Leinster on course for home quarter-final after Saints put to sword
Leo Cullen’s team cross for nine tries as emerging talents leave good impression again
Leinster’s James Treacy builds up a head of steam as Northampton’s Ken Pisi tries to hold on. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Leinster 60 Northampton 13
Before Johnny Sexton came of age Leinster had to shop outside the province for an outhalf. Same goes for scrumhalf before Luke McGrath. And props before Cian Healy, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong.
Now the club is building home-grown depth three deep, and in some cases four, in all the specialist positions.
That’s visible progress.
Ross Byrne is a clear example as the 21-year-old showed well enough here to probably lead the line over the congested and, in Leo Cullen’s opinion, unfair holiday period.
Because injuries to Sexton (no update on his hamstrings or Rob Kearney’s ankle), Joey Carbery (eight weeks of rehab following ankle surgery) and Cathal Marsh means Byrne is the only outhalf remaining on deck.
This is how Leinster return to the mountain top. The stated IRFU policy to compete with millionaires pumping cash into French and English clubs is to nurture talent from within.
“For starters we want to be able to bring guys through,” said Cullen. “So young guys who have aspirations of playing for Ireland, that’s how most kids are I think; they see a green jersey first. So how do they get there? Well, if they are growing up somewhere in Leinster, they want to play for Leinster so they can go on and play for Ireland.
“If that actually happens, and they are playing for Ireland, there are a lot of games in between when those Irish guys aren’t available so we need to have guys who can fill the gaps.
“We want that level of competition.”
They have it but they also need it to cope with this ridiculously attritional sport.
Leinster scored nine tries in what can barely be described as a contest as Northampton Saints coach Jim Mallinder did the Champions Cup a disservice and did little to boost his own squad’s morale in the process.
But Cullen will not care as the victory puts Leinster directly on course for a home quarter-final. January fixtures against French opponents are not so daunting anymore. Montpellier will come to Dublin intent on winning pool four but Castres at home might follow Northampton’s lead and take a knee.
In the meantime Leinster lose their internationals this week ahead of the December 26th Munster match in Thomond Park and Ulster at the RDS on New Year’s Eve.
“There are tons of things rattling through my brain at the moment,” said Cullen, who revealed that Leinster only had only 10 fit backs available for this match.
“Two games in five days is always tough, especially games of that level, particularly when the team you are playing second [Ulster] is coming off an eight-day turnaround.
“So, yeah, we are a bit disadvantaged the way those fixtures have fallen. But we will just get on with it. Then we have a six-day turnaround into Zebre. Three games in 11 days . . .”
Anyway, this festive money-maker in the big house went according to plan – except for Ken Pisi’s 98-metre intercept try – as Leinster easily put manners on an under-stocked Northampton.
Seán O’Brien didn’t need to reach superhuman levels when clicking over the number of matches he played in blue last season. This was his fifth start. He did carry his weight, stretching over for the bonus-point fourth try bang on half-time. Isa Nacewa’s conversion made it 29-13 at half-time.
The rest of the evening’s focus was on the stadium bars.
But plenty of Leinster positives.
Adam Byrne is making the retirement of Luke Fitzgerald not seem so cruel anymore. The 22-year-old winger, first picked aged 18 by Joe Schmidt, displayed impressive strength to finish in the corner after only four minutes. Furlong bashed through a few tackles to lay the platform, while McGrath’s hands should not be forgotten before Zane Kirchner’s lovely offload.
There was a surprise to rustle the inebriated from their chatter. Adam Byrne brought Leinster within sight of the Saints try line but Pisi read Luke McGrath’s pass as the scrumhalf sought to exploit a two-man overlap.
Pisi almost ran out of gas but the try was awarded before Romain Poite disallowed it, for offside, but then he awarded it again. All very confusing but TMO Eric Briquet Campin eventually arrived at the correct decision.
The Saints led 13-5 and Leinster deemed that to be enough points for the visitors, who had arrived without their international contingent.
Besides that gift, McGrath produced another fine display as he eases into the Conor Murray understudy conversation ahead of the Six Nations. His try on 28 minutes actually came from an error as the ball spilled under his legs at a ruck. The defence rushed up so he had no option but to dart for the line. He made it.
Not three minutes had passed when Byrne galloped 50 metres for his second after more atrocious Northampton defending.
O’Brien was next, sneaking out of the lineout drive, a trick we have seen from Ireland this year, to wrap up full marks and leave Leinster top of pool four with 16 points.
But there was another 40 minutes to play, and it was full of little gifts. Like when Furlong powered over on 42 minutes before a nice cut-out pass by Ross Byrne allowed the dynamic Seán Cronin to nudge Leinster over the 40 mark.
The big screen gave us Joe in Technicolour. He smiled sheepishly. The otherwise distracted public lapped it up.
By then Northampton’s tackling was utterly shambolic. Not sure how this performance, caused by the decision to rest the team’s core leaders (those who are not suspended or concussed), will help save Mallinder’s job.
Three Saints fell off Nacewa for the seventh try. Rory O’Loughlin made it eight, while Ken Pisi’s fumble under a high ball – he has previous in this regard from 2013 – allowed Nacewa to bag his second.
That made it 60. Hard sell this, but a valuable five points nonetheless.
LEINSTER: Z Kirchner; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); R Byrne, L McGrath; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, H Triggs; S O’Brien, J van der Flier, J Heaslip. Replacements: C Healy for J McGrath, M Bent for T Furlong, J Tracy for S Cronin (all 48 mins), R O’Loughlin for A Byrne (50 mins), R Ruddock for D Toner (52 mins), J Conan for S O’Brien (56 mins), J Gibson-Park for L McGrath (58 mins), N Reid for G Ringrose (63 mins), J McGrath for C Healy (77 mins, HIA).
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: A Tuala; K Pisi, G Pisi (capt), JJ Hanrahan, T Collins; S Myler, N Groom; E Walker, C Clare, K Brookes; A Ratuniyarawa, J Craig; J Gibson, C Clark, T Harrison. Replacements: J Wilson for A Tuala (21 mins), B Nutley for C Clark, R Hutchinson for G Pisi (both half-time), PHill for K Brookes, M Paterson for J Craig (both 51 mins), J Fish for C Clare (62 mins), A Waller for E Waller (66 mins), T Kessell for T Collins (72 mins). Sin bin: J Gibson (54-64 mins) Referee: R Poite (France).