Monday 18 December 2017

Taming beast Chabal key to 'perfect start'

Schmidt delight after forceful Blues derail spirited Metro

Leinster's Fergus McFadden spills the ball after being tackled by Racing Metro duo Jerome Fillol and Andrea Lo Cicero at the RDS on Saturday. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Leinster's Fergus McFadden spills the ball after being tackled by Racing Metro duo Jerome Fillol and Andrea Lo Cicero at the RDS on Saturday. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ronan O'Gara was once asked about the best practice when confronted with a totemic opponent. "Hammer the hammer," came the reply.

Sebastien Chabal is such a talisman. Munster hammered him en route to their maiden Heineken Cup triumph. Ireland hammered him en route to their 2009 Grand Slam.

And on Saturday, despite early encouragement for the Captain Caveman of modern rugby against Jamie Heaslip, Leinster repeatedly hammered him in a most impressive opening statement in their latest European foray.

At an RDS which rocked to its ancient foundations despite the indecently early kick-off, Leinster traded blows with their aristocratic visitors for a half-hour before a scintillating four-minute scoring burst that transformed a cagey 3-3 into an authoritative 18-3.


Racing, notably depleted at out-half, still produced enough evidence, particularly in a redoubtable mini-comeback in the second period, to suggest that the round- six, post-Christmas return will offer a serious test of Leinster's qualification credentials.

It won't have escaped Leinster's attention that Racing's reversal of fortune via Albert Vulivuli's 56th- minute try, slicing through an outrageous cavity in the Leinster midfield, occurred after Chabal had departed a broken, subdued man.

O'Driscoll's culpability for that try, shared with midfield partner Gordon D'Arcy, may seek a mitigating factor in the worryingly familiar hamstring pull that forced him off immediately.

The last time Paul O'Connell and O'Driscoll missed an appointment with the All Blacks in November, the results were embarrassing. But that's for another day.

Saturday was all about Leinster. Finally, the game of quick off-loading, direct running and scintillating back-line moves propagated by Joe Schmidt coalesced in a wonderful symphony.

Buoyed by success in scrum and line-out, security of ball on turf, Leinster spun some magical patterns, Jonathan Sexton's wielding of the conductor's baton the catalyst of all that was magical about a near-perfect display, the ballast of Sean O'Brien and Heaslip the firm foundation.

And the new interpretations at the breakdown, which have shifted the priority from the tackler to the ball-carrier, are clearly aiding Leinster's ability to move the ball quicker from the mess on the floor.

Backboned by a breathtaking display from hooker Richardt Strauss, surely now firmly on track to pursue a career in green, the emergence of Devin Toner and Mike Ross to fill significant vacancies within the pack would have further ingratiated the erstwhile champions to the 17,936 punters.

As they did following their seismic battle with Munster, Leinster rested up yesterday. Today the next looming challenge beckons, Saracens at Wembley. A five-point harvest will pep their step.

"It's the perfect start in the imperfect pool," observed Schmidt. "We are conscious that we have put ourselves into the pool but it's such a tough one that you can be out of it again very quickly.

"I said to the players, 'relax tonight, enjoy Sunday; have a walk and do your light recovery but come Monday the reality guys is that we have to start all over.' It's nice to have put ourselves in the pool, nice to get a good start in the imperfect pool.

"We'll watch the game in Montferrand (which the Londoners lost 25-10, with neither side securing a bonus) and see if we can spot a few chinks in their armour for next week."

Racing certainly attempted to do that to Leinster but, a couple of late incisions from their Fijian try-scorer aside, their physical punishment wrought no significant reward, as Leinster's physicality from the off condemned the French league leaders to increasingly fruitless toil.

Isa Nacewa's technically superb hit on Chabal, not once, but twice in the opening minutes set the tone, as did Luke Fitzgerald's frog-marching tackle on Sereli Bobo.

"Chabal is a fantastic player going forward, an incredibly explosive player," said Schmidt. "I'd say Isa throwing his body at him -- it wasn't a tackle, more of a body throw to stop that momentum -- at the very start of the game was meritorious to say the least.

"He just didn't get the opportunity to play the game he wants to and that's why he dropped out of it a little bit. By round six, he'll probably have a different idea of what he wants to do."

The arrivistes could be dead and buried by then, but the proud tradition of the French at home could still threaten Leinster's prospects in this "imperfect pool".


For now, the continuing emergence of players like Toner, and renewal of others, such as Ross and Strauss, have smoothed the path of what, just two short weeks ago, seemed like the rockiest of transitions.

"People have identified that Mike Ross has taken a step forward with regard to the scrummaging," agreed Schmidt. "Around the field he took another step forward today. His contribution was more evident to us and we needed everyone.

"Richardt Strauss offered really well, he carried well, defended tirelessly and was out on his feet by the end of the game. Some of those guys, like Toner as well, probably aren't in the limelight."

A stunning series of tries demonstrated that Leinster have peaked at the right time; Leinster's opener was a reflection on O'Brien's improved handling and support play in what was a complete team try; the second was a stunning set-piece move reserved for the backs.

Immediately after half-time, Leinster created even more daylight between the teams, pushing out to 26-12 after Sexton's quick thinking freed Fitzgerald down the left culminating in the delivery of Strauss' first Leinster try.

Fittingly, Heaslip crowned a stunning display with the bonus-point try, stifling Racing's threatening, characteristic comeback, Fergus McFadden turning on the afterburners in the dying seconds to round off the scoring.

Leinster -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll (F McFadden 57), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (S Horgan 72), E Reddan (I Boss 59); H van der Merwe (C Healy 52), R Strauss (J Harris-Wright 72) , M Ross (S Shawe 72), N Hines, D Toner, S O'Brien, S Jennings (D Ryan 66), J Heaslip.

Racing Metro -- F Steyn; S Bobo, A Vulivuli, A Masi (M Bergamasco 51), J Saubade; J Fillol, N Durand (M Loree 64); A Lo Cicero (J Bruno 71), B Noirot (C Festuccia 57), J Orlandi (S Zimmermann 72), L Nallet, J Nailiko (S Delappe 57), J Leo'o (R Vaquiin 72), J Cronje, S Chabal (A Batut 52).

Ref -- D Pearson (England).

Irish Independent

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