Wednesday 21 February 2018

Leinster brought crashing to earth by fired-up Saints

Leinster 9 Northampton 18

Gordon D'Arcy of Leinster is tackled by Tom Wood during the Heineken Cup pool 1 match between Leinster and Northampton Saints
Gordon D'Arcy of Leinster is tackled by Tom Wood during the Heineken Cup pool 1 match between Leinster and Northampton Saints
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It was a long week in Northampton. Seven days in which to reflect on one of their most humiliating experiences ever in Franklin's Gardens but the beauty of the back-to-back rounds of this competition is that you don't have to wait too long to get back on the horse.

Thrown one week, soaring over the fences the next. In fairness to them it's the second season running they've managed this trick -- after losing to Ulster at home at this stage of the competition last year they then went to Ravenhill and turned them over.

The ultimate sickener for Leinster was in losing even a bonus point in time added on. One minute they are hammering away at the Northampton line, looking for a try that would have won them a game which for most of the 80 minutes seemed an unlikely result; the next they were being suckered with a try at the far end that left Leinster empty handed.

As winger Jamie Elliot raced off on a diagonal run that took him into the far corner of the field, and the killer score, your eye line was drawn back to the scene in the Saints 22 where Jamie Heaslip was in a heap with his head in his hands. It had been Heaslip's line break that gave Leinster the foothold from which they were trying to drive their way over the line with a variety of characters and from a variety of angles. It was also Heaslip's spill, as he was trying to hurry the ball into space out wide, that saw Saints home safely.

The grim prospect for Matt O'Connor is that they have to go to Castres in the new year where the home team will feel they owe Leinster one after the game in the RDS in October. The coach was giving it the 'we're still in control' line after last night's brutally physical contest, in front of 47,370, but he recognised that too many passes went astray.

"We were a little bit inaccurate -- we didn't take our chances," he said. "There's probably a couple of scoring opportunities in the second half, one very early in the half and then at the death -- and you've got to score. The margins are that tight. Full credit to Northampton: they defended and drove and managed the game well."

Saints were not over ambitious in their approach, playing a fair bit of 'one out' rugby, but their set piece was good -- especially their lineout maul -- and their work at the breakdown was frenzied. Maybe it was that Leinster were playing more of the rugby but the stat which said the home team had conceded one less turnover than the away side didn't feel right.

Man of the match Samu Manoa did a bit of damage here, as did Calum Clark. Manoa also carried very well, targeting Eoin Reddan off the back of the scrum at every opportunity -- a super heavyweight versus flyweight mismatch -- and once Saints got rolling forward Leinster were struggling to stop them. Why in the circumstances Leinster didn't chop tackle more often, instead going high and conceding ground, was odd.

After a super quick start from Leinster -- the kind of thing they do ritually in the RDS -- they were on the back foot as soon as the ball broke down, and were seven points down on six minutes when George North took a nice angle to power over the line.

For the rest of the half Leinster struggled to carve out an opening, turning around with only an Ian Madigan penalty to show for their efforts, and getting off the hook when Stephen Myler missed a handy shot with the last kick of the half. Madigan got to handle a lot of ball but unusually for him made no headway. Much of the ball was slow, and Saints' defence was top class.

The story didn't change much after the break with Madigan and Myler swapping penalties before replacement Kahn Fotuali'i dropped a goal with only a minute of normal time remaining, leaving Leinster needing a try. They went within inches as they picked and jammed in time added on before Heaslip's hands let him down and Elliot took off to the delight of the small band of travelling fans. They will have made a bit of noise in town last night.

Scorers -- Leinster: Madigan 3 pens Northampton: North, Elliott try each; Fotuali'i dp gl, Myler pen, con

Leinster: R Kearney; D Kearney (Z Kirchner 61), B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy , L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Ross (M Moore 61), D Toner, M McCarthy (L Cullen 74), R Ruddock (K McLaughlin 57), J Heaslip (capt), S Jennings

Northampton: K Pisi; J Elliot, G North, L Burrell, T Collins; S Myler, L Dickson (K Fotuali'i 54); A Waller, D Hartley (capt)(M Haywood 74), S Ma'afu (T Mercey 54), C Lawes (P Dowson 73), C Day, C CLark, S Manoa (S Dickiinson 68), T Wood

Referee: J Garces (France)

Irish Independent

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