Not a bad senior debut for Jack Conan…Thursday night blowouts before a big Six Nations weekend can often be forgettable but this is one we’ll look back to, especially if he ever goes on to play for the Barbarians and gives headline-writers the easiest pun imaginable.
But while I don’t dispute he did well to show composure for his try after just 3 minutes, nor can I deny the fact that he had some good carries throughout the match, I don’t go along with Jonathan Davies’ choice of him as man of the match. More on that later.
Oftentimes we have seen Leinster fall behind early in matches before we have had a chance for some decent attacking ball ourselves, so I seldom worry until I see just how we stack up against the opposition D. Obviously that philosophy works both ways, and we saw a classic case of it in this match.
For the entire first 20 minutes, even with about 20 different company logos on their kit Cardiff couldn’t buy their way out of their own half. Kicks were being charged down, they were getting munched in the scrum, if anything it was a wonder we only got the fourteen points in that period - Strauss added a second try over in the corner making full use of an overlap.
Still…even though I have been known to berate this region from the Welsh capital when they have been over-run by Leinster in the past, that was mostly to do with the sheer indifference shown by their players, centrally-contracted Lions captains included. That certainly couldn’t be said for the 23 they put out on Thursday.
Even with the kick to the gut provided by the 14-point start by the league champions, they still backed themselves when they finally got some decent territory and were rewarded when impressive outhalf Gareth Davies went over. You had to expect the home side was going to gain some advantage from familiarity with the “plastic” surface and this was borne out when Leinster skipper for the night Kevin McLaughlin lost his footing allowing the gap down the middle.
A Gopperth pen widened the margin again but the Blues kept going at us and a great run from one 22 to the other by superb fullback Dan Fish put them on the front foot again towards the end of the first half leading to Tom Denton playing the ball on the deck and seeing yellow. A kick to touch followed by a lineout/maul option led to a try from hooker Kristian Dacey and suddenly the Blues were back in it.
The fightback could even have been complete if Robin Copeland hadn’t positively butchered an overlap at one point…Munster supporters will no doubt be hoping he does better than that next season.
Still though, they came out all guns blazing in the second half, clearly determined to make the most of the remaining time with the extra man and although some wayward passing in our 22 denied them a third try at that point, they still managed to narrow the gap to just 2 points just as Denton returned to the field.
If this was a match where Leinster starting XV was the best available, Cardiff could well have gone on to win it from that point, even after a lucky bounce off the crossbar fell over for Gopperth to restore the 5-point lead for the visitors on 45m.
But even in a Six Nations week where Matt O’Connor was missing more key players than any other province, he was still able to call on players of the calibre of Ian Madigan, Mike McCarthy, and my personal choice for man of the match, Rhys Ruddock.
He came on for McLaughlin (broken nose) at the start of the second half and you could tell by his attitude that he wasn’t going to mope around about being left out of the test setup. And after we recovered the ball despite losing our own lineout and got into the Cardiff 22, it was Ruddock’s leg pumping which got us all the way to the tryline before Michael Bent somehow managed to avoid Denton to crash over and at that point the game was effectively over, at least with regard to the victors.
There were still bonus points to go after however, and it didn’t take Leinster long to get theirs. More key involvement from Ruddock got us to the line and Eoin Reddan made his dummy look all too easy to go under the posts, goodnight Cardiff. It was almost goodnight for the Blues prop Scott Andrews as frustration got the better of him and he threw a handbag at Jack O’Connor (who to he credit didn’t flinch).
And here is where I get my heading “in a different league”. In a Heineken Cup pool with just four teams, you normally want to do all you can to avoid your opponent getting the losing bonus point. But this year’s Rabo has effectively split in two with the top five scrapping for the four playoff spots while the rest, all going well with the blazers, are left to scrap for 6th spot which would get them into the Rugby Heineken Champions BT/Sky Cup.
So even though there were a full 25 minutes left on the clock and Leinster had 5 points in the bag with a 34-15 lead, Cardiff knew that with a couple more tries they would earn themselves not one, but TWO points on the table which could become vital at season’s end, with those points meaning absolutely nothing to Leinster. And I have to say, in many ways Cardiff deserved it, though they fell short.
They did manage one try after a worrying break from the line by Brendan Macken allowed space for Fish to charge through and get a deserved score, with some pretty weak attempts at tackles put in by Noel Reid and Zane Kirchner in the process. But despite having 20 whole minutes to work another score to get those 2 bonus points, they didn’t have the strength on the bench we did and the match fizzled out.
It really does appear to be curmudgeonry of the highest order to have concerns about a team that has gained a maximum of 15 league points in 3 matches played in just 11 days. But I do.
The teams around us are also winning and despite our progress, defeat to the Warriors at the RDS on Saturday would severely hamper us, and no offence meant to Zebre, Newport or Cardiff but the Scots really do offer a much stiffer challenge.
And my concerns stem from two key pairings on the pitch - lock and centre.
Tom Denton and Quinn Roux could probably do well in Leinster blue if partnered by a Toner or Cullen, but when put together our team is severely weakened and I really don’t think they should feature alongside one another for the remainder of the season. What’s more, there are options beyond them in the pecking order like Ben Marshall who could use the game time.
In the centre, the Reid/Macken axis have much to offer when we have the ball, although I really thought we’d see more from them on this pitch as both are adept with the sidestep. But defensively, they provide nowhere near the standard expected as the Fish try showed (you could almost say they were caught hook, line and sinker).
Options for Glasgow? How about McFadden at 12 and Luke at 13? I know both are vying for the wing internationally but I really think it’s an opportunity to do both their long-term prospects some good next weekend.
Anyway…we can look at that more closely towards the end of the week. Despite my bit of complaining, looking back over this win cheered me up a bit from Twickenham and also gave me a bit of hope about what’s going on at the Welsh regions…there’s plenty of talent below test level to keep them competitive in this league and hopefully both WRU & the fans can get behind them more financially in future. JLP
Also this weekend
red numbers indicate positions of HCup qualifiers under proposed new format
Friday Feb 28
Ulster v NG Dragions, 7:05pm
Edinburgh v Ospreys. 7:35pm
Saturday Mar 1
Zebre v Cardiff Blues, 4pm
Connacht v Treviso, 5pm
Scarlets v Munster, 6:30pm
Leinster v Glasgow, 8:30pm