Gritty Leinster raid on Castres

Matt O’Connor’s team can reach knock-out stages by beating the Ospreys on Friday

Leinster’s Brian O’Driscoll is surrounded by Castres players during yesterday’s Heineken Cup match at Stade Pierre Antoine. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Leinster’s Brian O’Driscoll is surrounded by Castres players during yesterday’s Heineken Cup match at Stade Pierre Antoine. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Mon, Jan 13, 2014, 06:46

Leinster returned from Castres after an opportunistic, priceless, gritty, smash and grab raid on the normally impenetrable Stade Pierre-Antoine fortress – recovering from a 14-0 deficit to win 29-22 – with a five-day turnaround before hosting the Ospreys at the RDS on Friday.

Northampton’s 29-17 win over the Ospreys keeps them within four points of Matt O’Connor’s team, who nonetheless can return to the knock-out stages by beating the Ospreys.

Realistically, their hopes of securing a home quarter-final look remote given the weekend’s results contrived to leave them ranked sixth of the respective pool leaders.

While the Ospreys are out of contention, and will also have a five-day turnaround, Leinster are disadvantaged by Pool One being the first to be completed in next weekend’s final round of group games.

Indeed, even though Leinster’s win completed another Irish four-timer, Munster are also out of the frame for a home quarter-final despite securing qualification with their 20-7 win in Kingsholm on Friday. Unhelpfully for them, Clermont (a point above Munster on 18 points and with the same try tally of 13) kick-off afterwards on Sunday afternoon at home to Racing.

Only unbeaten record
Ulster, also through, will still need to preserve the tournament’s only unbeaten record away to Leicester in a shoot-out for a home quarter-final given both sides are already through, joining Toulouse, Toulon, Clermont and Munster in the last eight. As things stand, Leinster would be heading to Toulouse and Munster to Clermont.

Connacht go to Saracens next Saturday knowing a win would earn them second place and probable qualification for the Challenge Cup but as things stand Saracens and Leinster look likeliest to complete the quarter-final line-up. Although they suffered no injuries, and were indebted to an unexpected comeback off the bench by Cian Healy as well, perhaps, as Nigel Owens’ refereeing, Leinster’s wild and loose game in Castres will have taken its toll.

Even O’Connor was so hoarse he couldn’t grant a post-match interview to the written media (he just had a few words for radio), leaving his assistant Jonno Gibbes to hail a “really pleasing” victory.

“Coming here and scoring three tries . . . I think they have conceded four at home all season so far so it was really pleasing. The energy expended was pretty impressive but a bit of our inaccuracy in our defending and feeding them at home wasn’t a good idea. They just grew in confidence, they ran at us to much really.”

Made the adjustments
“We made the adjustments at half-time and I think it was mainly just the set-piece where we were just giving them easy exits back at us. We weren’t able to clear our 40 metre line. A couple of adjustments were good. Kick-off area was disappointing. Again we scored points but went straight back onto defence. There’s a couple of areas to definitely look at but I thought that last 10 minutes wasn’t pretty but it was about a bit of unity and a bit of commitment and the boys had plenty of that.”

“From our point of view, sitting in the coaches’ box, what they did for each other out there today and the manner in which they did it wasn’t always the best way of doing it but they hung tough. I think that’s pleasing, we’ve just got to make sure we have a good look at what we’re doing to feed other teams really. Fourteen points to these guys seemed like a big mountain to be honest.”

Post-match ice baths were compulsory before the charter home last night, with today and tomorrow mostly about rest and recovery. The selection of Jimmy Gopperth having been truly vindicated by his two-try, 21-point haul, and with Healy in line for a recall after his unexpected and stunning return off the bench, Gibbes hinted that there might be another change or two – with Rhys Ruddock likely to come back in presuming he recovers from his calf strain.

“Round six is, I think, as big a mental challenge as anything. Maybe a little bit of a selection from us can throw in a little of that energy. What the guys do in the next 48 hours will have a massive say come Friday night and I guess from the coaching point of view we just need to be smart with how we construct the game for Friday and the manner in which we do that and what we actually do. We’ve got to balance all of that stuff. They’re an experienced group though. They kind of know where they need to be on Friday so the next 48 hours will be crucial.”

Difficult team
The Ospreys have been bugbearers of Leinster’s in the League, although they did win at the Liberty Stadium in the first of their away wins in this season’s pool stages in Europe.

“Yea, they’re a very difficult team for us I think because they just challenge us in a number of areas,” smiled Gibbes a tad wearily.

“In the air they’re pretty good, and at the set-piece and in contact – they throw a few guys in there. But there’s no surprises for us and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready for that. Our challenge is to maybe get in their faces a little bit more with a few things that are our strengths and get them out of the comfort zone. But we’ve had some good battles with them and Friday night is going to be another one no doubt.”

Whether or not Munster end up facing an away quarter-final did not especially perturb Rob Penney.

“Well, we beat Perpignan away, we’ve won here away. To me it doesn’t have any relevance at all. If we prepare well and individuals prepare well, it doesn’t matter. The rugby field’s the same size and Munster supporters travel everywhere so it’s like a home game anyway.”

They also, of course, won away to Harlequins in the quarter-finals last year.