Storm Deirdre relents to allow Leinster empty Bath
Leo Cullen’s side keep up chase of Toulouse in Pool 1
Leinster’s Adam Byrne claims a high ball ahead of Darren Atkins of Bath during the Champions Cup match at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Leinster 42 Bath 15
In the event, ominous forecasts of conditions befitting the Pool 1 visit of Bath proved unfounded, and so too did any notions of this being a reprise of last week’s arm wrestle in the Rec’s mudbath. Leinster skated to a bonus point by half-time and ultimately ran in six tries to stay hot on the heels of Toulouse.
Toulouse’s 42-27 bonus-point win over Wasps had temporarily stretched their lead atop Pool 1 over Leinster to seven points and demanded a response. They did so in the style of champions, so setting up a mouth-watering Pool 1 summit meeting between the two four-time champions at the RDS on Saturday, January 12th.
As Leinster had hoped, the rain relented by kick-off and as they desired even more fervently, their hard carrying and quickness in identifying threats over the ball reduced, if not entirely negated, the impact of Sam Underhill, Francois Louw and co at the breakdown.
James Ryan was to the forefront of this with another outstanding display of ball carrying, making 14 carries for 31 metres, and nearly always as first receiver into traffic.
Jack Conan also put in a big unselfish shift, with 10 carries for 41 metres, as the Leinster think tank’s three changes were all handsomely vindicated, with the recalled Rory O’Loughlin and Adam Byrne each scoring. Jordan Larmour’s also relished his switch to fullback, his intrusions and counter-attacking adding to the backline’s potent mix. As almost goes without saying, Johnny Sexton pulled the strings expertly, with his mix of wraparounds and crosskicks.
The blips, as such, were some of the breakdown work, the concession of two tries and the loss of Leinster’s initial scrum dominance after the usual plethora of replacements, which in general also stemmed their attacking flow among some curious decision-making at times. Admittedly, Storm Deirdre’s bitingly cold wind and rain also returned for the second half, prompting many to understandably seek shelter elsewhere. The players went to the middle of the pitch to thank those few who remained until the end.
In the more pleasant, or at any rate more bearable, climate of the first half, Bath actually opened the scoring through a James Wilson penalty when Louw couldn’t be shifted and Adam Byrne was penalised for not releasing after what was a good carry.
But Leinster’s response told us much. They twice applied scrum pressure and from the second Sexton cross-kicked off first phase to James Lowe. Strong carrying by Tadhg Furlong, Seán Cronin and Devin Toner in turn led to Furlong pulling the ball back for Sexton, who passed behind Dan Leavy’s decoy run for Garry Ringrose to hit Conan. The recalled number eight made a swift statement, bursting through the tackle of Jamie Roberts, no less, and taking the tackle of Will Chudley to slide over. Sexton converted.
What’s more, at that juncture Leinster’s thorn at the breakdown last week, Underhill, departed for a HIA. Within five minutes Ryan made a 10- metre burst off Luke McGrath’s quick tap and Sexton wrapped around Ringrose’s deft return pass to make a half-break and hit Larmour’s hard line. The fullback beat Ruaridh McConnochie and when collared short of the line gave a sharp try-scoring pass to O’Loughlin, who was rewarded for his fine support line. Sexton again converted.
The home side’s momentum was interrupted when Bath went up the line from a penalty conceded by Lowe. Wilson did the damage when freeing his hands in the tackle to release Jacques van Rooyen and two phases later Louw burrowed over. Wilson converted.
Unperturbed, Leinster’s third try was all down to the hard carrying through multiple phases off a lineout maul, by Leavy, Cronin, Ryan and others, and the alertness of their trailers in clearing out, as well as the alertness of Lowe off a penalty for killing the ball.
Several Bath players having turned their backs, Lowe ran right up to the referee Pascal Gaüzère, signaling his intentions, tapped from the right spot and ploughed low through three tackles to score.
Nearing half-time Bath actually produced their best spell of attacking rugby, but were met with Leinster’s best defensive set, completed by Conan’s intercept. Although Sexton was alert to the offload and traded passes with Cronin before his grubber to the corner found the touchline before Byrne and Larmour soon had them attacking again.
Countering infield with his dancing feet, he passed long to Ringrose, who linked with O’Loughlin on the left touchline before a bewildering exchange of offloads between him, Lowe and Larmour almost completed a stunning try.
As it was, another big Leinster scrum earned an attacking lineout, and with a free play off the collapsed maul, Sexton hung a pinpoint cross kick for Byrne to take a few steps into his jump, hanging in the air above Darren Atkins to score.
In his first European outing since the last season’s pool opener against Montpellier, it was his first try in the competition since scoring against the same opponents in January 2017, and as he roared in exultation, you could see how much it meant to him.
True to type, the champions delivered again in the championship minutes on the other side of the interval too. Cian Healy was the jackal in winning an attacking penalty, and after going to the corner Ryan made a couple of carries, the first a huge one, before Leavy burrowed through Underhill’s tackle to score.
However, Leinster having started to use their bench, Andrew Porter was pinged for going to the ground before their own put-in. Bath went to the corner and after the maul was held up a sequence of drives ended with Underhill being driven over by two team-mates through the tackles of Healy and Byrne.
Leinster lost their way a little before Porter rumbled off a Bath spillage, and when James Tracy shifted the ball on to Lowe, turning up on the right hand side of the attack, he delayed his pass to take the tackle and deftly offload inside for his fellow Kiwi Jamison Gibson-Park to score with a superb support line. He then had to hold the ball in place for Ross Byrne to land a fine conversion into the teeth of the wind.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 3 mins Wilson pen 0-3; 7 mins Conan try, Sexton con 7-3; 12 mins O’Loughlin try, Sexton con 14-3; 20 mins Louw try, Wilson con 14-10; 26 mins Lowe try, Sexton con 21-10; 38 mins Byrne try, Sexton con 28-10; (half-time 28-10); 44 mins Leavy try, Sexton con 35-10; 52 mins Underhill try 35-15; 68 mins Gibson-Park try, R Byrne con 42-15.
LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Adam Byrne, Garry Ringrose, Rory O’Loughlin, James Lowe; Jonathan Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Rhys Ruddock for van der Flier (45 mins), Andrew Porter for Furlong (47 mins), James Tracy for Cronin, Ed Byrne for Healy (both 53 mins), Jamison Gibson-Park for L McGrath, Ross Byrne for Sexton (61 mins), Ross Molony for Ryan (70 mins), Noel Reid for Ringrose (71 mins).
BATH: Ruaridh McConnochie; Semesa Rokoduguni, Jackson Willison, Jamie Roberts, Cooper Vuna; James Wilson, Will Chudley; Jacques van Rooyen, Tom Dunn, Henry Thomas; Dave Attwood, Charlie Ewels (capt); Tom Ellis, Sam Underhill, Francois Louw.
Replacements: Matt Garvey for Underhill (8-19 mins) and for Louw (60 mins), Darren Atkins for Willison (21 mins), Nathan Catt for van Rooyen (48 mins), Jack Walker for Dunn, Max Lahiff for Thomas (both 53 mins), Elliott Stooke for Ewels, Kahn Fotuali’I for Chudley (60 mins), Alex Davies for Wilson (71 mins).
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France).