Leinster must be very, very glad to get away with four points from Firhill on a day that the machine did not function all that well. Sean Lineen’s men showed ferocious hunger, picked up all the scraps from the champions’ table, and feasted on them.
It was somewhat ironic that it was the (lack of) width of the Firhill pitch that eventually deprived the hungry Scots of the vital try at 16-16 in the game. With Sexton’s injury causing him to deploy on the left wing in defence, Glasgow never once got the opportunity whilst inside the Leinster 22 to run at him in those critical last 15 minutes.
Very illuminating also that Schmidt did not revert to using either Nacewa or Madigan to replace Sexton in the second-half of a vital game. That says a lot about Schmidt’s appreciation of Sexton, and more about Sexton’s value within the team. There’s also a hint as to how significantly this team viewed the importance of keeping their winning sequence going.
Everybody who understands the difficulty of keeping a winning streak going in professional sport [in any code] will recognise that there will be days when the engine just does not fire properly. Leinster’s first line-out in attack on the right-side of the pitch after about seven minutes’ pressure at the far end was a perfect example that Firhill was going to provide the setting for another of those uninspired days in Glasgow.
Either Cronin threw to the wrong place, or the jumpers missed their marks, or the lifters mistimed their attempts … whatever the reason, Leinster stacked Cullen at the back with Grey marking Toner at the front and Cronin threw in between them to our third second row, Bakkies Nobody.
Just before half-time, Leinster had an attacking scrum under the Glasgow posts and despite an initial shunt forward from the blue front-five, the ball emerged on the Glasgow side and resulted in a clearance to almost half-way.
The quality of this Leinster team was the manner in which they shrugged off this screw-up and went back to get the vital equalising penalty before half-time and then followed with a try after the restart. Such performances in the ‘championship minutes’, to quote our best loved Narbonne-based Aussie, was a clear indication that Leinster understand that even when your team are not playing well, there will be moments when you are creating opportunities and you have to take points out of them to eke out the wins.
Toner, Cronin, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden put in hard, effective shifts in this game. Toner’s take and offload to originate the winning try epitomized just how much his play in open field has improved this season. There’s something to be said for bringing him into the Irish set up now – not in two year’s time when Donncha’s IRFU contract expires! There are a number of contenders for the front-jumper slot in Tuohy, Ryan, McCarthy and O’Callaghan, but at middle jumper there just Paul O’Connell and Toner … both Mick O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen have passed through the international period of their career.
Rob Kearney took on a lot of responsibility in attack and defense. There was a lot in his personal performance that showed why Joe Schmidt believed that he could be the best full-back in the Northern Hemisphere; there was also evidence that he has learned from the presence of Isa Nacewa in the Leinster set-up. Having to improve to keep up seems to be a very strong part of the Leinster ethic under Schmidt. Kearney hasn’t pouted or sat back on his Lions’ laurels, but has instead invested trust and effort in improving his own game for the benefit of the team.
McFadden continues to improve and whilst his passing may never be the thing of beauty of Darcy or O’Driscoll (or Sexton or Madigan) he is a super mid-field defender, an effective off-loader and has some serious gas on the outside. He doesn’t deceive his opponents by sleight of hand or big steps, like either of his more illustrious team-mates, but he is a handful in the No 13 jersey. Approaching the Six Nations, Declan Kidney should be considering him as a centre, rather than a winger.
Leinster’s bench was almost Toulouse-like in its importance to this victory. Van de Merwe, Brown, O’Malley, Boss & Ruddock all provided their direct opponents with different challenges than their predecessors – no less physical, but with different skills emphasis. When you are tiring and behind on the scoreboard this is a real challenge in the last 15 minutes of a competitive game and the variety served Leinster well and stretched Glasgow in these vital minutes.
So never comprehensive, better than workmanlike but not for a minute approaching pretty, Schmidt and Gibbs will be satisfied with this performance, even if it has robbed them of Sexton for next week’s denouement against Montpellier. The French outfit have an important Top 14 game against Stade Francais on the Friday night after the Leinster game, and, with qualification for the knock-out stages of the HEC out of reach, the Stade game will undoubtedly be their focus between now and then.
Leinster may have to allow Madigan the free rein of his instincts next weekend. However, this is a much lesser risk at home and against a disinterested French opposition than in the cauldron that can be Firhill. Leinster to get at least four tries with a back-line in which Madigan and Nacewa will make up for lost time this weekend.