Leinster make opening night statement with win over the Bulls

The Pro14 champions complete bonus point win over the Currie Cup champions

Leinster’s Josh van der Flier celebrates scoring the first try of the game. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Leinster’s Josh van der Flier celebrates scoring the first try of the game. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Leinster 31 Bulls 3

The seasons come and go, and the league has another makeover in the guise of the United Rugby Championship, but some things stay the same. This was an opening night statement victory by, per se, the reigning Pro14 champions as they completed a bonus point win over the recently recrowned Currie Cup champions.

Collectively rusty in their first outing since early June, and even more individually in several cases of players returning after longer lay-offs, even Leinster have to be happy with such a handsome win.

For sure there was rustiness and there were flaws. They left tries behind and rode their luck a little in keeping their line intact. Yet their command of the basics was typically solid, they were quick into an ambitious rhythm, always looked to offload, had a shrewd kicking game and worked for each other and communicated continually in some big defensive sets.

They’d done their homework too, negating the Bulls’ quick defensive line speed with kicks or grubbers in behind, and return passes inside to the scampering Luke McGrath on a couple of cases.

There were very assured and had positive returns from injury by Garry Ringrose, James Lowe and Max Deegan. Johnny Sexton looked sharp, lean and fit, played close to the line and kicked his goals.

It’s early days yet, but Andrew Porter had a good first outing after his pre-season return to loosehead, Michael Ala’alatoa looked a very good signing, and Cian Healy’s cameo at tighthead went well. The St Michael’s secondrow duo of Ross Molony and James Ryan had a strong night and reports of Rhys Ruddock and Caelan Doris being fitter than ever looked well founded, even if the latter went off with a calf injury.

No-one caught the eye more than Jash van der Flier who, ala Leinster as whole, simply resumed where he left off last season, with an all-action, try-scoring, mutli-purpose man of the match display.

The Bulls did show enough about them to suggest they will be a force in this competition, not least when they get to play matches in Pretoria.

They kept going, their efforts being appreciated by a healthy attendance of 19,419. Led by the ever-willing Marcell Coetzee, they have plenty of power and athleticism, as well as pace on the wings, and if Johan Goosen (still only 29) can gain anything like the form that made him the player of the year when helping Racing to the 2015-16 Bouclier de Brennus, they’ll be a handful for most sides.

Yet Leinster were not only sharper, cleverer and played with much more variety, they should have the greater room for improvement as well.

On a heavy, humid night in south Dublin, the crowd warmly welcomed the Bulls onto the pitch whereupon they received an even hotter welcome from Leinster.

Welcome

After Sexton opened their account Leinster’s opening try of the season emanated from their characteristic command of the basics, beginning with their exit from the restart. The impressive Ciarán Frawley gathered and carried rather than risking a blockdown, McGrath box-kicked and Rory O’Loughlin chased it hard, tackling David Kriel.

Emerging in credit from the ensuing ping-pong, Ringrose’s raking diagonal kick led to Lowe countering strongly from half-way. Off the recycle, Ryan, Sexton and Ringrose worked the ball to Hugo Keenan. The chance looked gone when he was tackled, but van der Flier came from deep to call for the offload off the deck outside the 22 before accelerating and bouncing Kriel for a fine finish.

The second emanated from Ryan’s pressure on the throw and Moloney sharply pouncing on the loose tap down. Again Doris carried hard into traffic and Frawley chased Sexton’s hanging chip over the advancing Bulls line, with Ringrose gathering the ensuing deflection before giving Porter the run-in.

Leinster’s Andrew Porter scored his team’s second try after 13 minutes. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Leinster’s Andrew Porter scored his team’s second try after 13 minutes. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

It could have been any one of five Leinster players.

The trend of the first-half pivoted on an incident when van der Flier advanced from in front of Sexton’s deft grubber which Doris gathered.

This allowed the Bulls to settle into their attacking patterns, often with Coetzee as their go-to man. After a Ryan lineout steal and van der Flier’s work in the jackal, some last-ditch defending by Keenan, Luke McGrath and van der Flier denied Madosh Tambwe a try.

He then appeared to have scored off a du Plessis offload after Goosen had pulled the strings in a sustained attack, but there had been an earlier knock-on by Elrigh Louw. Finally, from a tap and go by Louw, Ruddock not only pilfered the ball close to the line but galloped 30 metres upfield.

So all the Bulls had to show for their huffing and puffing was a Goosen penalty.

Leinster might have had another try by the break, after McGrath supplemented an earlier 60 metre break with a second off another return inside pass. The eye-catching Dan Sheahan figured prominently in another high tempo drive with his carrying and offloading, the second of which, alas, went to a vacant right-wing as O’Loughlin had come inside.

Leinster were even more profligate during a third quarter of uninterrupted dominance, as Lowe, Molony and Ryan all came up short or fumbled over the line.

Eventually their pack had a feather in their collective caps with a fiercely tight, well-controlled maul off Ruddock’s take, McGrath and Sexton also lent their shoulders to the wheel as James Tracy scored.

After Ruddock lifted another siege in the jackal - the pack were even happier when winning a scrum penalty in the first put-in after all the frontrow replacements had been made. Healy received most of the backslapping in his first scrum at tighthead.

The bonus point try was the pick of the night, Frawley instigating the move from deep with a counter-attack and after the ball went wide left a daring bout of offloading by Jamie Osborne, Ryan Baird, Jamison Gibson-Park and van der Flier, Ringrose’s pass out of the tackle put Ross Byrne over.

All those who had to go the full 80 looked like they were sucking diesel by the end, the match-hardened Bulls even more so than their hosts.

But in blowing off the cobwebs, Leinster are up and running already.

Scoring sequence: 5 mins - Sexton pen 3-0; 7 mins - van der Flier try, Sexton con 10-0; 13 mins - Porter try, Sexton con 17-0; 23 mins - Goosen pen 17-3; 57 mins - Tracy try, Sexton con 24-3; 70 mins - R Byrne try and con 31-3.

Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Rory O’Loughlin, Garry Ringrose, Ciarán Frawley, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa; Ross Molony, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Ed Byrne for Porter (26-40 mins), Max Deegan for Doris (34 mins), James Tracy for Sheahan (51 mins), Jamison Gibson-Park for McGrath (53 mins), Cian Healy for Ala’alatoa, Ross Byrne for Sexton (both 58 mins), Ryan Baird for Ryan, Jamie Osborne for Lowe (both 68 mins).

Vodacom Bulls: David Kriel; Cornal Hendricks, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Madosh Tambwe; Johan Goosen, Zak Burger; Gerhard Steenekamp, Bismarck du Plessis, Mornay Smith; Walt Steenkamp, Ruan Nortje; Marcell Coetzee (capt), Arno Botha, Elrigh Louw.

Replacements: Jacques du Plessis for Botha (48 mins), Joe van Zyl for du Plessis, Janko Swanepoel for Steenkamp (both 51 mins), Simphiwe Matanzima for Steenekamp, Jacques van Rooyen for Smith (both 63 mins), Keagan Johannes for Burger (66 mins), Stedman Gans for Mapoe (69 mins), Chris Smith for Goosen (72 mins).

Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland).

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