For a team that knows glory in this competition to get humbled at home is pretty bad, but to get an even bigger humbling in the return fixture, well, that’s downright embarrassing. But enough about what happened to us against Wasps last season!
Truth be told, those hidings were furthest from my mind as I watched this match unfold, though given what I wrote about our visit to the Ricoh Arena back in January, I probably should have seen the similarities.
As the full time whistle blew at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night, all I could really think of was the few Saints fans seated in the row in front - it must have made for a long journey home. Well - at least that’s all I could think of until I got to the pub...from then on it was all about celebrating the result!!!
The Leinster Rugby branding for this occasion was a cleverly-festive “Come All Ye Faithful”. Unfortunately I didn’t get the memo on the "faith" part when writing my preview - I wasn’t convinced we were even going to get the bonus point, let alone nine tries (side-note : funny how BT Sport graphics don’t count the tries beyond 4, leaving the initials “BP” beside your team’s name instead!).
I wasn’t even swayed by the team Jim Mallinder had selected - already denied Hartley and North (both under controversial circumstances I might add), he chose to leave out most of the remaining “household names” like Wood, Burrell, Lawes & Foden.
Apparently the organisers of the competition are going to “investigate” this decision and produce a ruling on it today. Eh, why? That’s their choice, and they certainly wouldn’t be the first team in this competition to ever make such a decision, though it’s usually teams from the Top14 going down that road as we all know.
Personally I can’t blame European rugby coaches for being selective about matches, so crazy is the calendar. The Saints had little hope of advancing from this Euro pool, but despite lying 9th in the Premiership they are just 3pts off the top 6 so naturally the visit of Sale Sharks to Franklin’s Gardens this coming Friday is a much more important fixture for them.
But as the sporting cliché goes “you can only play what’s in front of you” and let’s not forget that Leinster were behind on the scoreboard as late as the 28th minute, so it’s not as though I don’t have any competitive rugby on which to harp...I’d best get on with it, hadn’t I?
Just like last week Leinster starting with a bang...there aren't many better ways to compliment the coaches for having the team prepared than to see them break through for a try on virtually their first attacking opportunity. On this occasion, it all started with a block by Devin Toner off an attempted exit by the Saints.
This was the first sign of how makeshift this Saints team was. You might think someone with Toner’s height would be blocking every box kick attempted. The reason he doesn’t is because there are ways to limit his chances, like standing in his way as “pillar” of a ruck or waiting until he’s the tackler at the bottom of a ruck before attempting such a clearance.
None of this seemed to be on the Saints’ radar and already they were pegged back; some well worked phases by the forwards later, a clever offload from Zane Kirchner found Adam Byrne in enough space to plant down for a strong finish in the corner.
Unfortunately, things continued to resemble last week after our opening score in that our Premiership opposition were able to grow into the game for a while. Their defence was forcing us into mistakes and we shipped a few penalties of which Stephen Myler was able to convert two to give them the lead.
But soon after they nudged in front we won a kickable penalty of our own and it really was quite the statement of intent for us to kick for touch and go for the try. Some nice lines by the likes of Adam Byrne got us to the brink of the line once more until….
Great timing by Pisi? Or a predictable, ill advised by Luke McGrath? Bit from both columns? Whatever the proportions of praise and blame, it resulted in one of those frustrating interception scores back down the other end. There was a bit of confusion when the scoreboard in the Aviva showed “No Try” before an actual decision was made, but the ref and TMO got it right in the end.
So...5-13 down going into the second quarter. Should we be worried about a repeat of 2013 after all? Somehow I wasn’t. That was a one in a million type score, and while the Saints D was having a purple patch, I couldn’t see them breaching ours by more conventional means.
I don’t exactly watch Northampton week in week out but over the years Stephen Myler has never really impressed me as a top outhalf. Obviously he has done something right to stay their top ten for so long (and keep out JJ) but on the few occasions I have seen him, including this one, he never really struck me as a serious offensive threat.
To be fair to him for this match, he didn’t have a whole lot of his regular weapons at his disposal and even JJ had a heavily-bandaged foot as a hindrance. But over the 160 minutes of this “back-to-back” series, we didn’t have a whole lot of trouble keeping them out, and don’t forget we were missing a key player or two ourselves.
