More fun to see Leinster in attacking mode
ON RUGBY:UP UNTIL Sunday afternoon, Leinster and Toulouse looked like the two stand-out teams in the Heineken Cup for the third season running. These two sides have won the last two runnings of the tournament after, it should be noted, being drawn at home against the other in the semi-finals en route to lifting the trophy.
Therein also lies a reminder that two of the key issues – the semi-final draw and avoiding injuries – are pretty much beyond control. Then, in any event, along came Harlequins to undermine such assured notions by beating Toulouse.
That said, Leinster and Toulouse still look a class apart but, whatever about that, there’s no doubt that they are the two best teams to watch. Joe Schmidt has been akin to a football manager in picking “home” and “away” sides for Heineken Cup skirmishes, hence the preference for Damien Browne, Kevin McLaughlin and Isaac Boss in Bath’s tighter confines last week in absorbing the home team’s initial physicality. But let’s be honest, they’re much more fun to watch in attacking “home” mode.
So it was that Devin Toner won the ball in the air from Sexton’s penalty off the upright for the first try and then the second-half restart for the try of the tournament thus far, by Luke Fitzgerald.
Similarly, Eoin Reddan’s snappy and inventive service paved the way for Rob Kearney’s opening try and so much more (not to mention taking a leaf out of the Boss manual with his own try), and Shane Jennings snaffled the ball on the deck for Jonathan Sexton to manufacture his own first-half try.
There’s a better attacking balance when Reddan and Sexton are there.
Leinster hadn’t quite hit their straps compared to last season, perhaps understandably so given the World Cup and, as holders, everyone being up there to knock them. On top of which you throw in the loss of such experienced and totemic figures as Nathan Hines and Brian O’Driscoll.
Yet, they usually react indignantly to the errors of one week and one always suspected that Bath might pay for Leinster’s profligacy at the Rec. Their depth, options off the ball, handling and finishing were all sharper than last week and, in truth, Bath got off lightly.
They are almost Toulouse-like in the way they react to events, play what they see and veer off the playbook from broken play or turnovers, with numbers immaterial.
Indeed, it’s actually quite remarkable how much individual players have improved and how much the skills sets have sharpened. We were able to witness the sight of Toner changing direction, dummying and offloading a “Sonny Bill” under-arm offload for the supporting Rob Kearney to put Fitzgerald away.
A year ago, Mike Ross scarcely ever had the assurance to carry much, but on Saturday we saw him unveil a left-to-right inside reverse pass flat to Kearney with the softest of hands. Deft hands from Mike Ross? What the hell is going on here? Returning to the warm embrace of his team-mates in blue, Sexton is oozing class from every pore again. In large part because of his place-kicking difficulties at the World Cup, there are a huge amount of observers who feel Sexton’s body language exudes way more self-confidence when he’s with Leinster.
But his general game in New Zealand was excellent and, no less than Ronan O’Gara, Sexton’s sumptuous form in back-to-back Heineken Cup matches again demonstrated his ability to rise to the occasion. This can only be encouraging for Declan Kidney and Ireland’s Six Nations campaign.
Nor do the Leinster spin-offs stop there. One imagines Kidney at least politely requested that Schmidt play Kearney at full-back even if any coach in Schmidt’s position would have been perfectly entitled to retain Isa Nacewa there.
Kearney was always going to need time to rediscover his best form and then, more pertinently, add to it while being compared to the God-like Nacewa (as Kearney hinted at dryly himself last week). This he has done, very impressively. Not only did he score his try smartly last Saturday, he also gave two try-scoring passes to Fitzgerald, whose own rejuvenation must be due in part to the Schmidt coaching regime and the Leinster set-up as well as his own powers of recovery.
Looking in great nick physically and more relaxed in his own skin again, Fitzgerald has cut down his penchant for going for the big play and by extension cut down his error count, to simply let his class do the talking.
Further into the squad, one only has to look at Ian Madigan’s form this season compared to last. Taking the ball way flatter and attacking the gain line, last Saturday constituted his fifth try of the campaign – making him the leading try-scoring outhalf in European professional rugby this season.
It was interesting to note the recent comments by Fergus McFadden (another classy performer on Saturday) as to how Schmidt will make Fionn Carr a better player, although you’d still rather that he and Jamie Hagan were playing in the Heineken Cup in Kingsholm last Saturday than in the British Irish Cup in Donnybrook.
Admittedly, in all this, Bath were utterly abysmal. So much lateral running, little or no decoy runners or straight runners, or defensive or attacking shape come to think of it, double-skip passes by their, em, World Cup-winning outhalf to props wide out, utterly aimless kicking and glorified spectators at the breakdown, Bath looked (or were made to look) the worst English Premiership team ever to pitch up hereabouts in the Heineken Cup.
But all is not doom and gloom for the Premiership, as big away wins for Saracens and Harlequins suggest they are, comparatively speaking, the real deal. Storming the respective citadels of the Liberty Stadium and le Stadium made theirs the stand-out results of the weekend (Quins having done likewise in Thomond Park last April as part of their 11-match winning sequence on the road in all competitions). But for all Saracens’ wincing physicality, Quins are infinitely better to watch. Okay, maybe the hype is justified to some extent.
Last thought. The only two unbeaten sides are Leinster and Munster, while Ulster are also top of their pool. So too are Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh (an outstanding achievement) and Mark McCall’s Saracens, with Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins now just a point off Toulouse. Happy Christmas indeed.