Jonathan Sexton put in a performance that had rugby purists weak at the knees, and an über-confident Leinster fed Bath a fifty-burger on Saturday night in the Aviva Stadium.
Ronan O’Gara has been getting the lion’s share of attention due to his late game heroics against Northampton and Castres, but the St Mary’s man gave a bravura performance to put himself firmly back in the out half spotlight. Sexton banged over an outrageous 45m drop-goal and goaled his own try – one of the slickest you will see anywhere this season – before half-time, then came out after the interval and gave Bath a lesson in rugby until Joe Schmidt saw fit to call off the dogs and let the visitors escape with a modicum of dignity.
It could have been sixty.
Leinster absolutely tore apart the former titleists, letting them know what it is to go up against the best team in Europe on home territory. They plowed Bath to the tune of seven tries to three, with all the West Countrymens’ efforts coming by way of commiseration when the game was long out of reach. As poor as they were made look on the night, Bath are not a terrible team. There are very few coaches who have the experience and pedigree of Ian McGeechan, and their starting XV was full of internationals: only 21-year old openside Guy Mercer is uncapped. However, they simply couldn’t live with the pace of the brilliantly-coached Leinster side.
This was best illustrated when Leinster captain Leo Cullen was sent to the sin-bin by a pernickety Romain “Remain Polite” Poite: instead of playing a “holdall” game, the champs upped the tempo and scored fourteen points to zip in Cullen’s absence, smashing any attempt the challengers had at offense and putting together the sort of rugby that would have any neutral on his or her feet.
This was the key period of the match. Leinster had looked dangerous from the off, but were only leading 10-6 at the time, while Bath had had some dangerous incursions into the Leinster 22 with Olly Barkley directing traffic from inside centre. However, a loose Bath pass was gathered in midfield by the lively Fergus McFadden, and Devin Toner took a leaf from Brian O’Driscoll’s play book: taking the ball to the right of the breakdown, he saw that he was relatively isolated and doubled back around to his left, broke a tackle to get in behind the ruck and then offloaded to a slipstreaming Rob Kearney with a sublime ‘out-the-backdoor’ pass. Kearney made no mistake in feeding Luke Fitz, and the winger sprinted in for his first Heineken Cup try since side-stepping Paul Warwick in the 2009 semi-final.
Fitzgerald’s return to form is a real fillip to Leinster fans and to Irish rugby in general. The season after a knee construction is often a difficult one. Players are eager to make up for lost time, but have to deal with two significant factors – namely that they haven’t played any rugby in a year, and that they have to adjust to the capabilities of their new knee. The lad showed signs that he was coming back into form at the end of last season with a cracking try in the Magners League semi-final against Ulster, and has featured heavily in Leinster’s season to date – all over the backline, it should be said, left wing, fullback, centre – racking up almost 1000 minutes of gametime before Christmas.
At the other end of the things is Cian Healy. While Fitzgerald missed out altogether on Ireland’s World Cup campaign, the loosehead had a cracking tournament. However, he has somewhat struggled to readjust to provincial rugby, and his famously short temper has been tested and snapped on more than a couple of occasions. There is no doubting his talent, but he needs to play within himself for one or two games and just let things happen for him rather than charging around the pitch like a mad dog.
He could take his lead from Mike Ross, who as he nears his 32nd birthday is still on an upward curve as a player. The Cork-born tighthead had his finest game in open play for Leinster on Saturday, highlighted in each half by two cameos that show just how much he has improved from the player that arrived in September 2009: he had a magnificent rumble right up to the Bath line in the first half, dragging a couple of putative Bath tacklers with him for ten metres, and he gave a beautifully-disguised inside pass in midfield in the second to open up the Bath defense. It’s heartening to see a player improve elements of his game late in his career, and really highlights the amount of effort he has put in since his arrival in Dublin.
No championships are won before Christmas however, and there are some aspects of the performance that will have Joe Schmidt irritated. Eoin O’Malley was up against a physically much bigger opposite number in the colossal Matt Banahan, but went too high in the tackle all too often. O’Malley is a relatively slight figure, and if he is to be an effective defender at the highest level he needs to sharpen his tackling technique – and most importantly, just go much, much lower. He could pick up some pointers from former Irish underage team-mate Felix Jones, who is a copybook tackler at a similar weight. Ian Madigan’s kicking game is under-developed in comparison to his distribution, and while he once again bagged a try – his fifth of the season! – his control of the game was patchy.
Still, they are relatively minor quibbles. Rhys Ruddock was diligent and hard-working as ever, and sealed an excellent outing off the bench with a well-taken try. With Sean O’Brien looking a little tired from his World Cup exertions, Ruddock could well see himself get a few more HEC starts after Christmas. Fergus McFadden had a very good game in his first HEC start at No12, passing well, making good decisions in attack and showing his big-time pace with an early break down the wing. The signs point to a changing of the guard at centre, but Schmidt might well bring the defensive nous of Gordon D’Arcy back into the side for the tricky away fixture against Glasgow at Firhill in January. D’Arcy’s position in under threat for the first time in many, many years, and he shows signs of rising to the challenge.
So, with genuine competition for places in a number of positions and a very impressive try-scoring rate at home [a whopping 12 tries in the first two home fixtures], Leinster are well-placed to proceed out of the group. It’s not a done deal yet though, and a home quarter-final is all-important in this competition. A big performance will be required against a gritty Glasgow team in the next round, and it will be very interesting to see if Schmidt decides to stick with his more conservative ‘away’ approach, or go all out with the more attacking selection which performed so well at the weekend.