McGrath strikes late to snatch bonus point for Leinster
LEINSTER may be confessing to some worries about their performance levels but the arrival of Welsh accents in the RDS rarely provides scope for self-doubt.
Instead, much of the insecurity is self-inflicted these days; the home side had to win this one twice; once after belatedly overcoming a turgid opening half-hour, and then again after falling comatose around the hour mark.
After eventually forging a 27-6 lead by the hour, with tries from Rhys Ruddock, Mick McGrath and Gordon D’Arcy, two tries in three minutes offered Cardiff an unlikely reprieve.
Captain Jamie Heaslip looked seriously relieved when a late penalty allowed Ian Madigan the chance to make it a seven-point game; Luke McGrath’s bonus-point try in bonus time seemed like thievery.
Leinster looked really fluent at times, truly ragged at others. As much as they flourished in the third quarter, their implosion on the hour will re-awaken concerns about their consistency, with much stiffer tasks than these to come.
At least there were no more injury worries, albeit Rob Kearney departed at half-time, albeit as a precaution after feeling his hamstring tighten.
Few, in fairness, expected much of a fight from Cardiff; on their last five visits here, they had shipped, successive, 34, 59, 34, 52 and 34 points.
The much-trumpeted peace deal within Welsh rugby, which had seemed to last as long as the Great War, came too late to establish any sense of coherence within the wider regional challenge.
Add to that Leinster’s impregnable 17-month stint here, not to mention the fact that no Welsh side had escaped with a win here since the 2012 final and few would have quibbled about the 18-point handicap on offer.
Much of the home support were instead seeking an indication of a fluidity and coherence to Leinster’s play that has too often been lacking for the past year and a bit, particularly with Munster and then European fare looming.
Offered an early platform from which to play, with Devin Toner ruling the airways, Madigan kicked them into a fifth-minute lead and it was clear that they were seeking to go wide at every opportunity.
The platform remained solid; Adam Jones, who looks a pale shadow of his former self, was pinged in a 10th-minute scrum and Madigan doubled the advantage.
Punters were already licking their lips. But then Madigan missed a shot, admittedly from range, before Cardiff made their first trek into the red zone from an offside.
Heaslip infringed and suddenly the lead was halved half-way through the half. Strange? Not half.
Leinster were spluttering; Rhys Patchell, having missed a second chance, didn’t err with a third to level matters on the half-hour.
Jimmy Gopperth then punted the restart out on the full and the crowd heaved a collective groan.
Leinster needed someone to make a big statement and Ruddock provided it; Dominic Ryan and Kearney carried hard, before Gopperth’s short ball allowed the blindside to barrel his way past a slew of startled defenders to score in the right corner.
Madigan added extras but Leinster still ended the half defending their line, Patchell’s penalty allowing Cardiff to believe they were still very much in the thick of it at tea, just 13-9 adrift.
Leinster kicked on via an unlikely source seven minutes after the break. Overcoming an early error, Kearney’s replacement McGrath scored the try that broke the game, after Gopperth and Madigan combined brilliantly to create the space out wide.
McGrath bounced George Watkins, they both fell, only McGrath arose again, showing serious wheels and pecs to break Kristian Dacey’s despairing tackle to mark his second appearance with his first try for Leinster.
At 20-9, his side could breathe. And play, too.
Gopperth, breathing easier now, created the third try too within five minutes, dancing past his prone opposite number to release D’Arcy for his 60th try in provincial colours.
Madigan coughed up a try to Cory Allen on the hour; and when Sam Warburton thieved in from Dan Fish’s pass 120 seconds later, Leinster were, temporarily, swimming in the slimy stuff.
LEINSTER – R Kearney (M McGrath h-t); F McFadden, G D’Arcy, I Madigan, D Fanning; J Gopperth, E Reddan (L McGrath 66); M Bent (E Byrne 70), S Cronin (B Byrne 79), M Moore (T Furlong 65); D Toner, K Douglas (M McCarthy 58), R Ruddock (J Conan 54), D Ryan, J Heaslip capt.
CARDIFF – R Patchell; A Cuthbert, C Allen, D Hewitt (A Davies 37), G Watkins (D Fish 51), G Davies, L Jones (T Knoyle 74); G Jenkins (S Hobbs 53), K Dacey, (M Watkins 51) A Jones (T Filise 57), J Hoeata (M Cook 57), C Dicomidis, J Turnbull, S Warburton, J Navidi capt (M Vosawai (72).
REF – I Davies (WRU).