Leinster slip their shackles to tee up a shoot-out
Leinster 50 Castres 8
AN evening that began with a nervous chill of anxious anticipation ended with a giddy rush of gleeful punters racking up the try count on their gloved fingers.
Leinster had kicked off round five with their destiny beyond their control; now they have comprehensively wrestled it back, in part with the collaboration of their final round foes, Wasps, who denied Harlequins 4-0 in Pool 2's gripping points race.
Even before the weekend's action was completed, Harlequins' inability to gain even a losing bonus in the stunning home reverse to Wasps has allowed Leinster, thanks to their own bonus, assume the director's chair in the pool.
Matt O'Connor's men will head to Coventry next weekend to face high-flying Wasps knowing that, at the very least, a losing bonus point should squeeze them through, potentially to a meeting with old foes Clermont in France.
However, after the hugely encouraging signs revealed on this potentially seminal night in Dublin, the three-time champions will have their sights set much, much higher.
"Our goal is to go all the way but our primary focus is to get out of the pool," said sky-scraping second-row Devin Toner, who elbowed his way to the large of a snaking queue of man of the match contenders in the province's most complete display of the term.
Indeed, it is not improbable - and round six in the greatest club competition has served up enough of these scenarios to invite the excitable - that should Leinster soar to even greater heights next week against Dai Young's in-form side, and results run true elsewhere, a home quarter-final could somehow land in their lap.
Rugby seasons are all about peaking at the right moments; allowing for limp Castres effecting the closest impression we've seen to a travelling Italian side, it was the quality of points scored, not just the quantity, which made one feel as if this were a seminal night's work.
With a key swathe of their players either in casualty - the unregistered Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy will again play no part next week - or deemed surplus to first XV requirements, in the guise of 145 international caps (Gordon D'Arcy, Mike Ross and Isaac Boss), there was also a sense of a team disrobing itself of the horrible 'transition' tag.
The excessive mourning for retired or absent players seemed to have lingered too long amongst those who remained.
Now, energised by the youthful vigour of such as Jack Conan, Luke McGrath and Tadhg Furlong, embellished by familiar fully fit faces like Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney, Leinster unfurled a different sense of themselves.
The ennui of the early season seemed a distant entity; true, there was an awful lot of poor play, too, beginning with seven turnovers in a ragged opening quarter and there were recidivist elements of sloppy breakdown work; ultimately though, witnessing the swashbuckling swagger return to the side's play was hugely encouraging.
O'Connor's selection was also significant, for both Leinster and Ireland - albeit the latter, quite rightly, does not concern him.
"It's probably not a major concern for me," he said when pressed on the absent Ross.
"Joe can pick whoever he likes and he'll have to make that assessment, but we'll sit down and, if we think Mike's the best man for us next week, we'll pick Mike. If we think Tadhg or Marty (Moore) is that guy, we'll pick them."
The coach rarely lost his nerve this season as much as those outside the camp have done; the players' faith in his ability has been unwavering throughout.
With Ulster's player power back-firing horribly and Munster's return to an indigenous coaching ticket falling at its first European hurdle, Leinster, so often unloved and unlovely, are poised for a second quarter-final in succession despite months of often elaborate criticism.
"We said it at the time, and no-one wanted to write it then, that we had a pretty distinct plan of what we wanted to achieve out of rounds one and two," said O'Connor as he pondered Leinster's journey between the twin fixtures that have bookended this campaign.
"We thought it was really important to make sure that we got those two wins given the way things were with the squad and the group. From that end, we weren't overly disappointed with what we got out of the first two games.
"Then we get a lot of blokes back, there is another 14-15 games under our belt so there's a hell of a lot of training time and game minutes we can call on in Coventry."
Again, persuasive arguments must be mitigated by the opposition but Leinster have played equally poor opponents this term and played like constipated drains.
At least here was an intention to attack, with Jimmy Gopperth and Ian Madigan rarely reverting to the boot.
"It is certainly the most intense we have gone into a game this year in relation to putting the opposition under pressure with the ball in play and ball in hand.
"We got the reward for that because of the circumstances," said a delighted O'Connor.
"Maybe there is a learning in it for us in that. Given the confidence that we have built and the combinations that we have got, moving forward, there is no reason why we cannot have that intent every week."
His side will now seek to do just that next week.
Leinster - R Kearney (D Fanning 68); F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, I Madigan, D Kearney; J Gopperth (G D'Arcy 63), E Reddan (L McGrath 59); M Bent (J Hagan 51), S Cronin (R Strauss 51), M Moore (T Furlong 51), D Toner, M McCarthy (K Douglas 63), J Conan, J Murphy, J Heaslip capt (D Ryan 51).
Castres - J Dumora; R Martial, T Combezou, R Cabannes capt (R Tales 59), M Garvey (A Dupont 67); D Kirkpatrick (R Grosso 64), R Kockott; S Taumoepeau (P Fa'anunu 59), M-A Rallier (M Bonelle 59), R Herrera, R Gray, C Samson (B Desroches 48), I Diarra, J Bornman (P Faasalele 49), J Beattie.
Ref - Marius Mitrea (FIR).