I normally try to stay away from extreme statements on these pages but for this one I am definitely safe. This was hands down the best Friday night Leinster Rugby I have ever witnessed.
Sure, this is against some stiff competition. We’ve lost count of the amount of times the boy in blue have posted “fifty burgers” in matches like this, sometimes in Europe. Then on a more personal level there was the night I predicted a try from Luke McGrath a good ten minutes before he scored. As you can see, seven years later I’m still finding any excuse I can to bring that up!
Yet this even beats that. And it doesn’t matter that the result didn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that the crowd was at a fraction of pre-COVID levels making the atmosphere seem a bit subdued with applause that we’re more used to hearing in tennis and golf than at a packed RDS. This. Was. Still. Simply. The. Best.
First there was the weather which behaved perfectly throughout the evening. This allowed for the pubs, who could only serve customers outside, run to the maximum capacity allowed which in turn made the Merrion Road actually look like a normal Friday match evening to those of us who chose to pass on the (albeit VERY tempting) prospect of a pre-kickoff pint or three.
Jumping ahead, there was of course the fact that the slight lifting of restrictions allowed at least a small number of Leinster fans to wish two folk heroes of the province to get a decent farewell. Clearly the plan was for Scott Fardy & Michael Bent to leave the pitch at the same time but as we all know the rugby gods don’t always play nice so the fact that it was allowed to happen after over 50 minutes had gone by made the night even more perfect if that were possible.
And all of this before I get to the actual rugby itself! It could have been a 3-0 snoozefest, or I’d even go as far as to say it could have been a result close to that visit of the Dragons from days of yore which was one of the darkest days of the MOC era. Yes, I’m serious. Even that wouldn’t have dampened my spirits because however “dark” those days were, they were nothing compared to COVID.
Yet as it turned out, the rugby wasn’t half bad anyway, and two tries in particular were definitely highlight reel material so what say I harp on those before anything else. We were already 7-0 up when the first of these memorable moments happened; Jimmy O’Brien went over in the 6th minute after a straightforward lineout, crash ball from Rory O’Loughlin and the lightning quick hands from Ringrose & Keenan (a theme from Leinster’s backs on the night) gave O’Brien the space to apply the finish.
The second try also began from a well-executed lineout supported by a strong carry, but what made this way more impressive was that the set piece was all the way back in the Leinster 22. The Dragons to their credit were doing their level best to break down our defence with their classic “master/apprentice” centre pairing of Jamie Roberts and Aneurin Owen and here we had just been pinned back by a perfect touch finder from Rhodri Williams.
Rónan Kelleher, since called up to train with the Lions, put the play in motion with a crisp dart to Ryan Baird at the 2 position; the lock took “one off the top” to transfer it perfectly to Jamison Gibson-Park who fizzed a long miss pass right into the stride of Caelan Doris. Having taken it over 5m inside his 22, he barged past about four Dragons to get over 5m outside it before being hauled down.
He had support from Cian Healy who took it on a bit further keeping us on the front foot, and the next to take it was Scott Fardy. His back handed offload might have gone to ground but with what looked like more help from the rugby gods it bounced perfectly for Garry Ringrose. And who better for it to fall to than Leinster’s skipper for the night as he knew exactly what to do.
First he does a little show to fix the defenders ahead of him and then he ships it into the widest channel where suddenly Jordan Larmour has a load of space ahead of him. Perfectly positioned inside him was Gibson-Park, who had tracked the play all the way from when it started and when he took Larmour’s inside pass he knew to chuck it on further back to his captain, who had plain sailing to the line. Again to be fair to the visitors, three of them made a decent effort to stop Ringrose touching it down but he wasn’t taking no try for an answer.
We had to work a little harder after a set piece for the third try as we went into a bit of a cul de sac after a scrum deep in their 22, but another shimmy from Ringrose followed by more quick passing found just enough of a gap out wide for Larmour to put it down in the corner.
So that was three tries for the North Stand to enjoy, and with the Dragons having something of a purple patch for the remainder of the half including a dummy from Sam Davies which allowed him to practically walk over the line to pinch a score back, the bank of socially-distanced flag-waving fans in the South Stand were wondering if there was any Leinstertainment in store for them after the break. They weren’t waiting long.
