Moore, Madigan justify calls that muddy Schmidt's waters
Prop prospers after Ross axe as playmaker thrives in centres, writes Jim Glennon
Strangely, if not uniquely, at the RDS last night it was imperative for Irish interest to be maintained to at least the end of the pool phase of the premier European competition, that Leinster disposed with whatever challenge was mounted by Castres, and also that they did so emphatically.
Notwithstanding their somewhat mixed form in December, it was a game with all the appearances of a 'gimme' in golfing parlance. A French team fighting for their lives on the domestic front could be forgiven for wanting to be anywhere but away from home playing what was for them a dead tie - sadly an all-too regular, and detrimental, feature of European competition.
Their selection, while not entirely full-strength, seemed a reasonably serious one. Although the veteran Rodrigo Capo Ortega was omitted from the matchday squad and captain Remy Tales was left on the bench, they lined out with players of the calibre of Rory Kockott at scrum-half, and Richie Gray, Ibrahim Diarra, and Johnny Beattie up front.
The corresponding game in round two was one in which Leinster, without scaling the heights, took every opportunity available, including their hosts' ill-discipline, to grind out an invaluable away win. They struggled at the set-piece on that occasion, notably in the scrum, and in Cian Healy's continued absence through injury, now joined by suspended understudy Jack McGrath, it could have been a target area for the visitors.
From the first engagement, however, Leinster's intent was evident. There have been times, all too rare, over the course of the season when they seemed to find their zone and this time they took the field in it and stayed there for the entire first half, garnering the crucial four tries in the process of delivering their best 40 minutes of the season.
Matt O'Connor's selection of a combative back-row of Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy and Jamie Heaslip was a clear declaration of intent and the unit as a whole delivered to the maximum.
The omission of Mike Ross from the matchday squad was an interesting call, focusing attention on his replacement Marty Moore, and the 23-year-old more than played his part in a pack which generated an abundance of front-foot possession.
Next weekend's selection will be an interesting one too, if only in terms of Ross and whether his absence will be extended. There has been consistent speculation about the O'Connor-Schmidt dynamic in terms of provincial selection and it's an issue again with Ian Madigan moved to inside centre to facilitate Jimmy Gopperth at outhalf. The national coach's thoughts on both these issues would be worth hearing.
The centre partnership of Madigan and Luke Fitzgerald was sharp and threatening throughout and, not coincidentally either, the Kearneys and Fergus McFadden in the back-three all featured to excellent effect.
Up front, Devin Toner, if not as prominent in terms of ball-handling as against Ulster, continued his progress as a second-row of real quality.
As a former second-row myself however, and notwithstanding a much-improved 60 minutes from Mike McCarthy, the sight of Kane Douglas sitting on the bench continues to frustrate. The Australian has only fleetingly justified his reputation and I can't help but feel that a run of games in the starting team would benefit him, and the group, immensely. Hopefully the Six Nations will afford that opportunity.
Overall, it mission accomplished for Leinster. The five points are in the bag and, crucially, they visit Wasps in Coventry next week with all to play for and momentum behind them. They alone are left to fly the flag for Ireland in Europe now.
Sunday Indo Sport