Over the last three seasons since Leinster have established themselves as European big hitters, their trips to England have always been tight games. There was the 25-23 victory over Saracens in Wembley last year, the 11-11 draw with London Irish in Twickenham at the end of January 2010, the 6-5 win over Harlequins [the infamous ‘Bloodgate’ game] in the 2008-09 quarter final in The Stoop, and a 12-19 loss to London Wasps in January 2009 in Twickenham. Games against English teams have long been tight affairs, and Sunday’s 18-13 win over Bath continued the trend.
Bath were unfancied going into the game. They are sitting a lowly third in the Aviva Premiership and have struggled in that competition recently with losses against Worcester and Sale. However, bringing the reigning European champions to your home ground is bound to get you up for the match. You can argue that the same situation held true when Toulouse played Connacht in the Sportsground – and Toulouse put a hurting on the western province – but in fairness to Bath, theirs is a team with some quality players in important positions, notably All Black World Cup winner Stephen Donald at outhalf, Michael Claasens at scrumhalf, Francois Louw at blindside and Simon Taylor at No8. Despite their lowly league standing, Bath have a pretty good first XV.
They started the game with a nice little wrinkle: referee Jerome Garces blew his whistle, and right-footed outhalf Stephen Donald simply passed to left-footed inside centre Olly Barkley to change the direction of play with the most simple of reversed kickoffs. Enormous winger Oooh Matt Banahan unfortunately mistimed his jump and came down hard on his back, but it wasn’t the last to be seen of the big Channel Islander at kick-off time.
Both sides were willing to sling it, with Bath using their big locks Ryan Caldwell and David Atwood in midfield. It was Atwood’s mishandling in the Leinster 22 that allowed Leinster their first chance, Sexton darting on the spilled ball and sweeping wide left to Luke Fitzgerald. With Jamie Heaslip and Sexton in support, Fitzgerald chose not to back his pace against the retreating openside Guy Mercer and the chance was lost in the Bath 22 through over-complication.
There was some sloppy kicking from both sets of backs; Nick Abendanon put an up-and-under straight out early in the game, and it wasn’t long before Luke Fitzgerald returned the favour. However, for the most part the ball was kept in hand, with Bath attacking well and forcing a lineout close to the Leinster line from a penalty. However, the throw from stand-in American hooker Biller was long and went straight to Richadt Strauss at the tail, who was able to put Sean O’Brien away to release some pressure with a typically tackle-shredding run.
Leinster butchered their second chance of the day a couple of minutes later. Dan Hipkiss was rocked back on his heels going into the contact with Rob Kearney, and the fullback streaked away with O’Brien inside him, Nacewa outside him and only Abendanon to beat. Unfortunately he chose to give the inside pass to O’Brien, who had been shadowed by Bath’s Scottish No8 Simon Taylor, and a certain try was lost when O’Brien bobbled the ball. Having looked at it again on tape, far too much blame is going on Kearney for this one: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the pass he gives to O’Brien, the Tullow man just bobbles it. Taylor had made a despairing leap for the tackle and hadn’t quite got there, so if O’Brien had held on he would have been in under the sticks. Sure, Kearney should have given the pass to Nacewa instead of O’Brien, but the point would have been moot if O’Brien had hung on to it.
One of the interesting features of the match was the high standard of scrummaging: all four starting props are genuine students of the dark arts, and it was rewarding to see a match not scarred by dozens of resets. These guys wanted to scrummage, not to cod anybody. In contrast, a recurring feature of the game was seeing marginally forward passes penalised – it doesn’t happen too often, but if it’s forward, it’s forward. You can’t complain.
Sexton missed his first penalty opportunity of the game from the left with one minute remaining in the first half, but from the restart – taken with 21 seconds left on the match-clock and received by Rob Kearney on the Leinster 10m line – a string of phases allowed a deep-lying Sean O’Brien to bust the Bath line from an Isaac Boss pop on the halfway and make it into the Bath 22, where Banahan’s side entry gave away the penalty, allowing Sexton to kick the goal more than two minutes after the clock had gone into the red.
