Leinster 52-27 Bath
IF THE HEINEKEN CUP has an equivalent of “moving day” in golf — the day when genuine title contenders begin to assert and separate themselves from the chasing pack — Matchday Four is it.
More than 46,000 hardy rugby fans braved the bitter cold of Dublin 4 this evening and, the small band of travelling support aside, they were rewarded with a veritable Christmas feast as Leinster laid down an emphatic marker, running in seven tries as they extended their grip on Pool 3 with a 52-27 win over Bath.
All week, questions had been asked of the champions’ finishing touch, such was the amount of points left on the field in last Sunday’s 18-13 win in Bath.
Their pride stung, it took Leinster less than four minutes to set the tone tonight, Eoin Reddan’s delicious sleight of hand allowing Rob Kearney to dive over the top for the game’s opening score.
By the first minute of the second half, a resurgent Luke Fitzgerald had wrapped up the bonus point and the win with his second try of the evening, his side’s fourth.
Redemption for Leinster who, in stark contrast to last Sunday, were at their clinical best. Their lead over Glasgow at the top of Pool 3 is now a commanding six points. A home quarter-final, something which seemed a remote possibility after the stuttering start in Montpellier, is within touching distance.
“It’s great to go on to Christmas in that manner. It takes some of the pressure off,” coach Joe Schmidt said afterwards, giving full credit to his side for a blistering start which cut the Bath defence to pieces.
After Kearney’s early opener, Olly Barkley was able to keep Bath in touch with a pair of penalties either side of a booming Jonny Sexton drop-goal.
But Leinster’s probing attacks look destined to find chinks in the Bath line, though when the breakthrough came on 25 minutes, it was courtesy of the most unlikely of sources; second-row Devin Toner selling a beautiful dummy in midfield, setting up Kearney who found Fitzgerald in acres of space on the overlap.
“I think there have been a number of good games for Luke,” Schmidt said of the winger’s two-try performance and promise of a return to form.
I think today it was just a bit more visible because the game was open and they gave him more time and space with the ball. Luke certainly is adding value.
Man of the Match Jonny Sexton ran in Leinster’s third to stretch their lead to 24-6 at the break, complementing another confident display from the tee and an individual tally of 20 points.
Fitzgerald’s second immediately after the restart wrapped up the win, but Leinster showed an unseasonable lack of goodwill as Eoin Reddan and second-half sub Rhys Ruddock piled on the pain with tries of their own.
The rout complete at 45-6 with a quarter of the game remaining, Schmidt rang the changes and emptied his bench. It allowed Bath to save some face with late tries of their own from Donald, Attwood and Williams but the scores were cosmetic at best, a point reinforced when Ian Madigan added Leinster’s seventh with two minutes to play.
The lapses in concentration disappointed Schmidt, though one senses this was the gripe of a man in pursuit of perfection rather than a coach upset by the whittling away of his side’s enormous lead.
Yeah, I was really disappointed and I think some individual players will be as well. The squad as a group will be disappointed because you try to set a standard for yourself.
There were a few guys who came on and added a bit but it is difficult sometimes to keep your composure when you’re up by 30 or 40 points. I guess that’s where you try to measure yourself rather than the opposition.
The one blip on a night to savour came with 10 minutes to play when second-half sub Cian Healy injured his neck in a tackle which may have been illegal, judging by the reaction of his team-mates.
After reviewing the tape, Schmidt conceded that there was no malice involved. “I was frustrated that it didn’t seem to be sanctioned and I was frustrated that we got distracted by it.”
Meanwhile, Leo Cullen faces an anxious wait to see if there will be any repercussions after he was sinbinned in the first half for what referee Roman Poite described as punch. “I don’t think it was a punch,” Schmidt said of a possible citation for his captain.
Scoring: 7-0 Kearney try, Sexton con; 7-3 Barkley pen; 10-3 Sexton drop goal; 10-6 Barkley pen; 17-6 Fitzgerald try, Sexton con; 24-6 Sexton try, con; 31-6 Fitzgerald try, Sexton con; 38-6 Reddan try, Sexton con; 45-6 Ruddock try, Sexton con; 45-13 Donald try, Barkley con; 45-20 Attwood try, Barkley con; 52-20 Madigan try, Nacewa con; 52-27 Williams try, Barkley con.
Leinster: Kearney; Nacewa, O’Malley, McFadden, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Reddan; Van der Merwe, Strauss, Ross; Cullen, Toner; O’Brien, Jennings, Heaslip.
Bath: Vesty; Cuthbert, Banahan, Barkley, Abendanon; Donald, Claassens; Flatman, Biller, Wilson; Atwood, Caldwell; Louw, Mercer, Taylor.