Leinster cruise past Zebre with clean bill of health for Clermont game
Leinster 37 Zebre 7:This one’s always tricky. Drip-feed the internationals back into blue jerseys without sustaining any fresh injuries – the infirmary already being packed – but at the same time rediscover the potion that makes Leinster such a magical attacking force.
And just 80 minutes to do it before the colossal, monumental, near impossible task of beating ASM Clermont Auvergne at Marcel Michelin next Sunday.
With all that in mind, this outing ticked a lot of boxes.
The withdrawal of Seánie O’Brien and Jonny Sexton at half-time was pre-planned, Joe Schmidt assured us, with his major selection calls now coming in the backrow and back three combinations.
Injuries have forced his hand elsewhere.
Still, despite admittedly playing within themselves, Leinster attained their usual standards of excellence.
The 28-point handicap offered by the bookmakers was under threat from the 26th minute. That’s how long it took them to clear the highway of some sizable Italian oak trees; a useful exercise considering the behemoths awaiting them in France.
Sexton was undoubtedly the foreman, but Fergus McFadden was the chief lumberjack. Initially positioned at left wing – life as a centre will be revived against Aurelien “The Horse” Rougerie, who he handled impressively two years ago – McFadden saw an opportunity and forcibly took it, gathering his own chip despite the presence of Marouane Fellaini look-a-like Leonardo Sarto. Another 45 metres of turf needed negotiating but after swatting Daniel Halangahu aside he was grounded deep in the 22.
The cavalry, Andrew Goodman and Rhys Ruddock, delivered quick ball for Sexton to loop around Kevin McLaughlin and fling a skip pass to O’Brien who sent Andrew Conway over in the right corner.
Sexton added the conversion and Leinster were cruising.
With Quintin Geldenhuys sin-binned on 32 minutes, Sexton wasn’t long twisting over for the second try, with his conversion completing an impressive night’s work for Europe’s in-form outhalf.
The real worry, however, was that O’Brien, playing only his second game since the 60-0 defeat to New Zealand last June, having undergone hip surgery, damaged his ankle here.
Schmidt was adamant the Carlow farmer will be ready for war come 3pm next Sunday.
“He was going to play 40 minutes anyway. He’s walking around and giving out – two good signs that he’s fine.”
O’Brien should keep Shane Jennings and Ruddock out of the staring XV, as Jamie Heaslip will return at number eight and McLaughlin’s value on the blindside continues to soar.
Tito Tebaldi squeezed over for a try after half-time, but Leinster went into overdrive thereafter with the bullish McFadden slotting a penalty before bumping two defenders and burning a third after a nice offload in contact by Gordon D’Arcy.
Cian Healy came in and secured the bonus point with his 13th career try before McFadden’s second touchdown beat the spread three minutes from time after a relentless, multi-phased attack.
There were plenty of positives. Conway has regained his zip but it was D’Arcy’s selection at 13 that was most interesting. The 32-year-old has sacrificed much of his natural talent at 12, having to step into traffic ever since that all-too-brief period as an outside centre way back in 2004.
Finally returning to the role, he found space accelerating off his right foot. It was a case of what might have been if D’Arcy had been allowed more time in the position.
In fairness, there’s a parallel career that hasn’t been so bad. But with Brian O’Driscoll out until January, it seemed like Schmidt was trying something new, or, more accurately, returning to Gary Ella’s old idea.
Of course, Schmidt’s thought process is far more complex than what any of us mere mortal rugby brains can come up with.
“That was more for cover than starting,” he explained. “We know Ferg can play 13, with Gordon D’Arcy, so tonight was to make sure we had some other options up our sleeve. If something happens in the game (against Clermont) we can shift Gordon to that position.
“Gordon D’Arcy is a smart player. You don’t get 70 caps without being both smart and talented. He is the most capped Leinster player ever at 12.
“Ferg trained a lot at 13 this week and ended up there at the end of the game.”
It also ended with Conway at fullback and Isaac Boss on the wing.
This could indicate that Schmidt will break with tradition and pick the smaller Eoin Reddan at scrumhalf down in France. Or not.
The campaign gets very serious from here. Not that Leinster are ever anything but.