The Cardiff Blues brought a knife to a gunfight at Lansdowne Road, and were absolutely hockeyed off the pitch in the first half. They saved some pride with a hard-fought if uninspiring performance in the second forty, but were ultimately held scoreless for 78 minutes, having opened the game with a Leigh Halfpenny penalty.
It wasn’t an immaculate Leinster performance by any means – even with Kev McLaughlin kept in the mix at blindside to provide an extra jumper, the lineout was a shambles – but the scrum was dominant and the backline movement was razor sharp in the first half. Brian O’Driscoll’s try, the third of the game, was as crisply executed a score as you will see this season, but it was the threat that Jonny Sexton posed at outhalf every time he touched the ball in attack that was the key to Leinster’s success.
There’s nothing to be gained by running through your playbook in a game that is already well won, but in contrast to the glittering performance that saw Bath off in December of last year, Leinster shut up shop this time around and refused Cardiff even a consolation try.
In truth, this has been a shambolic season for the Welsh Blues. The strong core of foreign internationals that has made them a tough outfit over the last four years has aged and/or picked up injuries: Tongan international tighthead Tau Filise , who has been a mainstay of the club since the kick-off of the 2006-07 season, was unavailable for selection, as was second row Paul Tito , and former All Black Ben Blair  didn’t make the bench, despite his recent return from long-term injury. Tongan old-timer Ma’ama Molitika  was listed as a substitute, with New Zealander Xavier Rush  as ever leading the charge from No8. Fellow Kiwi Mike Paterson [a former Canterbury Crusader] was alongside him in the backrow, and Munster-bound Casey Laulala  in the centre.
Blair, Filise, Molitika, Rush and Tito have been great servants to the Blues over the years, but age catches up with everybody. However, their presence in the Cardiff squad over the last four or five years – and they’ve all accumulated over 110 caps for the region – should stick in the craw of those who complain that it is solely the presence of non-Irish qualified players in the provinces that prevent Ireland from performing at the same pitch as their Welsh counterparts at test level.
To anybody with a modicum of sense, the fact that the Welsh regions have just as many non-Welsh qualified players in their squads as the Irish provinces have non-Irish qualified ones should reinforce that the widening gap between the two sides at international level isn’t solely due to the presence of too many Johnny Forrenurs on the old sod …
With Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts also out injured, the Blues seemed desperately short on confidence. Gethin Jenkins, Alex Cuthbert and Lee Halfpenny played in every one of the principality’s successful Six Nations campaign, with lock Bradley Davies and scrum-half Lloyd Williams being sometime contributors to Gatland’s outfit. Martyn Williams has a staggering amount of international experience, as does former Scottish outhalf Dan Parks; backup halfback Richie Rees and Ceri Sweeney have forty Welsh caps between them.
Nevertheless, this was a Cardiff team that were beaten before they took the pitch. The midweek furore surrounding the sacking of career attention-seeker Gavin Henson, the constant stream of news that many of their players will leave at the end of the season [Laulala to Munster, Gethin Jenkins to Toulon, T. Rhys Thomas to Wasps, Ben Blair to Agen, Dan Parks and Richie Rees to Connacht] and the knowledge that their two best players – and two players who could genuinely be held up as world class, Warburton and Roberts – would be missing … it all conspired to drain the life out of the Cardiff challenge before they even took the field. That’s confidence for you.
With Cian Healy putting Scott Andrews, the young Welsh-capped tighthead, under enormous pressure at the scrum, and Mike Ross doing a serious number on Gethin Jenkins, the Leinster scrum was in ascendancy all match. Brad Thorn provides huge power and excellent scrummaging technique on the tighthead side, and Leo Cullen has long been a rock-solid scrummager; even with Leinster’s relatively lightweight hookers Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin, it’s a powerful, well-drilled unit.
Once again, Eoin Reddan showed why he’s the form Irish-qualified scrum-half in the country. With the ball served up to him on a platter by dint of excellent placement and aggressive rucking, Reddan was able to up the tempo to a level that Cardiff couldn’t live with for anything more than a few phases. He didn’t take on too much ball himself, and it wasn’t often that he spent his time rolling the ball back and forth under his foot while giving the opposition defence time to recover. These are faults that have appeared in Conor Murray’s game this season, and the talented Munster No9 has gone backwards as a result. The Mole thinks that Reddan doesn’t get enough credit for the work he does, mainly because he’s had a nomadic career: he’s nobody’s child, in that he didn’t grow up in front of any particular set of supporters, having spent considerable time at Connacht, Munster, Wasps and now Leinster.
It seems that nobody in the media is willing to go to bat for him, despite the fact that he’s done something that journalists typically praise in other players [i.e. move to a team where you can challenge for gametime, then work your way up to being the go-to-guy]. Too often, people seem to damn him with faint praise, or write off his contribution.
Declan Kidney is all too willing to drop him whenever he gets the chance – Reddan has to be his number-one punch bag for the amount of times he has been dropped or overlooked – while scrum-halves who perform worse are extended far longer runs in the No9 jersey. As it stands he should be in pole position for the New Zealand tests, because frankly he’s playing better rugby than Conor Murray. Murray is a quality player, but is suffering from a bad slump in form at the moment.
Rob Kearney eclipsed his Welsh counterpart Leigh Halfpenny, bagging two tries himself and an assist for Isa Nacewa’s fine opener. Kearney was in imperious form in the No15 jersey, and playing like the best fullback in the northern hemisphere. From the evidence of the Six Nations, his tackling still isn’t where it should be, but it wasn’t under any sort of rigorous examination in this game. Luke Fitzgerald also came through well, solid under the high-ball, timing his runs correctly and showcasing his sidestepping ability in close-quarters.
This was a game that was over by half time, and won’t do much to prepare the reigning champions for the onslaught that they’ll face against Clermont Auvergne in the Chaban-Delmas. However, Leinster are a team who have compiled a lot of big-match experience over the last three years, and will have some knowledge of the ASM team, with Joe Schmidt a former coach of the French heavyweights and the two teams having met three times since the turn of 2010. It’s going to be a cracking match-up.