Leinster’s numbers continue to impress, a 17th consecutive victory, the 13th in the United Rugby Championship (URC), with a matchday squad containing eight academy players and two, James Culhane and Aitzol King, who made their respective debuts for a province that hasn’t lost a single match this season.
They are impressive bona fides but within the collective there were notable individual contributions. Max Deegan, fit again after an ankle injury, was a deserved recipient of the man-of-the-match. His athletic qualities are obvious, but he has refined aspects of his game, not least of which is an ability to win collisions on the gain-line.
Deegan had more successful carries (nine) than any other player on the pitch. Leinster head coach Leo Cullen said: “It was a big week for Max, a very important role that he had, and he gave us a lot of go forward carry [and was] sound defensively. He is a very skilled player [and he] got us on the front foot in that first half; I’m pleased that he went well.”
He was far from alone. Michael Milne and John McKee discharged their carrying duties to great effect, Brian Deeny too - the Wexford native displaying good footwork for a big man. The more senior members of the pack provided both a support structure and encouragement in allowing some of their younger teammates to express themselves through their rugby.
Rhys Ruddock stands out in that capacity, a leader by example, so too scrumhalf Luke McGrath, whose accomplished performance was topped off with a brace of sharply taken tries. Few doubt Harry Byrne’s talent, just his capacity to stay injury-free. The outhalf enjoyed some lovely touches in kicking, passing and running and managed the game nicely.
Cullen said: “I thought he [Byrne] led the week really well. That’s what you want for your 10s. It’s not just the performance part, it’s making sure you’re clear on lots of other people’s roles and not just your own. That’s what the great tens do.”
Ben Brownlee and Liam Turner impressed on their own merit and as a midfield pair and caused all sorts of problems for a couple of internationals in Ben Thomas and Samoan Ray Lee-Lo. Cullen agreed: “Cardiff did have a very experienced team. Mikey [Milne] carried strong and worked hard to get around the corner.
“John [McKee] is very diligent, he worked well, some decent carries from him. I thought Ben [Brownlee] and Liam [Turner] were excellent in the centre. Liam made some really good inroads. Ben is an academy player; it is great to see those guys come into the team and look so comfortable. A lot of work goes on in the background to get them to that point.
“Luke [McGrath] and Rhys [Ruddock], the two of them have captained this group over this season and last. They bring brilliant composure and experience to the group. Lukey got his two tries, hugely important for us, he is a real warrior of the team and leads the guys really well.”
Leinster’s victory does require context as Cardiff were poor for most of the game, undermined by a million handling mistakes and a carelessness that gift-wrapped the initiative, momentum, field position and possession to the home side to such a degree that the Welsh club was never going to escape with anything other than a sizeable thumping on the scoreboard. Even then, it could have been worse.
The home side’s opening two tries both came from slick tap penalty moves which have become something of a forte, Deegan barging over for the first with McGrath benefiting from the gap created by his teammates to dot down. The scrumhalf’s second try was a simple appreciation of the space and time afforded him at a ruck, from which he scooted over untouched.
Leinster led 19-0 at the interval, the early throes of the second half a resumption of that ascendancy. Scott Penny, in his 50th appearance, was a pivotal figure in creating and generating good gain-lines and quick ball.
Referee Jaco Peyper initially missed a deliberate slap down by Cardiff wing Jason Harries that prevented Leinster from scoring a try, the referee suggesting that the ball had gone forward in the act of the player making the tackle. His TMO, Marius Jonker, intervened and after a consultation, Harries received a yellow card.
Leinster scored two tries in his absence from Deeny’s close range power shunt, and then arguably the bonniest of the match, that showcased some silken handling and finished smartly by right wing Max O’Reilly, playing his first game since September.
Cullen then turned to the bench. Will Connors, playing his first game in almost four months, looked like he’d never been away, 16 tackles as he hunted down Cardiff ball carriers. There were also a couple of debuts for Ireland Under-20 Grand Slam winners from last season, Culhane and King.
Cardiff mustered a couple of tries through replacements Rory Thornton and Kristian Dacey as the previous structure of the game fractured with the raft of new faces, but it was Leinster that signed off on the scoring, Turner scooping up a loose pass in the Welsh side’s 22, sidestepping the defender before dotting down close to the posts; Charlie Tector’s conversion the game’s final act.