Sean Cronin's joy after 'big statement' by Leinster
Ospreys 9 Leinster 19
If champions define themselves by championship moments, then Leinster offered a stern reminder to their European rivals that they aim yet again to challenge for the highest prize.
Aside from the early withdrawal of tight hamstring victim Mike Ross, the three-time champions could not have scripted their fleeting adventure in the Principality much better.
And, with Brian O'Driscoll in optimistic form about return ing to action this week ahead of the visit to the RDS of fellow Pool One table-toppers, French champions Castres, Leinster are primed to make a significant budget statement of their own this October.
Despite an early 6-0 deficit, when their scrum threatened implosion and their breakdown work was initially as tentative as it had been in Limerick a week earlier, Leinster concluded the proceedings in armchair mode against an Ospreys side who were too often just clueless.
Hubris is a common acquaintance in these parts.
You could see it when the home side cockily spurned a kickable chance for a 9-3 lead in the second quarter, instead greedily assuming that they could gobble up Ross' replacement Martin Moore, a man who would usually be well down his club's pecking order.
However, Moore survived – indeed he would thrive for the hour or so, bar a couple of understandable pickles – Leinster cleared and Ospreys emerged with nothing.
For captain Alun-Wyn Jones, the mental error shifted the mental balance of the game entirely in Leinster's favour.
"That was my call," he said. "I thought we had the ascendancy in the scrum. I thought let's go for it but they shifted the scrum."
Sean Cronin, packing down for the first time at this level with the former Castleknock College player Moore (22), agreed that this was a significant moment in the game.
"Yeah, it was a big statement," Cronin, who presided over a whirring lineout and carried impressively, averred.
"They put their cards on the table five metres out. It was a big turning point because we managed to force them there and squeeze the penalty out.
"I wouldn't say it was a game-changer or anything like that but it definitely affected the psyche a small bit and we just manned up a small bit.
"Martin is very good. To come into a Heineken Cup environment like that and for such a young guy to prop against two Lions in the Ospreys front-row and not look out of place. He deserves a huge pat on the back."
Moore featured for Emerging Ireland in Tblisi this summer; he is still an infant in tight-head terms but, with others like Tadhg Furlong and Michael Bent unavailable this weekend, the rich resources of young Irish props continues to be demonstrated.
"He has got better every time he has played," reported Matt O'Connor. "I have only been lucky enough to see him play this year but every time he has played for us he has done a tremendous job. To come on at 16 minutes against the Ospreys is a big ask for anyone and I thought he was outstanding."
Indeed, Moore's youthful defiance illuminated those around him. Suddenly, Leinster's leaders emerged from the gloom and it would be their captain who lit the tinderbox to his team's revival, closely followed by the stunning Sean O'Brien.
Heaslip's remarkable "grip and rip" turnover on half-way sparked the game's defining score; Gordon D'Arcy's dancing feet illuminated the move, Rob Kearney's influence was impressive as Leinster steamed forward.
Cronin combined a tight display with his familiar mania in the loose as his team's best carrier on the night; his final blast and twist created the damage for the imperious O'Brien to touch down.
And so, a possible 9-3 deficit had been transformed into a 10-6 lead within a couple of minutes. These are the moments where Leinster thrive.
"I hoped it would come," said O'Connor when asked did he anticipate such substantial inputs from his key men. "They are quality footballers. They are world-class guys and the lack of rugby that they have played over the last period takes a toll on them when you get into an intensity like we had last week at Munster. But with that under their belt they were a bit more battle-hardened, a bit nastier, and it showed."
From that moment on, the away side had direction and purpose, backboned by resilience in defence, marshalled superbly by Jimmy Gopperth, defiantly led by Heaslip.
That the No 8 tackled more and carried more often than any of his team-mates, reminded the Ireland coach that he can combine captaincy with top performance.
In all, the team would top the century of tackles; there was true grit in this display.
Ospreys flapped in response, panic infecting much of their interventions. Their errors increased with every Leinster tackle, each remarkable O'Brien turnover on the floor; his tussle with Justin Tipuric was worth the admission alone.
At 13-9 down in the second-half, Tito Tebaldi, their lively scrum-half, tapped a penalty when his 14 colleagues would have preferred a three-pointer; Isaac Boss countered and Leinster eked out three more valuable points. That was effectively game over.
Later, Gopperth would smash Jeff Hassler after another Ospreys throw of the dice. His influence was impressive; surviving some early roadkill to mix his game superbly and nail every kick asked of him. Gopperth earns his corn on grim days like this; it was little surprise that he combined so effectively with that other warrior, Boss, to limit their direct opponents who offered much style but little substance.
Even young Brendan Macken, stepping into formidable shoes for his first European experience, will reflect on the evening and feel satisfied with his shift; he mirrored Leinster's experience.
They grew into this game from an uncertain beginning, ended it in almost effortless control.
Rendering the Ospreys pointless with the final significant action from Gopperth's boot, replacement Rhys Ruddock's storming run eking out the chance to sum up a consummate squad display, provided a striking coup de grace.
Ospreys – R Fussell; B John (J Hassler 57), A Bishop, A Beck (M Morgan 74), E Walker; D Biggar, T Tebaldi (T Habberfield 59); D Jones (R Bevington 51), R Hibbard (S Baldwin 70), A Jones (A Jarvis 63); AW Jones (capt), J King; R Jones (S Lewis 63), J Tipuric, J Bearman.
Leinster – R Kearney; F McFadden, B Macken (L Fitzgerald 69), G D'Arcy, D Kearney; J Gopperth, I Boss (E Reddan 69); C Healy (J McGrath 63), S Cronin, M Ross (M Moore 19); D Toner, M McCarthy (Q Roux 70); K McLaughlin (R Ruddock 69), S O'Brien, J Heaslip (capt).
Ref – Wayne Barnes (Eng)