Saturday 25 January 2020

Dazzling Leinster brush Cardiff aside

Leinster 34 Cardiff Blues 3

BRENDAN FANNING

If the Cardiff boys felt like having a few looseners after the hammering by Glasgow in the Pro 12 last weekend you can imagine the need for a bit of escapism after this episode in their season, which is sliding down the drain.

There was a suggestion last week, promoted by Cardiff themselves and willingly adopted by Leinster -- in the hope of keeping everyone onside in the run-up to this Heineken Cup quarter-final -- that the impending break-up of the Welsh outfit would spark a spirited performance.

If at some stage in the future captain Xavier Rush gathers this group for a reunion they won't be dwelling on their April weekend in Dublin. At least not for the bit of it between 5.45pm and 7.40pm on the Saturday.

For all of two minutes, in perfect conditions at Lansdowne Road in front of a crowd of 50,340, they looked competitive.

That period concluded with a perfectly struck penalty from about 50 metres by Leigh Halfpenny. That left 78 minutes, many of them dominated by Leinster.

Not all of it was in the Cardiff half, or anything like it -- especially after the break -- but once the tight head shunting of Mike Ross, driven by Brad Thorn, started splitting the Cardiff scrum there would only be pain for the visitors.

Even when they ran through a massive number of phases, early in the final quarter, to finally produce a try-scoring chance for Martyn Williams, the flanker lost the ball in trying to slam dunk it over the line. They deserved something more for their efforts, and coming up empty-handed only made it worse.

All over the field they were second best. They passed lots of ball without actually going anywhere useful; Leinster constantly moved it into space, and when they did it with a man steaming into the same space, then it ended in a score.

The pick of the three first-half tries was a set-piece creation that involved just four passes after ball off the top of a lineout. The penultimate one was blind, from Jonny Sexton, and into a gap for the onrushing Luke Fitzgerald, who then laid it off for Brian O'Driscoll to score unchallenged. They won't be able to use it again but if you check YouTube it may already be there. Save it.

Shortly after the break, in that period when you wondered would Cardiff be able to score first and give themselves a lift, we got a variation on the theme of ball into space. This time it was O'Driscoll pulling it back for Rob Kearney to score his second try.

In fairness to the away team, they got plenty of ball to play with in the second half. You wouldn't know if at half-time Joe Schmidt set in bold capital letters the target of a clean sheet but Leinster defended as if the contest was still live. The next stop for the champions will be a spin to either Twickenham or Bordeaux, on Sunday, April 29 , to play the winners of today's tie between Saracens and Clermont Auvergne.

When their opponents sit down to analyse the video of this they won't see a whole lot of gaps to expose.

The surgery-forced lay-off for Brian O'Driscoll seems to have done him good beyond fixing what was a chronic shoulder problem. We are in April and he is just warming to the task, which is good news for Declan Kidney ahead of New Zealand in June.

Around him, Leinster's backs were sharp and accurate, none more than Kearney who somehow saw the man of the match award filched by Cian Healy.

Sexton too was very good, shooting six from seven, getting huge yardage on his touch kicks, and attacking the line hard.

The box kicking of his partner, Eoin Reddan, was about the only obvious flaw in the operation.

The game looked done and dusted by the half hour when Leinster moved into a 20-3 lead. Sexton had cancelled out Halfpenny's penalty on eight minutes, and four minutes later they moved into a lead they would never surrender when Isa Nacewa -- again outstanding -- finished out wide after a delayed attack on the short side by Sexton threw the Cardiff defence.

Four minutes after that Leinster produced that perfect set-piece score for O'Driscoll, and they went into the changing room sitting on a 27-3 lead. It doesn't look so good that they only added one more score to that total, but not conceding at the other end was just as important.

That defensive effort was helped by the arrival of Shane Jennings, who had an excellent half hour, and they needed that energy surge to cope with Cardiff's attempts to take something home with them.

Instead, the Welsh side ended up tryless for the second week running, in what was their fourth defeat on the trot.

Leinster meanwhile have lost just once since that Pro 12 setback against Glasgow in September. They are in really good shape for the run-in now in both competitions, with captain Leo Cullen back to full fitness and in good form, and All Black Brad Thorn adding extra grunt to the pack. If they had any concerns about underperforming here, where they are unbeaten, then they didn't have too much to worry about. On the right track towards a successful defence of their title.

Leinster: R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll (I Madigan 69), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald (F McFadden 60); J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 62); C Healy (H van der Merwe 69), R Strauss (S Cronin 53), M Ross (N White 73), L Cullen (capt), B Thorn (D Toner 60), K McLaughlin (S Jennings 50), J Heaslip, S O'Brien

Cardiff: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, C Laulala, D Hewitt, T James (yc 79); D Parks (C Sweeney 69), L Williams (R Rees 69); G Jenkins, M Breeze, S Andrews, B Davies, J Down (M Molitika 61), M Paterson, X Rush (capt), M Williams

Referee: D Pearson (England)

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