Leinster’s high-intensity opening act bodes well for season ahead

High-tempo offloading game proves too much for a weary looking Bulls side

Leinster’s Josh van der Flier on his way to scoring the first try of the game against the Bulls in the United Rugby Championship match at the  Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Leinster’s Josh van der Flier on his way to scoring the first try of the game against the Bulls in the United Rugby Championship match at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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Leinster 31 Bulls 3

It was almost like they’d never been away. Despite the rustiness that comes with a lengthy lay-off, with several of this line-up having missed last season’s run-in, in welcoming back almost 20,000 of their supporters Leinster looked like the well-oiled machine they’ve been for years.

There were inevitable blemishes, but their command of the basics – be it exits or set-piece – the efficiency and speed of their ruck back, their unrelenting work-rate in defence and off the ball in attack, where their vastly superior shape was all evident in the variety and quality of their four tries.

Withstanding the Bulls’ mauls, or James Ryan stealing the Bismarck du Plessis throw, there was a further feather in the collective caps of their pack with the third try off a catch-and-drive.

Rapidly out of the blocks, the depth, lines of running and crisp passing in front of the man led to the opener after Josh van der Flier’s finished well when taking Hugo Keenan’s pop off the deck.

Availing of Ross Moloney’s sharp work on the ground in an athletic and highly effective performance and countering the Bulls’ fast-up defence with balls in behind or over the top, the classy Ciarán Frawley chasing Johnny Sexton’s hanging chip for Garry Ringrose to gather the deflection and put Andrew Porter over.

The most eye-catching feature of Leinster’s display was their intent to offload in what looks like a portent of things to come this season. There were 19 in total, and the bonus score was the pick of the four, a bewitching array of support lines and offloading by Rory O’Loughlin, Ryan Baird, Jamison Gibson-Park, Van der Flier and Ringrose leading to Ross Byrne touching down.

By contrast, the Bulls had played 14 matches since Leinster signed off their 2020-21 campaign, not that they looked particularly more match hardened and fit. Admittedly, they haven’t had much of a break in this calendar year and after the high of retaining the Currie Cup two weeks ago and the ensuing celebrations and travel, if anything they looked a little weary.

Mike’s come from a really good environment as well so we try to learn and pick his brains about some of the things the Crusaders do

This was perhaps evidenced by the 27 tackles they missed or fell off, not something you’d associate with a South African team and one coached by Jake White.

There were spells, especially in the second quarter, when the 2015-16 Top 14 player of the season Johan Goosen was flat to the line and pulling the strings, that the Bulls seriously stretched the Leinster defence.

But for a slight fumble by Elrigh Louw the finish by the dangerous Madosh Tambwe would have stood and their performance probably merited at least a try.

Yet Leinster looked like they had pre-seasoned to great effect and everywhere you looked there were eye-catching returns.

There was also an impressive debut by the one new signing, Samoan World Cup prop Michael Ala’alatoa. Tighthead didn’t seem Leinster’s greatest area of need, but his work in the scrum, strength in contact and handling skills is perhaps also evidence that Leinster have ensured a fall back should they ever lose Tadhg Furlong.

“Mike’s come from a really good environment as well so we try to learn and pick his brains about some of the things the Crusaders do,” said Leo Cullen, further underlining the value of his signing.

Michael Ala’alatoa passes to Johnny Sexton during the game against the Bulls. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Michael Ala’alatoa passes to Johnny Sexton during the game against the Bulls. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“He’s a very smart player who’s been around and is very experienced. He’s grown in his influence on the players already. Character is the thing: based on some of the conversations I’ve had with Mike months and months ago it’s probably the thing I was drawn to initially. You could clearly tell he had a decent intellect and has come from a good environment.”

Even though Tom Clarkson’s setback in training will sideline him until November, with Porter making an assured return to loosehead, Leinster’s frontrow stocks were underlined by Cian Healy’s debut at tighthead and Vakh Abdaladze returning from a long absence for the development side against Munster on Friday.

“It’s something he wants to explore at this stage of his career and he put his hand up for it. It’s not like I went to him – he came to me! He’s pretty incredible,” said Cullen of Healy’s move.

He gives energy to people around him as well. He’s a great mindset to improve, Josh, and it’s a wonderful quality to have

No one continued where they left off last season better than Van der Flier.

When the man-of-the-match was announced, most in the near 20,000 crowd would have anticipated the name of the man in the ubiquitous red headgear being announced. There was a well-taken opening try off a classic openside support line, a try-saving intervention, turnovers, a kick and chase near the end, some lovely handling skills and 20 tackles no less.

“He has that mindset of continually trying to improve all the time and how he goes about picking apart his game,” said Cullen. “He’s just got a remarkable mindset really. He takes a lot of feedback from coaches. He’s adding bits to his game all the time. Physically he looks after himself incredibly well.

“But that ‘presence’ is something he definitely wants to grow in his game, where he’s making big impacts – that kind of intangible where it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that is, the presence in and around the ball.

“He gives energy to people around him as well. He’s a great mindset to improve, Josh, and it’s a wonderful quality to have.”

Alongside him Rhys Ruddock and Caelan Doris confirmed rumours from inside the camp that they had been hitting new fitness landmarks in pre-season. Ruddock has never looked stronger, which is saying something.

Wit Max Deegan also making a long-awaited return from injury with a 46 minute run-out, the only blemish on Leinster’s night was the calf injury which forced Doris off before half-time.

And particularly in their uber competitive backrow department, no one can afford to have a limp.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 5 mins: Sexton pen 3-0; 7: Van der Flier try, Sexton con 10-0; 13: Porter try, Sexton con 17-0; 23: Goosen pen 17-3; half-time; 57: Tracy try, Sexton con 24-3; 70: R Byrne try, 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), James Tracy for Sheahan (51), Jamison Gibson-Park for McGrath (53), Cian Healy for Ala’alatoa, Ross Byrne for Sexton (both 58), Ryan Baird for Ryan, Jamie Osborne for Lowe (both 68).

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), Simphiwe Matanzima for Steenekamp, Jacques van Rooyen for Smith (both 63), Keagan Johannes for Burger (66), Stedman Gans for Mapoe (69), Chris Smith for Goosen (72).

Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland).

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