Thursday 18 January 2018

Heaslip leads Leinster back from the brink

Leinster25 Wasps20

Ian Madigan feels the pressure as he takes on Wasps' cover at the RDS yesterday. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ian Madigan feels the pressure as he takes on Wasps' cover at the RDS yesterday. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Brian O'Driscoll in conversation with injured Leinster player Sean O'Brien. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Wasps' Christian Wade collides with Leinster's Darragh Fanning in the air. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Leinster's Jimmy Gopperth is tackled by Wasps' Christian Wade. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Leinster's Devin Toner wins possession of the ball in a lineout. Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It is easy to underestimate the power of the three stars on Leinster's jersey. Winning trophies breeds a belief that allows them to stage comebacks like last night's win over Wasps.

In keeping with the theme of the weekend, the Irish side gave their Premiership opponents a generous head-start before beginning to reel them in. They kept things a little less dramatic than Munster and Ulster and were left a little disappointed at not picking up a fourth try before the end, but in the context of their season this was a big win.

Despite having a list of ready-made excuses to fall back on, they refused to accept an opening day defeat.

Down a host of frontline players due to an unprecedented injury crisis, their mix of first-teamers and would-be reserves hauled their way back from a 12-point deficit.

"Success is huge in that regard," coach Matt O'Connor said. "It gives guys a hell of a lot of belief and it gives you somewhere to go when things are tough.

"We weren't being outplayed. We weren't being beaten up, so from that end it gives the guys the confidence to back their process and to keep doing the things we do in training. And from that end it was very, very pleasing.

"We didn't go off-script, we didn't chase the game, we just kept doing what we do. From that end, it was a really, really pleasing result."

They will hope to have a few more bodies back when they go to struggling Castres on Sunday with Rob Kearney and Mike Ross close to fitness and Luke Fitzgerald set to have another week's training under his belt. Two wins from their opening games would represent a decent seven days' work for O'Connor's men.

At times, they struggled with Wasps' physicality and again there were question marks over their fringe defence. Jimmy Gopperth had a mixed afternoon with Ian Madigan taking over some of his bread-and-butter duties, while Mike McCarthy looked well off the pace before being replaced by Kane Douglas eight minutes after half-time.

Four minutes later, the game turned on the hand of Devin Toner who reached his arm into the sky and blocked Joe Simpson's box-kick.

Within a minute, Leinster had closed the gap to two points thanks to Darragh Fanning's second try and their success suddenly looked inevitable.

Wasps' coach Dai Young spoke admiringly about Leinster's pedigree as three-time champions of Europe.

But with so few of the men who won those Heineken Cups present one wonders whether the English side might have taken more than a bonus point home if they had believed in themselves a little more.

It was one of the men who has contributed much to Leinster's reputation who led the charge.

Jamie Heaslip sometimes allows himself to become detatched from the action, but last night the captain was everywhere as he bristled with intent in both attack and defence, ending up as his team's top carrier while also making the most tackles.

"He was outstanding," O'Connor said of his captain. "His involvements across the game week on week are outstanding. It was a fantastic captain's knock, really. He was outstanding against a good back-row, a physical side who have played some fantastic rugby and will beat a lot of sides."

The Ireland and Lions No 8 has had his critics during a stellar career, but his coach reckons he is growing as a leader.

"Definitely, he's done the job a lot. He's done it internationally," he said.

"He's a fantastic voice in the environment and probably hadn't got the recognition he deserves really, because he's a fantastic leader in our environment and he delivers every day in training - every game he's phenomenal."

Initially, it was the Wasps back-row who had looked the more potent threat despite losing captain James Haskell to a bug before kick-off.

The visitors established an early lead through the boot of Andy Goode. Without the support of Ross and Marty Moore, Michael Bent was just about managing to hold water at scrum-time, while Sean Cronin's throw looked a little wobbly as the English side got a foothold.

They were ready to pounce on any error and centre Alapati Leiua made the most of Noel Reid's telegraphed pass to Fanning and raced 60m to score.

Goode converted to give his side a 10-point cushion. Leinster responded through Fanning who latched on to Gopperth's chip and touched down after Heaslip had brilliantly taken Launchbury on the outside.

Madigan converted, but he was on his backside minutes later as Christian Wade managed to conjure a try from nothing, rounding the acting full-back, scorching past Fanning and then beating Zane Kirchner to the line.

It was stunning stuff. Goode added the touchline conversion, giving the visitors a 12-point lead and filling the small pockets of black-clad fans with belief.

Madigan managed a penalty on the stroke of half-time after Bent had gotten the nudge at scrum-time and that gave Leinster a window back into the game.

After an early let-off when Sailosi Tagicakibau broke Sean Cronin's tackle but didn't spot Wade on his shoulder, Toner's block turned the momentum back in Leinster's favour and Cronin followed on with a superb bust.

Toner was next to take it on and, although Eoin Reddan spilled at the base, they moved wide where Fanning stepped inside the cover to score.

Madigan converted and it was back to a two-point game.

Suddenly, the flow was all one-way. What would prove the winning try came just after the hour-mark as Cronin took a superb line off Reddan, before the back-row took over and Dominic Ryan reached for the line to score. Again, Madigan converted and the hosts went in search of the bonus. Fanning was held up over the line and Kirchner went close.

But things got a little hairy when Tagicakibau raced towards the line only to be called back for Launchbury's forward pass.

Four points would have to do, but given their form and injury list coming in it was a good start for the Pro12 champions ahead of their trip to Castres where they also came from behind to win last year.

Leinster - Madigan; Z Kirchner, G D'Arcy, N Reid, D Fanning; J Gopperth, E Reddan (I Boss 63); J McGrath, S Cronin (R Strauss 65), M Bent (T Furlong 65); D Toner, M McCarthy (K Douglas 48); R Ruddock, D Ryan, J Heaslip (capt).

Wasps - A Masi (R Miller 21 - 26, 28); C Wade, E Daly, A Leiua, S Tagicakibau; A Goode (C Bell 45-48, 64), J Simpson; M Mullan (S McIntyre 72), C Festuccia (T Lindsay 76), L Cittadini (J Cooper -Woolley 63); J Launchbury (capt), B Davies (J Gaskell 64); A Johnson, G Thompson (S Jones 42), N Hughes.

Ref: L Hodges (Wales)

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