This amazing sequence also sort of began with a lineout in our 22, only on a Dragons throw which Baird managed to pinch from under the nose of Harrison Keddle. From there we were able to clear our lines, and after a spot of “kick tennis” we gained some ground until Jimmy O’Brien decided to bring it into contact giving us some possession near the halfway line, not a bad result considering where we had been.
Enter Jamison Gibson-Park. Although the lines between this season and last are a bit blurry, officially our 2021/22 opener was against these same Dragons (with a very similar scoreline) at this same RDS back in October and the Kiwi-born-yet-now-Irish-qualified scrum half laid down a serious marker that evening to show he was ready for the next level of rugby, and apart from some injury misfortune I think it could be said this was his best year at the province, once which also helped other 9s around him.
Always keen to make the most out of a half chance, his clever little show and go put him in some space and tucked on his inside was Ryan Baird who set off on what can only be called “the route less travelled”. I was seated in the Grandstand around the halfway line, yet although the play had advanced into Dragons territory at this stage, at one point Baird looked as though he was running directly at me!
He ran forward, back, sideways, did a little pirouette, thus bewildering his own team mates (well, all but one) let alone the Dragons before finally seeing a way towards their line. The one boy in blue to be in sync with Baird was again that man Gibson-Park, who you can see setting off on a perfect support line to take it into the 22 before the telepathy between the two was completed by an exquisite scoop pass as he was tackled allowing him to finish off an absolute wonder score.
Maybe I’m being a little picky but I thought Dragons’ Keddle, possibly pissed off from losing the lineout moments earlier, could have been pinged for a high shot as Baird was touching down but the fact remains this was an amazing way for us to secure the bonus point even if it wasn’t going to help us in the actual competition.
Gibson-Park played a big part in the next try as well (might have beaten Doris to PotM though Baird and Ringrose were also in contention) as his long miss pass on the run found Keenan and Larmour out wide with the latter going over in the corner for his second.
About five minutes later when a Bertranou box kick clearance went out on the full we set up some phases around the 22 before both Byrne brothers, on the pitch at the same after Rory O’Loughlin was forced off, combined to put Doris through and he showed his own quick hands slipping it to Scott Penny who finished for what seems like his ten thousandth try in about three appearances.
From there it looked like we could be on for another score of 50-plus but with the small crowd you could clearly hear the shouts from the players and you could tell the Dragons remained determined to play as much rugby as they could right to the end and they managed to keep us out and to put a positive spin on it, the six Leinster tries even seemed to be perfectly spaced out in their locations so as to be near to as many of the 1,200 crowd as was possible.
I even tried to replicate my predictive powers from 2014 by suggesting Cian Kelleher would nab a try during his cameo before he goes off to find a trail to Ealing, but I certainly won’t hold it against him that he didn’t manage it as he has scored plenty for us in his two stints and actually had a kick pass from Ross Byrne been on the money at one point he might have actually managed it.
So that was it for the perfect evening of rugby where we got to say hello to some faithful supporters who in turn got to say goodbye to some of their heroes, thus bringing the curtain down on a far from usual yet still full of positives Leinster campaign. The disappointment at La Rochelle might be the biggest takeaway from many but what with all that has been going on since the last time the RDS Arena was packed to the rafters (another Friday night when Messrs Fardy and Baird headlined I might add), I think another trophy packed into the cabinet isn’t the worst possible outcome.
As for this competition, well I’ve been on Team Benetton from the very second I knew my Leinster wouldn’t make it and I wish them all the best in their historic final against the Bulls. As for this season as a whole, well as we all know it’s far from over yet. Ireland’s men and women’s squad have big qualifiers coming up, there’s the excellent bonus of the Under 20s Six Nations kicking off next weekend, the Ireland squad for summer tests (fingers crossed also with fans) was named today and, of course, there’s the Lions.
Plenty of rugby to be getting on with all the way into August so you can be sure I’ll be keeping up the harping throughout - stay tuned to the podcast, Twitter and Facebook page for all the latest content and don’t ever be shy about adding your own thoughts.
One last time, thank you to Scott, Michael and Cian for all the great rugby in blue, thanks to Leinster Rugby for another successful campaign, and last but certainly not least, thanks to you my readers (both of you ha ha) for sticking with my scribblings for this long. JLP