There's been a lot of talk about the rugby calendar over the past few years, with a view to maybe synchronising the northern and southern hemisphere schedules, and the way the past month or so has gone for Leinster Rugby it's almost like we've actually gone and made the switch to Super Rugby.
For about four weeks around Christmas, the squad had no matches and I have to presume there was full level training in that time so it was a bit like preseason, and then with all due respect to both of our opponents over the past couple of weekends, in the end they had the look of warmup games didn't they.
And while I'm on that subject of how relatively easy Leinster have had it in rounds 3 and 4 of the Heineken Champions Cup, I notice there are many trying to take from our achievement by suggesting the quality of opposition was the only factor to consider, with some even going so far as to say they are "worried about the competition" because of this.
Well just to provide a counter-point, I like to remind everyone that even without all the COVID shenanigans surrounding this pool phase, the actual reason we had a more comfortable schedule than others is that we actually earned it by being 2020/21 Pro14 champions. The draw was seeded based on performances last season so if things were easier for us it was for a pretty good reason IMO. Oh, and to those who are instead saying it was "Bath v Ireland", we were actually without Furlong, Ryan and Lowe from the starting test side that had success in November, plus Gibson-Park only came on towards the end.
Anyway that's enough of my little mini-rant to kick things off, time to get on with harpin' on the 80 minutes in question, and obviously I'm going to follow a similar format to last week by highlighting the scores and the major incidents throughout.
FIRST TEN MINUTES : "THE BATH PURPLE PATCH"
Yes, I know their one try came at a different stage of the match but this was still their best spell and it speaks really well to their preparation seeing how the formbook was so much against them.
In my preview the only two Bath players I singled out were Orlando Bailey and Sam Underhill and between them they won their side a penalty before the seconds on the clock had so much as strayed into double figures. Jordan Larmour has shown more than once he can be vulnerable under a high ball so it made perfect sense for Bailey to pick him out with the kickoff and the hang time was perfect for the chasers to swarm the Leinster winger allowing Underhill to burrow his way to referee Piardi blowing his whistle.
However if their DVD sessions told them the best thing to do off a short lineout was to run at Leinster's 10 channel, they probably need to think again because Johnny Sexton ain't no ordinary tackle-dodging outhalf and his massive hit forced a turnover which inspired our defence to keep the home side out during what was effectively a siege on our 22.
Obviously we weren't doing ourselves any favours by shipping penalties in this time and if the ref had given a warning after the 3rd one instead of the 4th, we could have had a man in the bin as well. But for all the kudos Bath deserve for spurning 3-point chances in this time, they just couldn't handle our defensive structure with its double-tackling and powerful counter-rucking so eventually we escaped and on 9 minutes a Jack Conan carry got us possession into their half for the first time.
#1 Jimmy O'Brien (1) 15:44 0-5
From that first batch of front forward ball it looked like Jimmy O'Brien had a try but the TMO (rightly) ruled it out for a push by Larmour, though that didn't stop us going at their line and right after the home side lost not one but two of their back row to head injuries (Max Bayliss and Sam Underhill), some lightning quick hands by Hugo Keenan got it to O'Brien who was able to finish and open our account.
PIARDI HIA? 22:50
"Ah, I love seeing that" might not have been the ideal response from Jamie Heaslip in the commentary box when the ref got clattered by Ringrose after being accidentally held by Ewels in what I suppose we have to call a "rugby incident"...the ref seemed ok afterwards thankfully.
#2 Josh van der Flier 24:31 0-12
From the scrum following that collision, Bath, again to their credit, didn't make things easy for us as we seemed to be going nowhere for 9 phases outside their 22 but eventually a little dog-leg appeared for Josh van der Flier to run through and he made it all the way to the line for try number two.
#3 Jordan Larmour 31:19 0-19
Back in 2015 we had a nightmare day of scrums at the Rec, yet while I almost would have preferred more penalties to Piardi's seemingly never ending resets here, we did catch a good break at one scrum around halfway when a Bath knee sent it back to our side against the head and after a few phases it was Larmour this time picking the perfect line to run it home from even further out than Josh. A sweet "dummy wraparound" from Sexton certainly didn't hurt the creation of the gap either.
BATH TRY Max Clark 33:57 7-19
Like I said Bath did a good job at times putting us under pressure, only more often than not we were able to get around it, albeit once or twice with a fortunate bounce. Here though an early read at halfway from sub Mike Williams allowed him to smash into Andrew Porter, who offloaded anyway meaning it went into the grateful arms of Charlie Ewels, and the big lock may not have had the legs to beat Jimmy O'Brien to the line but he did have the nous to be able to present a perfect pop pass to reward Max Clark's excellent support and no Leinster fan would begrudge the home support the opportunity to celebrate.
#4 (BP) Jimmy O'Brien (2) 36.23 7-26
The celebrations didn't last too long however as we came right back at them thanks to a mazy yet still powerful run from Robbie Henshaw that got us all the way into their 22 from the halfway line before a pinpoint stab along the ground from Sexton sat up perfectly for O'Brien to take and get his second along with the all-important bonus point for his side. For those comparing to the previous week, the BP then came at 23.29.
