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“Northampton have been blowing teams away here at the Gardens” - Stu Barnes
“By the fulltime whistle, one of these two could have the other one by the throat” - Myles Harrison
Sky’s grip on covering Europe’s top club rugby tournament may be slipping, but that won’t stop their commentators doing everything they can to set the right tone before matches. As you can see by the above statements, both shortly before kickoff, they thought this one would be a lot closer. To be fair, so did pretty much everyone, with even the bookies shading it to the home side.
In fact, another thing Sky pointed out pre-match was just how much the 2011 final defeat in Cardiff meant to the Northampton players, and how determined they were to gain revenge. Unfortunately for them, Matt O’Connor’s men had similar but much more recent disappointment they wanted to put behind them, and boy, did they get it done.
My choice of headline may seem a bit cruel as the result was certainly not down to one player on the Saints side (not even makeshift full-back Ken Pisi who made costly early blunders), but what I do intend to highlight with it is just how much Brian O’Driscoll thoroughly deserved his “man of the match” award. For while every Leinster player out-played their opposite number on the day, I reckon I only heard Saints’ outside centre Dominic Waldouck’s name mentioned three times throughout the match, with the last one being his gift which BOD didn’t so much inter-cept as ac-cept to provide try number 5.
It would be an easy choice to give MotM to Luke Fitzgerald for his hat-trick, and to be sure, all were superb finishes - but to analyse this match properly I reckon you have to look at the first half an hour when ironically Leinster built a 19-0 lead just as Ireland had done against the All Blacks. And at the core of everything positive for the visitors during that time was Mr “One More Year” himself.
Of course it wasn’t as if he was doing everything on his own…to a man Leinster were pummeling the gainline both with and without the ball and this was the difference between the two sides throughout, it’s just when that extra bit of skill was needed, BOD stepped up - first, with a deft kick though for Luke to finish, then with what is becoming a trademark “through the legs” pass (it was the only thing he could have done at that moment to keep the ball moving but how he even thought to try it I’ll never know) and most importantly, when the Saints finally managed to get some possession in our 22, a killer turnover that really must have knocked the stuffing out of them.
See, strange as it may seem to say it (if not arrogant), Leinster were far from perfect, especially at the set piece. Darts were going awry, and more worrying for me, our plan to push not hook on our own scrum put-in is reducing our chances of getting the ball back to around 50/50, a tactic which surely won’t bear much fruit in the knockout stages in April should we get that far.
Fortunately enough for us on this occasion, we were so focused in open play that even when we did give up the ball it wasn’t long before we won it back. The only way the Saints got on the board at all was from quick thinking by their best player on the night Lee Dickson, just after we had Michael Bent shown a yellow with the result long since decided.
And as if to add insult to injury, even without that 15th player we still managed to cross the line for try number 6 thanks to the running of D’Arcy, the offloading of Kirchner and the support play of Fitzgerald, all top notch.
But if I were to harp on all six Leinster tries fully, this writeup would become a novel so I will focus on my pick of the bunch, that being number 3, because it involved so many different players and required pinpoint precision at every turn.
Ian Madigan had just kicked a shocker of a penalty but much like every other Leinster error on the day, we quickly made up for it. Having gotten possession in our own half there were carries by D’Arcy, McCarthy, BOD and Dave Kearney, all of which made mincemeat of the gainline. Eoin Reddan has had a few off days this season but for him to be effective he must have a steady supply of front foot ball and it was overflowing for him at Franklin’s Gardens.
Then it was time for Rhys Ruddock to get involved. Leinster’s player of the season so far in my book for sheer consistency of performance, he wasn’t on that pitch to make up the numbers nor stand in for Kevin McLaughlin - he was there by right and when he got the ball in this sequence he had the presence of mind not only to throw a dummy and surge forward, but also to supply a perfect offload for the supporting Sean O’Brien. Now we were in the Saints 22.
Up steps Reddan again to start the next phase, and as the Saints were still scrambling it was time to send it out the backs. Reddan to Madigan…Madigan to Cronin (why WOULDN’T he be lining out at inside centre?)…Cronin back to Madigan on the wraparound as D’Arcy threw a block (legal of course) then we have an overlap outside as Madigan feeds it to Rob Kearney who glides through tackles to put in his skipper Jamie Heaslip and the number 8 (who hopefully will still be at the RDS next season but we’ll have to see) and was even "on the ball" enough to touch down closer to the posts.
After the BOD try I was given a challenge by a twitter follower to avoid using certain words in this writeup…it hasn’t been easy!!!
One try I’m not going to use superlatives for is our fourth…it was a good finish by Reddan but I reckon Rob K was offside when Madigan put up the bomb from his free kick and his recovery of said kick led to the score. Still though…since we got another five and could even afford to butcher two more early in the second half, I’m not sure it would have made too much difference to the result!
It was overall one of those European performances by the three-time champions which Matt O’Connor can add to the one in Swansea and this time, the original “Leinstertainment” factor was well and truly back. His opposite number Jim Mallinder knows how to turn his side around in between these “back-to-back” encounters but if they don’t get any traction in the opening quarter at the Aviva next Saturday, the outcome could be similar.
Special mention must go to the Leinster faithful in the ground…sadly I couldn’t be one of them as I was “minding the fort” back home checking out the next crop of talent at the province but from my vantage point in Sinnotts downtown the sounds of “Come On You Boys In Blue” could be clearly heard and once again travelling Irish fans gave an excellent account of themselves.
As it turned out, it was a Grand Slam weekend for the Irish provinces - Ulster and Munster secured comfortable home bonus point wins as expected, but as everyone involved with Leinster basked in the glory of what they thought was their result of the weekend, along came Connacht to usurp us all at the 11th hour…I reckon we’re more than willing to let them take that crown and once I have had a chance to look back over their epic battle in Toulouse I will do a separate feature myself.
But this writeup is to deal with Leinster and now that we have played all three teams in this difficult pool and have three wins with two home matches to come, the challenge for us now is of course to remain focused and make sure we still don’t know where the likes of Waldouck are next week. Maybe Matt should borrow a cliché from soccer after the first leg of European matches : “It’s only halftime!” JLP
Also this weekend
British & Irish Cup