Leinster claim bonus-point win in stop-start performance against Saints
Ryan Baird again impresses as Leo Cullen’s side go top of Pool A
Dave Kearney dives over to score Leinster’s third try in the Heineken Champions Cup game against Northampton at the RDS. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA Wire
Leinster 35 Northampton 19
Job done. Leinster’s second bonus-point win cemented their place atop Pool A and with Montpellier and Northampton both now on two defeats and out of contention, nothing less than finishing first will be the target for Leo Cullen’s side.
With that would come home advantage in the second leg of the two-legged quarter-finals and, potentially more significant, home country advantage in the semi-finals.
Not that the Saints, who with this defeat have lost 12 games in a row, would go away. Like a dog with a bone Leinster couldn’t shake them off.
On a cold, capricious day in Dublin, the first half was played in a blustery breeze and bright sunshine, whereupon the wind picked up and the rain arrived at the start of the second period before the game finished in more serene conditions.
This mirrored Leinster’s performance. They looked like they would run up a huge score early on, finding the edges with ease and Garry Ringrose voracious in his hunting for work.
But their protection of the ball and their accuracy in the opposition 22 was not of their normal high standards. There were also enough set-piece and defensive glitches to keep the gamey Saints interested.
That said, the bonus point was secured early in the second half and the result was never in doubt. They also had the game’s outstanding performer by a distance in Ryan Baird. A performance of unrelenting energy, thunderous gallops with that quick, high knees stride of his and big hits. Baird carried 14 times, including two line breaks, for 51 metres and made eight tackles. It even culminated playing the last 15 minutes in the backrow. He could probably do a job at centre.
Leinster had to withstand all manner of disruptions both before and soon after kick-off. Firstly, Caelan Doris was a late withdrawal with a calf problem, so Rhys Ruddock moved to ‘8’ and Josh Murphy was promoted from the bench to the blindside.
Later still, Harry Byrne sustained a back injury in the final warm-up drill, resulting in his older brother Ross being restored, while Leinster promoted Ciarán Frawley and Cian Kelleher to a more conventional 5-3 bench.
It was just as well, as within a dozen minutes, the latter were both on the pitch, as Jimmy O’Brien and the returning Ringrose were in turn obliged to undergo HIAs after clashing heads. Frawley went to inside centre, Robbie Henshaw shifted to outside and with Kelleher on the right wing, Hugo Keenan moved to fullback.
O’Brien didn’t return but Ringrose, who had looked mustard keen, had sprinted off and did return.
By the time of O’Brien’s early departure, the home side had already struck in the third minute to reward a blisteringly quick start. Jamison Gibson-Park swiftly moved scrum ball on halfway to the left and, via Byrne and Henshaw, Ringrose made a big gallop up the left to deep inside the Saints’ 22. From the recycle, Gibson-Park skipped Ruddock for Murphy to take the ball at pace and plunder the try.
Unaffected by the disruptions, Leinster maintained their high tempo, albeit they turned over possession four times in the Saints’ 22 when a try looked on a couple of times had the ball gone Dave Kearney’s way.
A couple of the turnovers were loudly celebrated by the away players but when their scrum also conceded an indirect penalty, Leinster tapped and from the recycle Cian Healy, with Baird latching on, rumbled over. Baird had also earned the territorial foothold with a huge line break.
However, Northampton were rewarded when twice rejecting three-pointers by going to the corner to find a couple of glitches in the Leinster defence. First, after a stunned Gibson-Park had been pinged for a crooked feed, centre Fraser Dingwall took a hard out-and-in line off George Furbank’s long skip pass to slice through – Ruddock uncharacteristically not filling the space – and score under the posts. Ruddock made amends thereafter, with Josh van der Flier also having a big game.
Then, after a Byrne penalty, Northampton forced another attacking scrum and scrumhalf Tom James dummied Gibson-Park and then took a double tackle by the latter and Van der Flier to score.
Stung into life, Leinster wore Northampton down through 19 phases before Gibson-Park engineered a penalty when passing into Shaun Adendorff to ensure he was pinged for offside.
From the lineout, Byrne scythed through, although rather than give Ringrose a walk-in under the posts dummied and was instead tackled short of the line by Tom Collins. The pack were held up over the line and probed close in off another tap penalty before Gibson-Park used the advantage to locate Kearney with a huge skip pass. Byrne missed the touchline conversion to leave it 22-14 at the break.
Within three minutes of the restart, Gibson-Park sealed the bonus point with an opportunistic solo try when scampering in under the posts from the 22. But, rather summing up his and his team’s erratic display, from the restart Leinster didn’t make a long enough caterpillar and the Saracens loanee Nick Isiekwe charged down the scrumhalf’s clearance kick to gather and score.
That re-energised the Saints and Leinster struggled to regain control. But after a good defensive set and the introduction of a new frontrow and Luke McGrath, hammered at the Saints’ defence again only for their lineout to malfunction as James Tracy’s throw went long.
Instead, after another multi-phase attack, they had to settle for another Byrne penalty.
Leinster had to earn another Byrne penalty from halfway, which he landed, although this was after TMO Olly Hodges alerted referee Pierre Brousset to a ‘clear-out’ at a ruck when Tom Wood flew off his feet to catch Van der Flier on the head with his shoulder.
It looked for all money a red card offence. Astonishingly, all the more so in the current heightened need to protect players, the officials did not even deem it worthy of a yellow.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: Murphy try, Byrne con 7-0; 16: Healy try, Byrne con 14-0; 22: Dingwall try, Furbank con 14-7; 28: Byrne pen 17-7; 35: James try, Furbank con 17-14; 40: Kearney try 22-14; (half-time 22-14); 43: Gibson-Park try, Byrne con 29-14; 45: Isiekwe try 29-19; 61: Byrne pen 32-19; Byrne pen 35-19.
LEINSTER: Jimmy O’Brien; Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter; Ryan Baird, James Ryan; Josh Murphy, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock (capt).
Replacements: Cian Kelleher for O’Brien (9 mins), Ciarán Frawley for Ringrose (13-27 mins), James Tracy for Kelleher, Peter Dooley for Healy, Michael Bent for Porter, Luke McGrath, for Gibson-Park (all 57 mins), Dan Leavy for Ruddock (61 mins), Ross Molony for Murphy (67 mins).
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: Tom Collins; Ryan Olowofela, Fraser Dingwall, Rory Hutchinson, Taqele Naiyaravoro; George Furbank, Tom James; Alex Waller (capt), Sam Matavesi, Paul Hill; Alex Moon, Api Ratuniyarawa; Nick Isiekwe, Tom Wood, Shaun Adendorff.
Replacements: Francois van Wyk for Waller (48 mins), Mikey Haywood for Matavesi (51 mins), Owen Franks for Hill, Piers Francis for Olowofela, Matt Proctor for Naiyaravoro (all 59 mins), Teimana Harrison for Ratuniyarawa, Alex Coles for Isiekwe, Henry Taylor for James (all 65 mins), James for Taylor (71 mins).
Referee: Pierre Brousset (France)