#5 Ciarán Frawley 41.59 7-33
Most teams would be happy with seeing out the half with this scoreline yet when Jack Conan jackled a penalty at halfway and our attacking lineout led to further Bath pings in their 22 (interesting how nobody was counting the number of penalties all of a sudden), we continued to hammer at their line until Frawley managed to spin his way round after a tackle and get it down under the posts.
HALFTIME Bath 7 Leinster 33
#6 Andrew Porter 46:21 7-40
The sort of HT score I was hoping for but never dreamed it would happen that way. Maybe lucky not to lose a man in opening spell, and a bit scrappy at times, but definitely clinical when needed. Sexton at the heart of everything. Just need to see this home use the bench #BATvLEI— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) January 22, 2022
#8 Hugo Keenan 51:32 7-50
Last week I felt our two best tries were the ones that came in quick succession and when we bagged our third in just five or so minutes here it was almost as if we were determined to go one better. And this probably would have to win the "gold medal" - again, a kick from Sexton found O'Brien but this time it was over the top, back in his own half and albeit against some tired tackle attempts (losing two back rowers so early was far from ideal on a day like this), the Leinster backs were just too good in support and offloading before Keenan got it down, although the final pass from Henshaw might have been suspect forward.
Max Deegan yellow card, 59:02
I could hear Bath supporters shouting "MIGHT have been forward???" for that last try but maybe this arguably harsh decision on Max Deegan shortly afterwards made up for it. A neat show and go from Ben Spencer put him through into space but when he gets to the 22 he kicks ahead and while Deegan kind of clumsily fell into the back his legs bringing him down I'm pretty sure people would have felt differently had it happened the other way.
As it turned out, despite being camped on our line again for a spell, the home side were unable to breach our stingy defence even with the extra man, and it was almost like we waited until the first possession after Deegan was back on the pitch before we started scoring again.
#9 Dan Sheehan 69:42 7-57
At 2:39pm I sent this message into the WhatsApp group : "Wait - Dan Sheehan is on the pitch and he hasn't scored yet???". Nine minutes later, everyone was replying with some version of "there you go!" after he ploughed ahead through yet another gap in the Bath defence for a score under the posts.
#10 Jimmy O'Brien (4) 76:03 7-64
With just over 5 minutes left, Bath looked set to test our defences one last time as they'd a lineout 5m out but this time it was Jack Conan ripping it free from the maul and booting it down to the other end. Nothing else for the home side to do but clear from there thanks to a pesky chase from Conan himself and Gibson-Park, allowing for another attacking lineout for Leinster.
There followed a bit of scrappy play around the halfway with possession going back and forth until Larmour, back on the pitch for a while, spotted a ton of space in the Bath backfield and booted it ahead allowing his fellow winger O'Brien to chase it down and get it over the line in the corner, making the conversion a tad difficult but it was nothing to Ross Byrne who brought the score to 64 and that was that.
I want to be sure to word this correctly. Strictly speaking, I think Johnny Sexton was the true "Star Of The Match". True, he missed a few conversions but when it came to actual play, say all you want how poor the home defence were, there are very few 10s in the world who would have created that much against it. He was totally "in the zone" at the Rec which of course bodes well for Ireland in the coming months.
As for Jimmy O'Brien who did get the gong, well of course I agree that he did more than score four tries to earn it here. Over the past couple of weeks the measure of his displays can be found in how easily the more experienced backs around him include him in virtually every move. Whether you've played European rugby before or not, if you're selected for this Leinster team you're guaranteed to be involved in everything and he was able to back up the confidence with a bucketload of scores and quality contributions.
When it comes to Bath, well obviously you never want to see any team struggling for form and there's no doubt they are in a bad place right now. Whether van Graan is the right choice for them will remain to be seen but while I couldn't make it to the Rec myself on the day, all the reports from the many Leinster fans who did suggest they still have an excellent fan base who deserve to see their heroes back at the top table and hopefully it won't be long before they are.
So after all the rugby that was able to take place this weekend happened and all the proper calculations were done, Leinster are left with a last 16 home and away series against Connacht. This will come right after a series of URC matches against all three provinces and it will come just before we are due to head south for the "South African tour".
All of which proves that as enjoyable and all as it has been to watch Leinster make their statement over these past couple of weeks, there are far bigger challnges to come down the road if we are to add to our silverware collection. And because of the Christmas COVID chaos the plans for the URC to take a break during the Six Nations had to be shelved so there will be more matches to come over the coming weeks as we are donning our green jerseys.
Obviously I'm very much looking forward to all of this, and this week I'll be turning my attention to our trip to Cardiff next Saturday evening - I'll have a fan of theirs offering an "Opposition View" on the podcast as well as the usual previews and opinion around the match itself, be sure and stay tuned! JLP