Leinster showed up in Liberty Stadium with a relatively untried team and took a first-half pasting from a fired-up and fluent young Ospreys side.
The Welsh outfit have shed the excess weight generated by the oversized egos of galacticos Byrne, Hook and Phillips and have emerged a leaner, more disciplined and more unified outfit. However, they have also lost valuable and hard-working foreign players like the misunderstood Jerry Collins and, in particular, Marty Holah.
Holah’s loss has somewhat been made up for by the emergence of 22-year old Justin Tipuric, who captained the Ospreys from the openside flank. He had been on the cusp of selection for Warren Gatland’s Welsh world cup squad in a highly competitive position – duking it out with captain Sam Warburton and 99-times capped Martyn Williams for what turned out to be a single spot – and he gave highly-rated Leinster No7 Dominic Ryan a lesson in openside play at the breakdown.
It was the Ospreys’ domination of the breakdown that was the story of the game, their excellent body positions, energy and technique making an absolute misery of Leinster scrum-half John Cooney’s competitive debut for the province. Leinster were turned over almost twenty times, a statistic which is scarcely believable in a first class rugby match, and if it wasn’t robbed, ball was spoiled or slowed. Leinster’s forwards looked disorganised and some way off the fitness levels at which the Ospreys were operating: too often the Welsh team were able to isolate a ball-carrier or simply outnumber the Irish forwards at the breakdown.
The contrast in outhalves was equally stark. Dan Biggar kicked out of the Ospreys half as a rule, relying on their defensive line to shut down any Leinster counter-attacks before they got to the halfway line. In contrast, ex-Crusader Matt Berquist looked disorganised and off the pace, and didn’t seem to have any discernible strategy to dictate either where his team would play the game or how they were going to score points.
The Ospreys didn’t struggle with either question, establishing good territorial position throughout the first half and striking with alacrity when they got the opportunity. Within two minutes they were ahead, scrum-half Rhys Webb finishing off a lovely attack down the right which featured some sharp passing and ended with him diving over in the corner. The second try showcased a neat bit of finishing from blond winger Hanno Dirksen, who scudded in low along the ground in the left corner despite David Kearney’s tackle. Biggar converted both tries from either touchline, finding time to knock over a penalty in between and then, when there was nothing else on, taking a drop to make the score 20-0 after half an hour.
The Ospreys were totally in control, but Leinster were finally able to get on the scoreboard through a Matt Berquist penalty – his second of the match, having scuffed his first chance, a long-range effort from just inside the Osprey’s half on the left. However, the Welsh team were able to land the killer blow in the injury time of the first half, turning over Leinster for the umpteenth time before Webb chipped over the top and the excellent Tipuric gathered to touch down and put the game out of reach.
The second half saw Leinster wrest both territory and possession away from the Ospreys and exert a good degree of pressure without converting it into points. If they had gone in 20-3 down, rather than 27-3, captain Rhys Ruddock mightn’t have been so gung-ho in going to touch from the numerous kickable penalties afforded … in any case, Leinster failed to score in the second half, but so did the Ospreys.
It really degenerated into little more than a training match, both coaches emptying their benches and condemning the game to death as a spectacle. With any sort of structure that the first half had seen fast disappearing, all that was left was for keen-eyed fans of both sides to look out for various academy players coming off the bench and seeing how they held up. Given that neither team scored in the second half, it hardly filled you with hope!