Monday 24 June 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Leinster serve up a timely reminder of new European order'

Blues' squad players are driving province from within

Dave Kearney dives over to score Leinster’s second try despite the tackle of Toulouse’s Romain Ntamack. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dave Kearney dives over to score Leinster’s second try despite the tackle of Toulouse’s Romain Ntamack. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

For 40 minutes on Saturday the pitch at the RDS was transformed into an international battle ground with Test quality players slugging it out for supremacy.

Right now, Toulouse only have a half of that level of rugby in them; Leinster, though, can go the distance and that's what set them apart on a memorable afternoon that saw them reclaim control of Pool 1 and put them on course for another lucrative home quarter-final.

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This was a reminder to the French aristocrats that there is a new European order and, while they are enjoying a renaissance, they are not yet at the level to truly compete with the top sides.

Presuming both sides beat their English opponents next week, Toulouse will have to go away for their last eight clash and they'll need to be better than they were in Dublin to remain in the hunt.

At the end of Round Five, it looks like Leinster, Munster, Racing 92 and Saracens will have home quarter-finals and those four sides, who top the betting, are the main contenders for the trophy.

Sitting in a row beneath the roof of the Anglesea Stand, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Seán O'Brien, Dan Leavy, Devin Toner, Jack McGrath and James Lowe watched on as their understudies found a performance good enough for a five-point haul against a team that had won their last 12 matches on the trot.

Luke McGrath is taken off for medical attention. Photo: Paul Walsh/PA Wire
Luke McGrath is taken off for medical attention. Photo: Paul Walsh/PA Wire

Famed

If Luke McGrath's knee injury is as serious as it looked on Saturday then he faces a long spell on the sidelines and his absence will further test the famed depth in Leo Cullen's squad.

At the end of last season, they lost Jordi Murphy, Isa Nacewa and Joey Carbery and only signed Joe Tomane - who is himself out for a long spell - and while the production lines keep delivering there is only so much any squad can take.

McGrath's absence forces them into the selection dilemma they faced last season, with Cullen being forced to choose between Scott Fardy and James Lowe.

Leinster's Rory O'Loughlin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Rory O'Loughlin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The winger's suspension ended yesterday, meaning he is in the equation for Sunday's decisive game against Wasps.

Much will depend on Toner's fitness, but they can get what they need in Wasps with or without their ebullient New Zealander.

However, Cullen will re-watch the tape of that first 40 minutes against a committed Toulouse defence and wonder whether the breakthrough would have come earlier had Lowe been part of the attack.

Without his game-breaking brilliance, they struggled to break the red wall down and at one point went through an epic series of 38 phases without scoring.

Of course, all of those tackles told in the Toulouse legs after half-time as Dave Kearney, Seán Cronin and Adam Byrne crossed for tries and the men in blue pulled away from their rivals.

However, when they come up against the likes of Racing, Saracens and Munster later in the competition they won't be able to rely on wearing the opposition down. They'll need to make their own incisions.

Still, there was satisfaction to be taken from the way Ross Byrne ran the show once again in Sexton's absence, while Larmour was comfortable as he slotted in at full-back in Kearney's absence.

The lineout ran well without Toner, while Josh van der Flier stepped up with a huge turnover as he once again proved his worth as an alternative, rather than a back-up, to Leavy and O'Brien.

Cullen could hand the promising Conor O'Brien a European debut and get some more Heineken Champions Cup experience into the legs of Max Deegan.

His decision to pick Ed Byrne ahead of the fit again Jack McGrath looked like it could have been costly, but the Carlow native slotted in well when he was introduced.

They'll expect to get the five points they need in Wasps and then the Six Nations will kick in and deprive Cullen of a host of players.

However, there is an impressive contingent of squad players who are driving Leinster from within.

Rory O'Loughlin may be out of the Ireland picture, but he is consistently stepping up at this level, while Ross Byrne might be Ireland's third choice, but he can run a game at this level.

Jamison Gibson-Park will have a big role to play in the months to come and he once again showed his worth when he came on to set Adam Byrne up for the all-important fourth try.

Regardless of personnel, the players know Stuart Lancaster's game-plan inside out and slot in and perform.

Bath showed that you can get under their skin at the breakdown, but Toulouse opted to fan out across the pitch rather than contest the ruck and they had to deal with Leinster operating off quick, front-foot ball all afternoon.

The forwards carried into a game defensive line over and over again, with Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan clocking up 20 tackles a piece in a bruising encounter.

Toulouse asked their own questions, but will be disappointed that they didn't throw a shot.

They might have a number of supremely talented scrum-halves and a fine pack, but their lack of a class out-half let them down. Thomas Ramos simply didn't control the game in the same manner that his opposite number did.

They remain a coming team, Leinster are the real deal.

Defending a title is a difficult task, but they are now in position for a real crack at two in a row.

Their rivals will be watching each game and picking little bits of information up that they can put together into a performance worthy of dislodging Leinster's hold on the trophy.

In their defeats to Munster and Toulouse away, there have been signs that the champions can be got at this season, but Saturday was a reminder that they remain the team to beat.

For all of their improvements, Toulouse have a way to go to get to that level and in the race for a fifth star it is the Irish province who are best set.

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