It may be something of a joke now among Leinster fans that we always do badly in our opening fixture, but I’d say neither Noel Reid nor Brendan Macken saw the funny side during the week.
Despite all the tough talk in the press by coaches and senior players about the overall need to improve, I'm sure that behind the scenes the two younglings were being given as much encouragement as they could get in preparation for this big opening night at the RDS; still, they would have known the spotlight was on them Saturday evening in Ballsbridge.
And when a restart by Dragons outhalf Steffan Jones (a mere 21 himself) went far from where his team-mates were expecting it to go, it gave Reid the perfect opportunity to make amends – his clean catch taken on the run gave him the momentum to drive deep into the heart of a startled defence and his compadre Macken was there to give him perfect support - in the end it was my tip for Pro12 top try-scorer Andrew Conway who touched down (main pic) to get the RDS crowd to their feet.
Fifteen years ago I would have been over-the-moon watching that try and assumed all our troubles were behind us. But now with many weekend morning hours watching my own son play various sports behind me, I know that for all the positive feedback you want to give youngsters for a score like that, you also need to keep their feet on the ground for fear of their heads drifting towards the clouds.
And sure enough not long afterwards Noel Reid was awarding the visitors an early Christmas present. His pass to Macken wasn't just telegraphed, he seemed to have time to write it down on a piece of paper and then read it out loud to Steffan Jones who of course was more than happy to take full advantage and atone for his own errors.
Sorry if that last paragraph seems harsh on Reid, but as happy as I am with this result, I feel it needs to be put into perspective. All through the week Leinster fans were licking their wounds after the Llanelli massacre and bemoaning both the injury crisis and having to make like Oliver Twist to the IRFU in order to get a hooker who saw just 21 minutes of game-time in New Zealand last June made available.
But if there's any team out there who has the right to say to us “ah boo-frickin-hoo…suck it up and deal with it for feck's sake!!!”, it's the Newport-Gwent Dragons. For the second season in a row they are the only Pro12 side not in the Heineken Cup despite there having been daylight on the table between them and last place.
Plus they had their side effectively gutted during the off-season, losing Brew and Charteris as well as Jason Tovey, their own answer to Ian Madigan, who fancied his international chances would be better served in the Welsh capital. So all the Dragons really have to come back is Dan Lydiate, granted a potential Lion himself, but nothing like the immense amount of talent Leinster have waiting in the wings. In many positions around the park, it seems their youngsters are in it for the long haul, and the Amlin & LV Cups will no doubt ensure their depth charts are severely tested. Of course Faletau being far from his best won’t have helped their cause either.
On the subject of Madigan, he certainly deserved his man of the match award particularly with his place-kicking, but as often was the case with him last season, there was still a sign or two that he has areas he needs to work on. This time around I felt it was his game management. I'm all in favour of his confidence and his willingness to try the unexpected now and again, but having just gotten the lead back after that calamitous try, it certainly wasn't the time to be playing silly-beggars with a 22-drop-out; a few moments later the Dragons were level yet again. Plus he needs to be careful with his long passes – it may have set up Fionn Carr for his try, but more than once in this young season they have gone against him.
But listen...all I'm saying is that it wasn't all perfect from us. Of course I was happy overall and there were several sources of optimism, especially from the youngsters. John Cooney in particular has come on in leaps and bounds in the past 12 months. He was every bit the tenacious hard-tackling scrum half the Pro12 standard needs him to be, and with the promising Luke McGrath behind him on the pecking order, the future looks rosy for us at 9.
Then there was Ben Marshall. Helped himself to a crucial score before the break but was a strong presence throughout including the lineouts. He looked remarkably composed for what was his first full 80 minutes and will hopefully get more game time in the weeks to come.
Quinn Roux didn't exactly live up to the hype, but in his defence Leinster didn't exactly have him at the centre of their gameplan. The idea in the first half was to put the ball in the air to take advantage of the evening sunshine on the RDS, and it was a tactic that worked more than once, so for long stretches he seemed to be wandering back and forth around halfway. He did put in his tackles when needed and had the odd carry but I say we give him a while to get up the speed of the league, remembering he's 21 and a long, long way from home.
It was a good outing for the front row. Cronin seems to have found a way to mess with the new scrum laws with his creeping towards the mark, I wonder will this be an issue seen elsewhere. But whatever about the quality of opposition, this had to be a match that was good for the confidence of both Jack McGrath and Jamie Hagan; one if not both of whom could well be called upon in bigger contests down the line.
Now for a slight digression - both Ryle Nugent and Donal Lenihan had howlers in the RTE commentary box. First of all, the referee wasn't French Ryle, he was born in Romania but represents Italy. Then Ian Madigan took a penalty from just outside the Dragons' 10m line – RTE's Head Of Sport claimed it was from the “limit of his range”, when any Leinster fan will tell you he can pop them over from inside his own half.
Later Andrew Conway chips an impressive dink over the Dragons defence into a gap and over the touchline right before my eyes in the Grandstand; even as they were looking at the replay both Nugent & Lenihan credited the kick to Madigan. Finally he seemed surprised that the Dragons kept pushing for a score right to the final whistle, despite the fact that a late try would have given them not one but TWO bonus points even in defeat. Looks like it’s not just the players who can have early-season jitters!
Back to the occasion itself, it was for the most part a fine evening of Leinstertainment that befitted the glorious D4 weather and was capped off by an interception try of our own by Brendan Macken – perhaps he was doing his solid Ryle Nugent impression to himself in his head as he fell over the line?
It's just that I have a feeling that Treviso could be lying in the tall grass for us next weekend and with the standards of success as they are at the province these days, the only thing that will make this victory worthwhile will be another one at the Stadio di Monigo. We may be the league's top point-scorers after two rounds, but it's the ones going on the opponent's scoreboard (also “best” in the league) that still concern me and there's a lot of work to be done during the week.
Of course, a marquee name or two added to the lineup won't hurt our cause either, though I feel Joe Schmidt still has a headache with his search for a pro number 12 to play in the Pro12. With Cooney now seeming to be a strong 9, perhaps swapping Reid and Madigan would strengthen our centre? I don't know for sure, but it certainly will have to be sorted before Munster come to play us at HQ. JLP
Also last weekend…