Clinical Leinster show smothers Stade’s Amlin challenge
Schmidt’s men outscore visitors four tries to one as Sexton kicks perfectly to help secure silverware
Rob Kearney leaps in to score the third of Leinster four tries against Stade Francais. Photograph: Inpho
Leinster 34 Stade Francais 13: A trophy is a trophy, and the handsome Amlin Challenge Cup was won in the grand manner. For the first time the final was held in Ireland, and for the first time there was an Irish winner, while as an aside Connacht were spared returning to their customary Euro outlet as, for the third year running, Leinster earned them a place in next season’s Heineken Cup.
Stade Francais, themselves in the last chance saloon for their season and their hopes of a Heineken Cup place next season, never went away and showed more spirit than perhaps might have been expected given they were behind from the third minute. Indeed, a graph of the evening’s share of possession and territory would have been hugely in the visitors’ favour, but their accuracy and cutting edge was nothing like Leinster’s.
Although Joe Schmidt might not have enjoyed such a demanding defensive workout before facing Ulster in the Rabo Pro12 final here next Saturday, there were so many plusses to Leinster’s night, and one or two for the Lions as well.
Leinster claimed the first half of a possible double while still juggling their resources with a brand of rugby that showed why they remain one of the leading sides in Europe. Against that, Seán O’Brien again hobbled off with what appeared like a recurrence of his calf problems, while Fergus McFadden was stretchered off with what appeared a neck injury, hopefully as a precaution.
Leinster demonstrated accuracy and purpose as they used the full width of the pitch. Just as important was their shape in defending. Sergio Parisse was a danger in outside channels before fading, but Julien Dupuy’s service was too ponderous and outhalf Jules Plisson played too much in front of a Leinster defence, whose line speed was markedly up on last week.
A key man in all of this was Jonny Sexton, who on his penultimate match for his native province before apparently coming under the wing of Ronan O’Gara at Racing, showed superb tackling, passing, running, supporting and kicking out of hand as well as six from six.
Jamie Heaslip wasn’t far behind, Rob Kearney’s confidence grew some more, Ian Madigan sparkled, Isaac Boss’s 80-minute efforts were close to extraodinary, while as with the London Irish-bound Jamie Hagan (whose impact was immediate and nowadays, positive) the Munster-bound Andrew Conway is also playing his best rugby.
Fears of the advance sale of tickets, with only 1200 raffled amongst Leinster’s 13,000-plus Supporters Club, might dilute the occasion, were unfounded. Blue was the dominant colour on a sun-kissed, carnival-like evening, Stade’s pink-clad band at one end being rivalled by a 21-piece brass band at the other in berets playing a mixture of Irish, French and Basque music.
In keeping with the Amlin’s freer spirit, both teams used the full parameters of the pitch from the off, with the home crowd quickly invited into the game by one of Leinster’s blistering, high tempo starts. From a lineout on halfway on the left, off the top ball from Devin Toner, Leinster went wide to McFadden. From the recycle, Madigan fed Boss as first receiver who passed inside for one of Nacewa’s trademark trailers close to an unmanned ruck. Critically, from his clean line break, and typical of Sexton, the outhalf was in support, as was that tryscorer par excellence, Madigan, for the run-in under the posts.
As critical as the score, was the defending on the line. Geoffrey Doumayrou showed good footwork deep inside the Leinster 22 and Julien Dupuy and Jules Plisson explored an unmanned blindside, before Sexton and Nacewa tackled the outhalf into touch. With the Stade scrum acquiring an edge on what was a difficult night for Mike Ross, Leinster withstood another battering, during which Sexton and, crucially, O’Brien held up Paul Williams over the line.
Whereupon, Leinster struck stealthily again. From a superbly hanging box-kick by Boss, Conway claimed the ball above Jeremy Sinzelle and just as sharply offloaded to the supporting Seán Cronin for him to run in the try. Sexton converted and after a penalty by Jérôme Porical, Leinster struck again.
Sexton, having found Nacewa with the preceding kick-off, delivered a perfectly weighted crosskick that was again plucked out of the air by the winger, who had the strength and presence of mind to offload out of Hugo Bonneval’s tackle for Kearney to dive over the pair of them. Sexton tagged on the touchline conversion for a laugh.
After another Plisson penalty on half-time, the second-half skirmishes weren’t helped by Nigel Owens being seemingly oblivious to the offside law, as Leinster soaked up pressure to land a couple of penalties by Sexton, the second after Hagan’s introduction at scrumtime.
Leinster’s line speed eased off, despite seasoned reinforcements. Paul Warwick, injecting more tempo on his last Stade outing in his latest incarnation of scrumhalf, and Plisson went wide, where Bonneval, adding a vastly superior threat when switched to fullback, put Sinzelle over.
Plisson converted from the touchline and Stade came knocking again, but Shane Jennings hacked on another loose pass and from scarcely their fourth foray forward Kearney showed real pace on an arcing outside run only to be denied the try by a marginal foot-in-touch call.
The crowd demanded another try, and after hard straight running by Boss, Nacewa, and Shane Jennings, Cian Healy applied the coup de grace.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Madigan try, Sexton con 7-0; 20 mins Cronin try, Sexton con 14-0; 26 mins Porical pen 14-3; 28 mins Kearney try, Sexton con 21-3; 40 mins Porical pen 21-6; (half-time 21-6); 54 mins Sexton pen 24-6; 63 mins Sexton pen 27-6; 78 mins Healy try, Sexton con 34-6.
Leinster Rugby: Robert Kearney; Andrew Conway, Fergus McFadden, Ian Madigan, Isa Nacewa; Jonathan Sexton, Isaac Boss; Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Mike Ross, Quinn Roux, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip (capt). Replacements _ Richardt Strauss for Cronin, Cian Healy for McGrath (both 52 mins), Shane Jennings for O’Brien (both 57 mins), Jamie Hagan for Ross, Leo Cullen for Toner (both 60 mins), Andrew Goodman for McFadden (67 mins), David Kearney for R Keanrey (78 mins).
Not used - John Cooney.
Stade Francais:: Jérôme Porical; Jeremy Sinzelle, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Paul Williams, Hugo Bonneval; Jules Plisson, Julien Dupuy; Aled De Malmanche, Laurent Sempere, Rabah Slimani, Scott Lavalla, Gerhard Mostert, David Lyons, Pierre Rabadan, Sergio Parisse (capt). Replacements _ Stanley Wright for De Malmanche (30 mins), Paul Warwick for Dupuy (half-time), Waisea Nayacalevu for Porical (56 mins), Anton van Zyl for Lavalla (67 mins), Julien Arias for Doumayrou (73 mins),
Not used - Remy Bonfils, Jeremy Becasseau, Lei Tomiki.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).