Leinster squeeze past Cardiff to retake Pro12 top spot ahead of Champions Cup showdown
Leinster 22 Cardiff Blues 21
Advertisements for next week’s Champions Cup quarter-final are plastered on almost every Dublin bus-stop and are pumping out of every radio station at the moment, so perhaps is was no surprise that Leinster took their eye off the ball at the RDS today.
Before the Aviva Stadium show-business came the meat and drink of the Guinness Pro12 and what they would expect to be a routine win for the league leaders over eighth placed Cardiff Blues.
Instead, the fans who showed up to the Ballsbridge venue were treated to a proper contest on a sunny, spring afternoon as the Welsh side came to play and caused their hosts all sorts of problems.
Leinster got out of jail in the end more in thanks to the Blues’ poor execution than anything they did themselves as Ross Molony's try sealed the win.
Leo Cullen will welcome his front-liners back this week, but with Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney out of the last eight clash there weren’t that many putting their hands up for service next week.
It was all far more pleasant than last night’s Irish-Welsh encounter on the other side of Ballsbridge and the coach will count his blessings there didn’t seem to be any injuries, but he will insist on improvements next week.
Both sides came with a positive approach and it started well for the hosts who got the scoring underway in the fifth minute as they opened with real intent and Noel Reid unlocked the Cardiff rear-guard with a perfectly weighted chip in behind that sat up perfectly for Dan Leavy who pirouetted out of Matthew Morgan’s tackle to score.
Ross Byrne converted, but the Blues were here to play and they capitalised on a Hayden Triggs knock-on by moving the ball up the blindside where Blaine Scully made gains up the left, fed Rey Lee-lo and the centre drew Joey Carbery and put scrum-half Tomos Williams over for a try.
Gareth Anscombe levelled the scores with the conversion and the visiting side grew into the game, finding great joy in the wide channels.
They almost took the lead when they pounced on a loose Leinster lineout by moving it left to Lee-lo and he made a break up the left, before they worked it back inside and Alex Cuthbert skinned Ross Byrne.
Spotting numbers over, Josh Navidi pulled the ball behind but the pass from Steven Shingler’s looped pass gave Adam Byrne enough time to make the tackle on Scully and the home side escaped.
Cuthbert looked keen to put his tough Six Nations behind him and he picked off Leavy’s pass to Carbery and chipped behind before forcing Ross Byrne into touch. Again, Leinster got themselves out of a pickle by pinching the lineout and Luke McGrath cleared his lines.
Finally, they got some ball and field position through their dominant scrum and they made the most of it as Michael Bent almost forced his way over after good play from Reid and McGrath followed up by dotting down from close range.
Byrne made no mistake and a clever bit of play from Isa Nacewa got his side back within attacking range by engineering a lineout but a Carbery knocked on to allow Cardiff off the hook and while they finished the half in Leinster territory the Welsh side couldn’t level matters.
They did just that when Leinster failed to follow up Nacewa’s kick-ahead two minutes into the second-half as Wales international Anscombe deftly picked his way past Richardt Strauss and Carbery, found Kristian Dacey and he drew Ross Byrne and put Williams away.
Anscombe equalised with the conversion, but Ross Byrne nudged his side back in front after the Blues strayed offside following fine work from Peter Dooley.
The Blues began to bring in their bench and it was one of their replacements who struck next as Sion Bennett popped up on Lee-lo’s shoulder to run in from half-way after the Welshmen again exploited a turnover in their own ’22.
Anscombe made it 21-17 to the Blues as the game entered the final quarter.
Leinster took over field-position and when James Tracy forced a penalty at ruck-time they had little hesitation in going to the corner and the drove over for Ross Molony to score.
Ross Byrne skewed his conversion attempt to keep the deficit to a single point and Leinster had a great escape when Navidi escaped down the left, found Tom James but he ran straight at Nacewa before throwing a loose pass with men in support.
They managed the rescue the situation and Cardiff moved the ball to Matthew Morgan, but the full-back couldn’t make up his mind with the space gaping out wide and eventually threw a poor forward pass to Willis Halaholo.
That was the chance. Leinster held them out for the win their performance scarcely deserved.
They'll need a lot more next weekend.
LEINSTER - J Carbery; A Byrne, R O'Loughlin, N Reid (T Daly 59), I Nacewa (capt); R Byrne (F McFadden 68), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 59); C Healy (P Dooley 51), R Strauss (J Tracy 51), M Bent (M Ross 51); R Molony, H Triggs (M Kearney 62); D Leavy, J van der Flier, R Ruddock.
CARDIFF BLUES - M Morgan; A Cuthbert, R Lee-lo, S Shingler, B Scully (capt) (T James 65); G Anscombe (W Halaholo 65), T Williams (L Williams 71); C Domachowski (G Jenkins 58), K Dacey (M Rees 56), A Peikrishvili (S Andrew 33); G Earle, J Hoeata (E Jenkins 74); M Cook, J Navidi, N Williams (S Bennett 56).
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland)