Leinster grind out victory over Castres

Success built on monopolising possession and Ian Madigan kicking goals

Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip tries to keep possession against Castres Olympique at the Stade Pierre Antoine yesterday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

It wasn't pretty, but it was effective, and it's left Leinster sitting pretty. The only away team to win in the Stade Pierre Antoine last season, Leinster again returned home from Castres with another potentially valuable four-point haul to leave themselves well placed in pool two, with a grinding win which was founded upon monopolising possession and Ian Madigan kicking his goals.

In temperatures of around 25 degrees this possibly gave the lie to the notion of summer rugby, for conditions were almost too good. What followed was a pedantic, stop-start affair, with Leinster patiently if laboriously recycling the ball (retaining 96 out of 98 rucks), forcing Castres to make almost twice as many tackles in having 63 per cent territory and 69 per cent possession.

Critically, with Castres forced onto the back foot and becoming frustrated, especially at the breakdown, this led to an 11-6 penalty count in the away side's favour – not the norm hereabouts or anywhere else for that matter. Such was the predictable din of booing, whistling and jeering at referee Greg Garner as he vacated the pitch that he probably had his car engine already running.

A somewhat hoarse Matt O’Connor said that “relief” was his abiding emotion. “We came with a definite plan to play for field position and take our points when they were on offer. Ian was outstanding, he took his goals brilliantly. There was a little bit of a lack of shape, but it takes its toll when you’re playing against humans that big.”

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Of Madigan’s seven from nine return and 21 point haul, O’Connor smiled broadly and said: “He’s a quality goal-kicker and he’s playing very, very good footie for us in that 12 shirt. He looks very comfortable in it.”

Lacked creativity

Often running laterally off static ball, Leinster’s back play lacked much in the way of creativity, and, predictably, Leinster resorted to one-off, low-risk carries, but O’Connor maintained: “The win was the important thing. We probably didn’t get enough dominance at set-piece, we didn’t get the ball on our terms and from that end we were chasing the game. We probably didn’t have enough momentum to construct anything.

“We had to work very hard at the breakdown. They are big men and they take a lot out of you. We lost our number 9 a couple of times when we had opportunities, which was disappointing, but we got the win, which was important.”

Indeed, Eoin Reddan, whose two snipes accounted for all but one of Leinster's three line breaks, and Mike McCarthy made notably big impacts off the bench as an Irish side again saw out 80 minutes well. "It was going to be 80 minutes," said O'Connor. "They weren't dropped. They are good players and from that end it was about managing the 80 minutes. Straussy was very good when he came on for us. Sean Cronin was good for us when he was out there. Those key guys in those key positions gave us a bit of impetus towards the end."

Growth

In any event, Leinster would have happily taken an eight-point haul if offered it at half-time against Wasps the previous Sunday, and when trailing 7-0 early on and 16-9 when entering the final quarter yesterday. “There’s a lot of growth in our game, there’s a lot of bodies to come back into that group, there’s an opportunity to take some of those positives forward against Edinburgh on Friday night and get ourselves back on track in the league,” said O’Connor.

“We will lose a few guys to the test environment, which is a little bit frustrating, but at the end of the day they’ll come back in pretty good shape, hopefully, and having benefitted from playing at that intensity. So for now it’s about cracking on with the guys we have and making sure we keep an eye on our game through the league.”

On the day Gordon D'Arcy emulated Ronan O'Gara (110 games) and John Hayes (101) in becoming only the third centurion in the tournament's history, "a tight groin" prematurely ended his game, "but he should be okay," said O'Connor. The coach also revealed that the heavily worked Jack McGrath put in a second consecutive 80-minute shift despite suffering an arm injury last week. As for asking plenty of McGrath, with Cian Healy injured, and Michael Bent having to now cover tight-head, O'Connor quipped: "I'm going to continue asking."

Two-week respite

The five-day turnaround after a hard-earned win in

France

is not ideal but, following that Edinburgh game, Leinster will take a collective two-week respite, with O’Connor content enough as to where they are at. “It’s never going to be perfect. Given the injury situation and the strain on the group, I think we’re doing all right. Last week was hugely important for us, and today to come to Castres and win with that group was pretty pleasing.”

Likewise, Munster are two wins from two even if, no less than Leinster, they've done no more than they had to so far, all the more so after a second try by Napolioni Nalaga and one by Aurelien Rougerie in the last 10 minutes earned Clermont a bonus point in a 35-3 win over Sale yesterday which puts them into second place on six points in pool one, two behind Munster with Saracens on five.

But certainly Ulster would happily exchange positions with them after Toulon's relatively bloodless coup at Ravenhill on Saturday left Neil Doak's team with the proverbial mountain to climb. Asked if the back-to-back champions, and their expensively assembled loose forwards, had proved to be as tough a challenge as he has ever met, Chris Henry admitted after the 23-13 defeat: "Definitely at Ravenhill anyway. We knew it was going to be a huge test for us and unfortunately we came up second best. For me, without a doubt it was up there with the intensity and physicality of anything over the years."

You can’t win the European Cup in October, but you can lose any chance of winning it, and both Leinster and Munster are alive.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times