Tuesday 23 January 2018

O'Driscoll rolls back the years

Northampton 7 Leinster 40

Brian O'Driscoll pictured after scoring his side's fifth try in Leinster’s Heineken Cup win over Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens last night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Brian O'Driscoll pictured after scoring his side's fifth try in Leinster’s Heineken Cup win over Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens last night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Leinster’s Jack McGrath is tackled by Northampton’s Stephen Myler in their Heineken Cup game

Paul Rees

Brian O'Driscoll is as evergreen as holly. Two moments of inspiration from the veteran centre, playing in front of the man who dropped him for the first, and only, time in his career last summer, Warren Gatland, exposed England's form team who equalled their heaviest defeat in Europe after being outplayed and outclassed, and almost out of the tournament.

Northampton had won their previous seven matches in all competitions but were 12 points down before they had put a passing movement together as O'Driscoll ruthlessly exploited a change enforced on the Saints when the full-back James Wilson suffered an injury in the warm-up.

Ken Pisi was moved from the wing to full-back, with Jamie Elliott coming off the bench. With Ben Foden injured, Northampton had their third choice as the last line of defence and it showed immediately. When Pisi marked Ian Madigan's high kick in the opening minute, he dropped the ball after trying to take a quick tap, and when Leinster eventually worked the ball left, O'Driscoll caught out the Samoan with a chip to the line for Luke Fitzgerald to pick up and score.

Gatland, whose decision as Lions coach to omit O'Driscoll from the final Test against Australia in July generated an outpouring of invective against him, was watching in the television studio as O'Driscoll, seven minutes in, set up the second try by passing the ball underneath his legs and giving Fitzgerald the space to step inside Elliott.

The move had started when Jamie Heaslip stripped Pisi of possession in the tackle. The full-back then wasted Northampton's first attacking opportunity by losing possession in the Leinster 22. Within four minutes Leinster were 19-0 ahead after Rob Kearney found Heaslip unattended on the right wing.

It was the same lead that Ireland had enjoyed in the opening half two weeks before against New Zealand and reflected the dominance of Leinster, who were quick to turn Northampton's errors into advantage. It was the first time the sides had met since the 2011 final when Leinster won after trailing 22-6 at half-time, but there was no way back for Northampton, who were slow-witted as they suffered their third home defeat in Europe to an Irish province in as many seasons after Munster and Ulster recorded comfortable victories here.

The hapless Pisi was at fault for Leinster's bonus-point try, losing out to Kearney under Madigan's free-kick garryowen, but the ease with which Leinster found room behind for Eoin Reddan to dummy his way to the line from 25 metres was embarrassing, not just for a side which believed it had stepped up a level this season but for those in England who feel that the Heineken Cup is a tournament worth pulling out of.

The Northampton director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, had said in his programme notes that it was the type of match the club wanted to be playing in, exposed as they were to a side with clever running angles, an ability to clear the breakdown quickly, offload and avoid the big hits of Courtney Lawes and Samu Manoa.

They had a lightness of touch Northampton lacked and while the Saints stirred themselves in the second period, they continued to make basic mistakes.

Had Leinster not wasted two prime opportunities in the third quarter, Sean Cronin squandering a 40m clean break by giving Fitzgerald a scoring pass that was forward and Reddan juggling the ball to the Northampton line after a sublime break and pass from O'Driscoll before finally losing control of it, Northampton would have shipped 50 points.

O'Driscoll scored his side's fifth try after 62 minutes, cutting inside and finding space where none should have existed. Lee Dickson broke the home side's duck after Michael Bent had been sent to the sin-bin, but Gordon D'Arcy created Fitzgerald's hat-trick to restore Leinster's 33-point advantage. Northampton recovered after a 19-point defeat at home to Ulster at this point a year ago to win a week later, but an even greater transformation will be needed this week before the return in Dublin.

Scorers – Northampton: L Dickson try, S Myler con. Leinster: L Fitzgerald 3 tries, J Heaslip, E Reddan, B O'Driscoll try each, I Madigan 5 cons.

Northampton: K Pisi; J Elliott (T Collins 71), D Waldouck, L Burrell, G North; S Myler (G Dickson 67), L Dickson (R Glynn 67); A Waller (E Waller 58), D Hartley (M Haywood 58), T Mercey (G Denman 60); S Manoa, C Lawes; T Wood, P Dowson (C Clark 58), S Dickinson (C Day 41).

Leinster: R Kearney; D Kearney (Z Kirchner 54), B O'Driscoll (J Gopperth 72), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan (J Cooney 64); J McGrath (M Bent 64), S Cronin (A Dundon 56), M Ross (M Moore 56); D Toner, M McCarthy (L Cullen 60); R Ruddock, S O'Brien (S Jennings 32), J Heaslip.

Referee: N Owens (Wales).

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