regards, could count themselves a little unfortunate to not at least grab a draw on Saturday. For large parts of the game they looked a very creative and inventive side.
Former Leinster player and backs coach Girvan Dempsey has, in his short time at the club, given the Bath backline plenty of shape and width to their attack, and that was achieved without many of their injured stars.
The main point of difference was in a foolish pass just when Bath had just secured possession from a wayward Seán Cronin lineout throw.
The long, looping pass was telegraphed and gratefully intercepted by poacher extraordinaire Jordan Larmour, who had a simple unopposed trot in under the sticks.
The sides had been level to that point, each with a try on the board, and it had been a real see-saw battle.
Larmour’s try against the run of play allowed Leinster to relax a bit, knowing that Bath had to chase the game.
In fairness, the home team tried everything, but Leinster’s defence was as it has been all season, very miserly.
A Bath penalty at the death rescued a bonus point, but that was a sign that Bath had decided that maybe they could not breach Leinster’s line again.
Up front, Bath did give Leinster a difficult time in the loose and managed to slow Leinster’s ball down through good turnover work from Sam Underhill and Francios Louw. That aspect of the game would have frustrated Leo Cullen.
The experiment of playing Dan Leavy at No 8 seemed to disrupt Leinster’s continuity play a little, and I’m sure Leavy will want to be back at No 6 or No 7, where he is much better suited.
As expected, Leinster did dominate in the tight, where for the umpteenth time this year, young James Ryan was again a colossus. Pulling down all his lineout ball, Ryan also carried and defended well in what was another man-of-the-match performance.
If you were selecting a world team based on this year’s form, Ryan would be on it. It was one of his athletic takes at lineout time which set up the perfect long maul for Cronin to go over and level the scores at 7-7.
Bath’s game plan had plenty of width to it and they mixed things up well.
For that reason alone, their attitude was to be applauded, given their last game at home against Sale in the Premiership was dour in the extreme.
The home crowd, although disappointed, were enthralled by an old-fashioned arm wrestle of a match.
Leinster just had the greater experience in winning these tight games.
It will be another battle next week but you would have to think that with a couple of changes and some work on the ruck and breakdown, Leinster should be sitting pretty for the New Year.