Fittingly it was Luke McGrath who got us back on track. Sure, he had a bit of luck when he made a meal of picking up the ball from the ruck without knocking on, but he still had the presence of mind to see he had drawn the would-be tacklers of the first receiver enough for him to take it himself and it got him all the way to the line. Isa slots the extra two and we’ve our noses in front yet again.
Not long after, our defence forced yet another mistake and Adam Byrne recovered a ball that went to ground. Now the tackling around him wasn’t the best at his point but still he needed determination and awareness to both fend off those around him and power his way to the line. Another conversion, now it’s 22-13.
Then having already had a box kick blocked by the tallest opponent, Saints scrum half Nic Groom (rumoured to come to Leinster at one point in the past if memory serves) has the same thing done to him by his opposite number. McGrath couldn’t quite retrieve for what would have been an easy score, but this was when I started to be convinced it wasn’t to be Northampton’s night at all.
We could have just seen out the clock until half time, but for all the talk about the indifference by Mallinder’s men it has to be said that they were up against a Leinster team that was as determined as I have seen them in a long time. Seeing out the clock at this point wasn’t on the agenda and a basic enough lineout routine led to Sean O’Brien reaching out for the bonus point try before the break.
Can we just wrap it all up and go to the pub now? tweeted a cheeky, partially-tipsy blogger. Not long after the restart the Saints really wish that they had.
Garry Ringrose kicks a grubber deep into their 22 and with Joe Schmidt looking on, he and Adam Byrne apply jut the right amount of pressure on the chase and we turn it over. Fourteen gruelling yet powerful phases from the pack later, Tadhg Furlong planted the ball down for try number five. O’Brien, van der Flier and Cronin all deserve honourable mentions for the build up.
Now I’m thinking, right - we’ve got the win in the bag but I bet the Saints will mount a late rally and snag a bonus point or two for themselves, enough to give the more negative Leinster fans something to moan about! Wrong!
A little jink from Ringrose gets him out of our 22 before an offload links up with a strong line from man of the match Sean Cronin who himself is able to offload before the Saints ship yet another penalty. We put it in the corner, run a few phases before we work the overlap and Ross Byrne playfully delays his final pass to Cronin who has two outside him but doesn’t need them. Crash, score.
The match well and truly dead by now, time to let the young out half do some placekicking by way of practise. This was a great touch I thought, whether the kicks were made or not.
Eventually the frustration was bound to show in the Northampton side, though thankfully not at, shall we say “Dylan levels”. As Jamie Heaslip masterfully held the ball at the back of a scrum as is his wont, another Jamie, Gibson this time, thought he’d have a hack at the ball with his own foot, not exactly something the Laws of the Game allows. Romain Poite rightly flashed a yellow card.
Now I was extremely glad that we didn’t wrap things up at the interval, because tries scored could well be a factor when the quarterfinals are all sorted out. And on the very next scrum after the sinbinning, the ball was quickly sent wide where Isa was well placed as ever to finish.
Rory O’Loughlin was on the pitch by this stage, and there was an air of inevitability about his finding his name on the scoresheet as well - he promptly did adding try number eight thanks to yet another overlap.
If it wasn’t the final score of the evening I might conveniently forget the 9th five-pointer for Leinster because it was, to say the very least, the final insult for the Saints in how it came about.
Tell you what - I won’t use the name of the player who made a right “horlicks” of what should have been a routine catch off a crossfield kick. It fell just right for Isa who helped himself to his second score...the late ten points more than made up for the forfeited placekicking!
So in case you weren’t keeping track, our try scorers were Isa 2 (now leads the competition with 5), Adam Byrne 2, Cronin, L McGrath, Furlong, O’Brien, O’Loughlin. The boys in blue were triumphant, their fans extremely joyful following our last outing before Christmas.
Perhaps we weren't tested too much in the last couple of weeks, but I still feel we learned a lot about the culture of rugby currently instilled in this squad, as well as the depth of our resources - I seem to remember a certain side clad in black winning a World Cup with a 4th choice out half so who knows how far Cullen’s Cubs can go.
And since it is the season of goodwill, I’ll spare one more thought for those poor travelling Saints fans. Because seeing how they were willing to spend their time and money to come over to Dublin to watch their heroes perform, despite the disappointment I fully expect them to be seated in Franklin’s Gardens next Friday whatever the weather. Sorry Sale fans but I hope they’ll have a home win to celebrate that night. JLP