Bath had dominated both territory and possession in the first half, looking nothing like the team that had struggled with Sale the previous week. They played with some good variety to their game, and looked in general like a well-coached, hard-working side. Obviously there are some useful outfits in the Aviva Premiership, but it’s hard to imagine that this side will be in trouble at the end of the season if they can maintain something like this level of performance. While they didn’t manage to break down Leinster’s defense, they did ask a lot of questions; a less well-drilled side than the Irish province would have caved and leaked a try.
The second half saw the introduction of Cian Healy, which immediately added another ball-carrying threat to the Leinster pack. O’Brien made a brilliant line-break through Stephen Donald in midfield [following a great carry from the hard-working Kev McLaughlin] and backed himself for the corner only to be denied by a brilliant Michael Claasens tackle, with Olly Barkley taking the ball into touch. Despite a well structured lineout maul, Leinster could only take a penalty kick for their troubles.
From the restart Bath gained some territory in the Leinster half, which was relieved when a long Isa Nacewa clearance took a huge Leinster bounce over the recovering Nick Abendanon’s head to be gathered by its kicker, who fed the charging Healy, only for O’Brien to ignore the three man overlap outside him from the resulting breakdown and spoil another certain try. This was as gilt-edged a chance are you are likely to see at European level, and will have made a real video nasty for O’Brien this morning. While Bath relieved the pressure for a time, Leinster were able to build back into a position underneath the Bath sticks; they were now decidedly the team in charge of the match.
Bath’s breakdown discipline was breaking down, with Guy Mercer’s hands in the ruck allowing Sexton to put Leinster ahead for the first time in the match on 53 minutes. Shane Jennings and big Devin Toner had come on the park scarcely a few minutes earlier, and Leinster reinforced that pressure at the breakdown by getting fresh legs to the tackle very quickly.
A run of the mill penalty deep in the Leinster half was converted to a breakaway chance by a brilliant Jonny Sexton crosskick that Isa Nacewa picked up wide on the right, the Fijian superhero stepping and spinning his way up to within 5m of the Bath line. From sustained pressure, Gordon D’Arcy, Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip made it to within feet of the Bath line, with big Mike Ross burrowing over only to be held up. Referee Garces went back for the penalty advantage, allowing Sexton to put Leinster 12-6 up just after the hour.
At this juncture Eoin Reddan and Sean Cronin were introduced for Isaac Boss and Richardt Strauss, but with his second touch of the ball Cronin was brilliantly turned over by Francois Louw, and after some great combination from Donald and Louw, Cuthbert put big Matt Banahan over for a great try – the first of the match – wide on the right. Olly Barkley nailed the tough kick, which put Bath back ahead by a point. However, with more than 13 minutes left on the clock, the Somerset men had simply left too much time on the clock.
Cronin was able to atone for his error by effecting a turnover on Guy Mercer, only for O’Brien to spill the ball forward in contact. In the break for the resulting scrum, Eoin O’Malley was introduced for Gordon D’Arcy; meanwhile at the coalface, the entirely new Leinster front row of Healy, Cronin and White got a soft free-kick from the tiring Bath men for early engagement. Off a quick tap, big charges from Toner, O’Brien and McFadden brought Leinster deep into Bath territory, and after 11 phases of good work, Louw dived over the top to afford Sexton the easy penalty chance with more than seven minutes to go. Sexton knocked it over to give Leinster the lead again, and were able to turn over Cuthbert from the resulting restart. Again, Louw couldn’t help himself and impeded Reddan from an offside position, giving away a soft penalty and earning himself a yellow card for his troubles.
Leinster were able to grind the clock down in the Bath 22, but some great Bath counter-rucking earned them a relieving penalty with three minutes left on the clock . However, Devin Toner took an overthrown lineout at the back, and a huge Leinster scrum piled forward to earn a penalty with a minute left on the clock. Sexton converted to bring it to 18-13 at full-time. Job done for the champions, but work to be done in preparation for the rematch.