Leinster 33 Castres 15: Another French behemoth brought to earth. Five tries posted. Bonus point secured with oodles of time to spare. And all on the back of an afternoon balanced by the brute force of a dominant pack and a backline speckled with brilliance.
What’s not to like?
European days like these used to be just routine in Ballsbridge but a dire Champions Cup run that delivered five defeats and just the single victory last term raised the currency of this particular effort beyond the norm.
Joey Carbery added to his burgeoning reputation with a no-fuss competition debut in place of the injured Jonathan Sexton, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw’s centre combo continued to impress and Isa Nacewa was, well, Isa Nacewa.
And yet the real damage was inflicted up front with Sean Cronin claiming two first-half tries and Jack McGrath another - all of them from mauls - before Nacewa and a penalty try further decorated the day.
The laissez faire attitude of the opposition can’t be ignored - nor the two soft tries conceded - but this was still welcome fare for supporters whose memories of the club’s three Heineken Cups in four years were beginning to fade.
And yet there was as much a hint of a new dawn about it as much as any return to former glories.
Leinster still lean on a solid chunk of experience from the good old days but the prospect of facing Montpellier in round two next weekend offers a handy canvas on which to paint a picture as to how times have changed.
It’s five years since the province made its first, and still their only, trip to Montpellier and only six of the 23 men who saw off Castres two days ago can say they took part in that 16-16 draw.
That’s quite the turnover.
Twelve of the 23 that featured here against Castres have yet to breach the double-figure mark for European appearances. Four of them actually made continental bows in this win.
All told, nine of that party still have no experience of what it is to face a Top 14 team on French soil where the ‘spirit of the bell tower’ is so reliably strong regardless of form, conditions or the time of year.
At a time when the French and English are supposedly stealing a march on everyone else with their bottomless pockets, it is also worth pointing out that 16 of Leinster’s squad has graduated in-house.
“It’s such a big part of what Leinster do, sub-academy and into the academy,” said head coach Leo Cullen. “Our last European game here at the RDS (against Bath last January), six guys made their first European start and five of them were in the 23 this time.
“You can see that experience and how vital it is. Some people were a bit critical at the time, but you had to use the opportunity to look to the future. I thought it was a really important stepping stone and those guys showed their worth against Bath. This year it gives a lot more confidence for those guys and a few more have made their first appearances now on top of that.”
The alacrity with which this ‘new’ collection is coming together is encouraging and nowhere has the stitching been more subtle and strong than in the coming together of Ringrose and Henshaw. Saturday marked just their second game together. Impressive individually and as a collective against Munster the week before, they combined encouragingly again here. Whisper it but it has the makings of O’Driscoll/D’Arcy 2.0.
Cullen would never say as much but he already likes their balance. “Robbie is strong, physical and abrasive,” said the head coach. “Garry is all that as well but with a slightly different body shape. He is a bit more footwork, elusive. We were very keen to get Robbie here and for the fact that he had only played two games it is an encouraging start. That bit of versatility he gives us as well: he shifted to 13 and Noel (Reid) came into 12 and Garry went out to the wing.”
Sit back for a second though and all this really adds up to is a decent start. A platform. For Henshaw, for Ringrose and Henshaw and for Leinster as a unit. Montpellier at the Altrad Stadium on Sunday promises to be far more exacting.
World Cup-winning coach Jake White has flooded the club with fellow Boks and the knock-on effect on the playing style has been predictable. “Pragmatic,” was Cullen’s take on both the coach and his charges. Add in a surface that has a tendency to lean towards heavy and the obvious conclusion is that much more will be known about the progress of this newfangled Leinster Project by the time they return to Dublin next week.
R Kearney; Z Kirchner, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Carbery, L McGrath; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, I Nagle; R Ruddock, J Van Der Flier, J Heaslip.
M Ross for Furlong (37); D Leavy for Ruddock (50); C Healy for J McGrath and J Tracy for Cronin (both 53); J Gibson-Park for L McGrath and R Molony for Nagle (both 59); N Reid for Nacewa (68); C Marsh for Kearney (71).
G Palis; R Grosso, T Combezou, R Ebersohn, D Smith; B Urdapilleta, A Dupont; A Tichit, J Jenneker, D Kotze; V Moreaux, R Capo Ortega; M Babillot, S Mafi, A Tulou.
B Mach for Jenneker (20-26 and 38); M Lazar for Tichit (54); R Kockott for Dupont and T Lassale for Capo Ortega (both 54); D Tussac for Kotze and A Jelonch for Moreaux (both 60); F Vialelle for Ebersohn (61); M Javaux for Urdapilleta (71).
M Carley (Eng).
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