Leinster set sights on topping Pool A after win over Northampton
With five teams on two wins out of two in Pool A, there is little room for error
Leinster’s Ryan Baird during the Champions Cup round two match against Northampton Saints: the standout memory will be the performance of the galloping all-action Baird. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Leinster 35 Northampton 19
Halfway through the group stages and it’s not putting the cart before the horse to suggest that Leinster can realistically target finishing first in Pool A and thereby plotting the most favourable route possible to the final.
Admittedly, even to qualify for the quarter-finals, Leinster do not have much margin for error. With five teams on two wins out of two in Pool A, where the demarcation lines already appear more clearly defined, it could be that four wins will be required just to reach the knockout stages.
Beyond that, whatever benefit there may or may not be from finishing in the top two and playing a quarter-final second leg at home, top spot would earn the carrot of home country advantage in the semi-finals.
In that sense, there is even less room for error. Leinster, who travel to Northampton and host Montpellier on successive Fridays in January, have a fractional lead over Wasps, who travel to Montpellier and host the Dragons on the ensuing Saturdays.
“It’s nothing different from where we were before the competition started,” insisted Leo Cullen after this loose bonus-point win on a capricious day in the RDS. “We’ve managed to get our two bonus-point wins, which is great, it leaves us in good shape. So yeah, we’ll watch and see where everyone sits at the end of this weekend.”
However, he did admit: “We want to target as high a seeding as possible. The seedings thing, it’s different for the quarter finals. That’s the way I understand it. So it’s more for a potential semi-final, were you to get to that point. So it’s similar to every year. You want to get the best seed possible, because you’ve more things to fall back into your favour.”
Then again, of course, there are no guarantees, for as Cullen also noted: “We were seeded one last year and you play against the eighth seed which is Saracens, we lose our home-quarter final, and we’ve no crowd. So you can’t always take advantage of some of the things you work towards.
“For us now, we’ll turn our attention more towards the Guinness Pro14 again, the three inter-pro games, which are huge. Guys will be having a good crack off each other, we hope. Then we’ll see where everyone sits I guess leading into round three of Europe.
“It’s unusual, the condensed format. With the games being cancelled this weekend it presents a whole new dynamic for all of us. So we’ll see how everyone sits. I think there’s still one or two things that are still outstanding at the moment, so yeah, it’s fascinating watching it all unfold, isn’t it?
“We’re going to be playing Friday – Friday in rounds three and four, so again, it’s not like we’ll be waiting around in that last weekend. We’ll be trying to get a win in round three, we’ll be trying to get a win here in round four, and hopefully we’ll be trying to get as high a seeding as possible then off the back of that.”
In the interim, Leinster are due to play Munster in Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day followed by Connacht and Ulster on the ensuing Saturdays, it would appear that the likes of Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Calean Doris and the other frontline Irish internationals will be given a well-earned breather.
“Yeah, some guys are going to get a break, the guys who have been away with the internationals, which is I think the correct thing to do to manage those guys, because it’s been a pretty full on block of games for them,” said Cullen. “We’re into rounds three and four of Europe after the interpros. So, [on] a case by case basis, some guys will get a break next week, and some guys a bit later on potentially.”
Cullen admitted this game had been a messy affair after a bright start, with difficult conditions and all manner of disruptions before kick-off when losing Doris and Harry Byrne.
Having been promoted to the bench at short notice, both Ciaran Frawley and Cian Kelleher were on the pitch inside the first dozen minutes. Aside from some bizarrely wasted chances, the standout memory will be the performance of the galloping all-action Ryan Baird, as clear a so-called Star of the Match as the competition will have this season.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Murphy try, Byrne con 7-0; 16 mins Healy try, Byrne con 14-0; 22 mins Dingwall try, Furbank con 14-7; 28 mins Byrne pen 17-7; 35 mins James try, Furbank con 17-14; 40 mins Kearney try 22-14; (half-time 22-14); 43 mins Gibson-Park try, Byrne con 29-14; 45 mins Isiekwe try 29-19; 61 mins 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 fir O’Brien (9 mins), Ciaran 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 (both 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)