Tuesday 20 August 2019

Lethal Leinster send Saints packing in devastating style

Leinster 60 Northampton Saints 13

Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw evades the tackle of Stephen Myler (left) and Rory Hutchinson of Northampton Saints during the Champions Cup clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw evades the tackle of Stephen Myler (left) and Rory Hutchinson of Northampton Saints during the Champions Cup clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The bookies gave Saints - a far from full strength selection - a 17 points start here, clearly thinking their heroics of three seasons ago were a non-starter. Then, as now, Northampton had been emptied in Franklin's Gardens at exactly this stage of the competition only to fetch up the following week to Lansdowne Road and win. This time it went according to the script, some early ad libbing notwithstanding.

The bonus point win puts Leinster firmly in control of the pool and it will stay that way until after Christmas regardless of what happens in Castres this afternoon when Montpellier are the visitors.

Leinster's Luke McGrath scores a try. Photo: PA
Leinster's Luke McGrath scores a try. Photo: PA

There was en eerily familiar feel to the first half hour for Leinster, who exploded out of the traps with a try for Adam Byrne inside five minutes, and then went into freefall. They stayed there until roughly the half hour mark: putting ball down, kicking loosely, and giving away penalties to beat the band.

They fixed it up alright, securing the bonus point on the stroke of half time, but the error count en route was unsettling. For the crowd of 38,584 they will have forgotten about that bit, washed away on the tide of nine tries.

"They're certainly up there (with the big spenders in Europe)," Jim Mallinder said afterwards. "I've been impressed by them. They play well together. We defended pretty well at times but the power and pace they had was very impressive."

Most eyes were on Ross Byrne, given the circumstances which see him standing as the only fit number 10 in the squad. That he isn't blessed with pace means he needs to be fairly special at a few other things, and on your first start in Europe it's a tall order to lay out all these riches for the punters and critics.

Leinster's Devin Toner catches a high ball. Photo: PA
Leinster's Devin Toner catches a high ball. Photo: PA

We've seen enough of Byrne between school and club to know he's a decent footballer with a good passing game. In neither area though - at least not evident at this stage of his career - does he look likely to do damage at this level.

"He's ambitious, he works hard and it's good to see him getting the rewards," Leo Cullen said afterwards. "It's not easy coming in like that to the Aviva. He acquitted himself really well."

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Byrne will be all the better for this experience. It helped that he had his school pal Luke McGrath as a partner. If attitude and energy were Olympic sports then McGrath would be on the podium every time. And when he rounds off a few more edges he could be a Test player of quality. It's a journey though, one he is clearly up for making.

It was fitting that McGrath should be the one to get Leinster back in the game in the first half for he had been the one to dump them in the manure business. A variety of offences had allowed Stephen Myler three shots on goal in the opening 16 minutes - two of which he goaled for a 6-5 lead - and then McGrath threw a bad intercept five metres from the Saints line to Ken Pisi, who somehow managed to make it 95 metres in the other direction.

Leinster's Isa Nacewa converts a try. Photo: PA
Leinster's Isa Nacewa converts a try. Photo: PA

Credit to referee Romain Poite for overruling his compatriot in the TMO box, who deemed Pisi was offside. He wasn't. The try stood and Myler's conversion made it 13-5 after 22 minutes.

Nacewa pulled back three points with a perfectly struck penalty before, on 29 minutes, McGrath sniped brilliantly from a ruck about 15 metres out to catch Saints' defence out. The extras from Nacewa gave Leinster the lead for the second time in the game. They wouldn't come close to losing it again.

By half time Adam Byrne had got over again and Sean O'Brien had broken off the back of a maul for the bonus point. With Saints having to sub a couple of front-liners at half time they had little to offer in the second half.

If they had conceded four tries in the first 40 minutes then they were always going to struggle to match even that level of resistance after the break, and sure enough it was another four just after the hour mark. Perhaps the best move of the half however didn't end in a touch down, when man of the match Sean Cronin picked a perfect line off Garry Ringrose, which was complemented then by Luke McGrath appearing in support.

To highlight the ragged state of Saints consider how they conceded a ninth try. Byrne put a bit too much on a punt to the corner for Nacewa, whereupon Ken Pisi spilled it and Nacewa pounced for the score. That comfortably put in the shade Northampton's previous worst losing margin, the 34-points gap inflicted on them earlier in the campaign, and they suffered a knock back from the TMO as well as the last seconds of the game unfolded.

That made Leinster feel even better about themselves with the St Stephen's Day date looming in Thomond Park. When last they met there was a yawning gap between the teams. It will be interesting to see how the bookies pitch this one.

Scorers - Leinster: Nacewa 2 tries, pen, 4 cons; Byrne 2 tries, 2 cons; McGrath, O'Brien, Furlong, Cronin, O'Loughlin try each. Northampton: Pisi try; Myler 2 pens, con

Leinster: Z Kirchner; A Byrne (R O'Loughlin 51), G Ringrose (N Reid 64), R Henshaw, I Nacewa; R Byrne, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 59); J McGrath (C Healy 48; J McGrath HIA 78), S Cronin (J Tracey 48), T Furlong (M Bent 48), D Toner (R Ruddock 53), H Triggs, S O'Brien (J Conan 56), J Heaslip, J van der Flier

Saints: A Tuala (J Wilson 24); K Pisi, G Pisi (R Hutchinson ht), JJ Hanrahan, T Collins (T Kessell 73) ; S Myler, N Groom; E Waller, C Claire (J Fish 63), K Brookes (P Hill 52), A Ratuniyawara, J Craig (J Paterson 52), J Gibson (yc 54-64), T Harrison, C Clark (B Nutley ht)

Referee: R Poite (France)

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